Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022

Bhopal Hunger Strike

It is now seventeen and a half years since the night of gas, or "that night" as it is called in Bhopal but the government seems inclined to dilute the criminal charges that those responsible still face in the Bhopal High Court.


I am writing this because the life of a very precious friend is in danger. Together with two companions he is staging a satyagraha in the form of an indefinite fast outside the Indian parliament in New Delhi. The three have been without food since June 28th, (as you receive this they will be in the twelfth day) in temperatures of 113F (45C). We are desperately worried about them. This email comes to you partly because I've been too scared and upset to think clearly and because I feel the strongest urge to turn to my own friends for help, but also because there are a number of simple, quick things that each of us can do (this is not an appeal for money) to help resolve things positively.

My friend's name is Sathyu Sarangi. I've known him about nine years, during which time we've been working together to provide medical relief for the survivors of Union Carbide's gas disaster in Bhopal, central India. It is now seventeen and a half years since the night of gas, or "that night" as it is called in Bhopal (a little further on I'll write a brief account of what happened), and well over 100,000 people in the city's poorest districts are still seriously and chronically ill. Sathyu's two companions are Rashida Bi and Tara Bai, both gas survivors. Rashida lost five members of her family as a result of "that night". Tara Bai lost the child she was carrying, as did nearly half the pregnant women who were exposed to the gas.

The three are protesting against the Indian government's recent application to dilute the criminal charges that those responsible still face in the Bhopal High Court. Reducing the charges would in effect extinguish the case, which has already been on hold for 11 years because the company and its (now ex-) CEO have repeatedly ignored summonses to appear. If letting them off the hook seems an odd response to 11 years of contempt, you need to know that Union Carbide was recently acquired and is now wholly owned by Dow Chemicals, and Dow is a giant multinational with large interests in India, and limitless wealth with which to promote them.

Sathyu, Rashida and Tara have decided that it is worth risking their lives in order to ensure that the company is brought to account. I'll try to explain why. Please stay with me. Long though this message is, I've spent three days and four nights agonising about how to keep it as succinct as possible, yet communicate the importance of what these three are doing, and also our great fear for them. I'm hoping that when you know more, you will want to add your voice to those asking the Indian government to reverse its decision. (You could send an email, or fax, or pick up the phone)

I also urge you to forward this message on to as many of your friends as you can, and to any other people you can think of who might be able to help: activists, journalists, writers, artists, media figures, lawyers and academics, church groups, campaigning organisations and charities. We - Sathyu's friends in this country - want to talk to anyone who will listen. (If we could have we'd probably have done one of those mass spammings and you'd have got this sandwiched among the usual offers to make you a billionaire by next week, increase your ejaculate by 678%, or endow you with breasts the size of Mauna Loa!) We find that we have become intensely mindful of the hunger-strikers every minute that we are awake, it's as if our lives are being lived in time borrowed from theirs.

Most of what we have been able to learn about the effects of hunger-strikes, the progression of the body towards death, has been from reading about the IRA Long Kesh men, who on average survived 60 days on just water before they died. But blindness and other serious irreversible damage occurred well before that point. Recent hunger-strikes by Turkish political prisoners have produced the same grim statistics. The extreme heat in Delhi, coupled with the fact that the two women are already suffering from a complex of gas-related disorders, make their deterioration likely to be much faster. A week into the fast we had reports of raised ketone levels (the body in starvation beginning to consume itself) and Rashida's blood pressure had climbed. I spoke to Sathyu on the phone not too long ago, Rashida had just had a severe attack of cramp, but was recovering. Tara and he are all right, "better than yesterday". They have been telling each other jokes and indulging in the old Indian pastime of gaali (humorous abuse). Sathyu says that after a few days the hunger stops and is replaced by a kind of peace. Doctors are with the three of them and they are taking water with a little lemon, and electrolytes. About three hundred gas survivors from Bhopal, among them many children, are with them in the blistering heat, keeping up their spirits with songs and jokes.

We only found out about the indefinite fast four days ago. Sathyu had asked that we not be told until then because he didn't want us to worry. When I phoned him - the three have a mobile with them - the first thing he asked, before I'd had a chance to utter a word, was whether I was walking regularly. It seemed impossible, hearing the sounds of the Delhi streets in the background, that only six weeks ago he had been staying with us in Sussex and that, at his instigation we had gone for daily walks through fields and woods full of fading bluebells. He had learned by then of the impending dilution of charges against Union Carbide, and he said that it might be necessary to try a hunger-strike. What else was left?

In the west the hunger-strike is often regarded as a petulant, self-destructive gesture: "It was their choice to stop eating, they can always choose to start again," someone said to me, trying to be reassuring, little realising that her words cut like knives. In India the "fast unto death" is not perceived like this. Rather it's noble defiance, a stand made in extremis, as a last response to an intolerable situation, when everything else has been tried and no other hope is left. Mahatma Gandhi used it as a political weapon to stop the communal slaughter that followed the partition of India. Gandhiji detested what he called the "administrative exigencies" of realpolitik, that is, cynical political decisions that run counter to goodness and justice. It is his example that was in the minds of the three Bhopali hunger-strikers when they sat down, ten days ago, under their tree in Jantar Mantar, outside the Indian Parliament.

What else was left? Well what else are people to do when everything has been taken from them?

aim a blowtorch at my eyes pour acid down my throat strip the tissue from my lungs. drown me in my own blood. choke my baby to death in front of me. make me watch her struggles as she dies. cripple my children. let pain be their daily and their only playmate. spare me nothing. wreck my health so I can no longer feed my family. watch us starve. say it's nothing to do with you. don’t ever say sorry. poison our water. cause monsters to be born among us. make us curse God. stunt our living children’s growth. for seventeen years ignore our cries. teach me that my rage is as useless as my tears. prove to me beyond all doubt that there is no justice in the world. you are a wealthy american corporation and I am a gas victim of bhopal.

When grief turns to anger, when your rage is as useless as your tears, when those in power become blind, deaf and dumb in your presence, when the rest of the world has forgotten you, what are you to do? Must you put away your anger, choke back your bitterness, and cultivate patience, in the hope that justice will eventually prevail? The ill and pain-wracked survivors of "that night" have been waiting for seventeen and a half years. And what if the very government that is supposed to protect you cynically manipulates the law against you, what use then is the law, with all its guarantees? Must you still obey it, while your opponents twist it to whatever they please? If the law is useless, whispers despair, then does it any longer matter if you go outside it? What else is left?

Answers to this question are seen nightly on our TV screens. But Tara Bai, Rashida and Sathyu give a different answer to the question posed by the angel of despair: that of the Mahatma who said, "enter with me into the sufferings, not only of the people of India but of the whole world. Non-violence is not a weapon of the weak. It is a weapon of the strongest and bravest."

"Terrorism" is much in the news. But there is another, less well-known species of terror: that caused by the greed, negligence and ruthlessness of huge corporations. Why did Carbide, ignoring the advice of its own experts, build its toxic factory in the middle of densely populated neighbourhoods? Why, in contravention of its own US safety standards, was such a huge quantity of methyl-isocyanate, a chemical known to be lethal, stored on site? Why was the tank that ruptured not being kept, as the safety manual required, at zero degrees C? Why, on "that night" were the plant's back-up safety systems, such as the "scrubber", semi-dismantled and not working? Why did the alarm siren not immediately sound, offering a small chance to those who heard it?

We know the answers to some of these questions from talking to people who worked in the plant. The tank had not been refrigerated for some months, in order to save 500 rupees a day on freon gas. 500 rupees is about £7, or $11. The "scrubber" was in bits because parts of it had become badly corroded and needed replacing, but the work had not been done. The alarm siren stayed silent because it had been switched off. There had been so many leaks of gas at the plant that the constant hooting had become a nuisance. To other questions we have as yet no answer. These are the questions that Carbide would have had to answer in court - if it had ever showed up.

Carbide isn’t charged with terrorism. But it might be if more people knew what the terror in Bhopal was like. Indeed, what happened on "that night" redefines the word.

Let me tell you about the night of December 2nd/3rd 1984. It happened just after midnight, the unthinkable thing that had been coming, that journalists and plant workers alike had predicted. A rumbling in the pipes, the realisation that something had gone terribly wrong. Panic, then, and the discovery that all the safety systems were down. Water had got into the giant tank (the thing is the size of a large locomotive) containing the methyl-isocyanate (MIC). A violent heat-producing reaction began and as more water poured into the tank the fiercer grew the reaction. At high temperatures MIC breaks down into other highly toxic chemicals, including cyanides. The tank was buried in the ground, sealed under concrete, yet so intolerable was its chemical indigestion that it burst out of the earth and stood shuddering on end, emitting a stream of gas into the night. Another stream poured from the half-dismantled "scrubber", and was caught by the wind and flung towards the crowded neighbourhoods nearby.

In J.P.Nagar, Oriya Basti, Kainchi Chola, Kazi Camp, most people were at home sleeping. The gases came into their houses without warning. They woke choking, with their eyes and mouths burning. Nobody knew what had happened. Then came shouts of "gas!" and "run away!" and doors began opening, people tumbling out of their houses. The gas was waiting for them, rolling in thick clouds along the narrow lanes, which in some places were no more than four feet wide. The streetlamps were shedding a tobacco-brown light. No insects whirled about them, they were all already dead. As families picked up their toddlers and babies and fled, the alleys became narrow stampedes of people and animals - cows and dogs ran along with their owners - people fell and were trampled, children were wrenched out of their mothers' arms and lost, never found again. 8,000 people died very horribly, with piss and shit running down their legs, their eyeballs white slits where the gases had bleached them. The gases stripped the linings from their lungs, and they drowned in their own fluids. Others had sudden convulsions and dropped in the street. The city was full of dead bodies. Nobody knows exactly how many died, but we can form an idea because 7,000 burial shrouds were bought over the next three days. This does not take into account the hundreds of people who were unaccounted for, or the families who had no-one left to bury or cremate them. In the railway station, a whole tribe of gypsies camped on one of the further platforms perished to the last soul. Not one of their names is known.

By morning the hospitals were full of desperately ill people, coughing up their lungs, many unable to see. The doctors did not know how to treat them, since nobody knew what exactly what had poisoned them, and Carbide was not saying. It is a fair certainty that cyanide was involved, the antidote to which, sodium thiosulphate, was available. Lives which could have been saved were lost. But the survivors were soon to regard those who had died as the lucky ones. Though none of them knew it, their immediate suffering was only the beginning. Half a million people were injured by breathing the gases, many were left so badly disabled that they would never work again. Their families became destitute, reduced to beggary - some of the worlds poorest people destituted by one of the world's richest corporations. Surely there'd be hell to pay. Someone's head would surely roll. The compensation, and the responsibility of caring, for the rest of their lives, for the injured would surely empty even Carbide's huge coffers. You'd think so, wouldn't you?

On "that night" in Bhopal, three times as many people died as were killed in New York on September 11th. The Bhopalis were just as innocent and unsuspecting as the office workers whose lives ended so tragically in the Twin Towers. They had done nothing to deserve such a terrible fate. But no crusade was launched, no rock concert was staged for their benefit, no ageing rock stars queued on stage to sing songs about "freedom". After September 11, there was a massive appeal for donations, leading to compensation payments of over $1,000,000 to relatives of the victims in recognition of the stress they had suffered. The families of Bhopal's dead were paid $1250 per corpse. Of the injured, those who have received anything at all, got on average just $500. During the Exxon Valdez disaster, Alaskan sea-otters were kept glossy by feeding them fresh lobster at the cost of $500 per day per otter. "The life of an Indian citizen in Bhopal," commented the Times of India, "is clearly much cheaper than that of a sea otter in America".

Immediately after the disaster, the sick and dazed Bhopalis were told that they were going to become rich. They were promised this by important foreign lawyers who arrived in droves from New York, waving forms at grief-stricken people who, in many cases could not read or write, and whose scrawled Xs gave these ambulance-chasers authority to file claims on their behalf and keep anything up to 50% of the winnings. In order to protect the gas-survivors, who were however not consulted, the Indian government stepped in and passed an Act establishing itself as sole plaintiff on their behalf. Seemed like a good thing at the time.

Carbide, afraid of being bankrupted by US-scale damages, sought a ruling that as the "accident" had happened in India, any case arising out of it should be heard by Indian courts. Mr Justice Keenan, sitting in the Lower Manhatten District Court, found in Carbide's favour, on condition that the company agreed to accept and abide by all rulings and requirements of Indian courts. The company however had no intention of coming to court.

When the first case opened in Bhopal, the initial procedural hearings were enlivened by Carbide's lawyers who threatened to call every single person injured by their clients’ gases to the witness stand and suggested the court allow one day for the cross-examination to each. As there were more than 500,000 people in that category, this meant that the court would have to set aside half a million days. In other words, if the testimony had begun being taken in the declining days of the Roman empire, (359 AD, in the reign of the Emperor Julian) it would just about be coming to its end. The company was eventually ordered to pay "interim compensation" of Rs 250 crores. (About £35 million.) Carbide, which on its websites still shamelessly professes its "anguish" at what had happened, contested even this. Shortly afterwards it gleefully announced that it had a reached a full and final settlement with the Indian government, for the sum of $470 million. So ludicrously low was this settlement that when the news was announced on Wall Street, Carbide's stock actually JUMPED two points.

This settlement, which was bitterly opposed by gas survivors and condemned by every newspaper in India, also extinguished any criminal charges against the company. The Indian Supreme Court, however, reinstuted the criminal case and it was these new proceedings that Warren Anderson and Carbide ignored for 11 years, in total disregard of the promise they had made to the trusting Justice Keenan.

How did the gas sufferers spend the years of waiting? I found out one day, ten summers ago, when a mysterious Indian man phoned and said he would like to meet me. I turned up at Hayward's Heath station to collect him, late as usual, and there waiting for me was Sathyu. He was dressed in a long Indian kurta and had a turban wound round his head, very exotic for East Sussex. Sathyu knew of the work I'd done raising money for Amnesty International and Kurdish refugees and asked me to help him set up a clinic to provide free medical care for the gas-victims in Bhopal. Like most people, I had heard of the Bhopal gas disaster but assumed that surely everything that could have been done must already have been done.

But as he talked, a grand summer's day in a garden in the heart of the Sussex weald was gradually overcast by shadows of "that night". Sathyu conjured for me a vision of the Bhopal districts near the factory, where people (this was eight years later) were still wracked by breathlessness, blurred vision, aching limbs and backs; where limbs went in and out of numbness; where there were monstrous births; where children suffered from recurrent fevers and coughs that shook their bodies with ceasing; where even young adults were developing cataracts and felt constantly exhausted, with no appetite either for food or for life; where Carbide's gases added depression and anxiety to their already hard lives.

Later, once our free Sambhavna Clinic was up and running, our doctors began to see evidence of a menstrual chaos among the affected population. Girls who had been babies, or in the womb at the time of the gas, were now coming to puberty. Some were not menstruating at all, or had a period only once in three months, while others were bleeding three times a month. No work was being done on this. It was an unacknowledged epidemic.

Other things, too, were being missed. A report from the Clinic observed, "The alarming rise in cancers, tuberculosis, reproductive system problems and other problems such as growth retardation among children born after the disaster remain undocumented."

Today the situation is not much better. You can work out for yourself what kind of relief $500 must have been able to provide over seventeen and half years. I make it about 7 cents a day. Well it would buy you a cup of tea.

Despite everything the hope always remained that one day Carbide - which was responsible not only for the disaster but for the continuing health holocaust - would be made to answer in court for its actions. But this has never happened. Because of its illegal refusal to appear before the Bhopal court, Carbide has never yet had to face hostile cross-examination about the decisions and actions that caused the world's worst ever industrial disaster. The testimony of survivors and workers at the plant remains unheard. To this day the company has never revealed the composition of the gases that leaked, claiming that this information is a "trade secret", which means that doctors are still in the dark. Nor, although Carbide is known to have conducted at least 15 animal and human studies on the effects of methyl isocyanate, has it ever responded to medical requests to share its data.

See nowt, hear nowt, say nowt, do nowt - it seems to have been the strategy not just of the company but of every power which could have done something to help in Bhopal. An extradition treaty exists between India and the US, but successive Indian governments failed to press for its use against Warren Anderson who, incidentally, has vanished from his home in St Petersburg, Florida and, according to elite US law enforcement agencies, just cannot be found anywhere. Becoming invisible is a talent he clearly shares with that other fugitive from justice, Osama bin Laden. The perpetrators of the world's worst act of terrorism and the world's worst industrial massacre are both on the lam from justice, yet to my knowledge, no British Prime Minister has yet fluttered round the world to create a coalition against corporate terror. No US President has threatened to bomb Florida into the stone age unless it reveals where Anderson is hiding, or stood blinking in front of the TV cameras to tell the world that he would never rest until those responsible for this devastating horror were brought to justice. Osama and Warren, the terror twins, their whereabouts remain a mystery to this day.

Had Anderson been cross-examined in court, it would have emerged that in the run up to the disaster he and his board had demanded a programme of ruthless budget cuts in their Indian factory. This is very well shown by Dominique Lapierre and Xavier Moro in their new book Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, which has just been published in the UK and US and which presents a damning mountain of evidence. The money-saving drive was prompted by directives from US head office (Carbide owned a 51% controlling stake of Union Carbide India Ltd). It involved a drastic reduction in the number of safety staff, cutting the duration of staff safety training from six months to two weeks, turning a blind eye to the storage of unsafe amounts of MIC, ignoring the shocked reports of their own visiting American engineers. On the witness stand, Anderson would have had to explain why his company had endangered the lives of thousands of people to save £7 a day on freon gas.

So long as there is a criminal suit pending against Carbide in the Bhopal court, the hope of re-opening the issue of compensation remains alive. Meanwhile, however, evidence is accumulating of a second, slower, but no less lethal holocaust,

Early last year my daughter Tara and I were staying with Sathyu in Bhopal. Dominique too was in town and had obtained permission for us all to visit Carbide’s derelict factory. At about 8am on the morning of our intended visit, Sathyu's building began rocking from end to end. We had to go outside, but there was time to grab our cups of tea (7 cents is 7 cents). We didn't know it, but we'd just felt the edge of the huge earthquake that devastated Gujerat. At the time we took it for a minor tremor and soon forgot about it. The factory was so surreal it wiped everything else from our minds.

It is hard to describe the impact of the place. It is vast: acre upon acre of tall, heat-bleached grass out which rear the rusting skeletons of various chemical plants. In the grounds are many small trees. The bel fruit is especially delicious, according to neighbourhood children, who often climb in over the wall, but I wouldn't want to eat it. Was it our imagination, or were there no birds? Isn't this what they say about Auschwitz? The abandoned control room is like a set from a Hollywood disaster flick. Its floor is still littered with Carbide papers and memoranda from seventeen and a half years ago. Tara (daughter Tara, no relation to Tara Bai the hunger-striker) carefully photographed the safety notices that still hang on the walls, bearing hand-lettered instructions in best Hinglish about what to do in the unlikely event of a gas leak. The dial which recorded the outlandish pressure in the MIC tank is still jammed on overload. Beneath one installation fat globs of mercury lie on the ground, spilled before the disaster. Here and there we came across piles of reddish-brown rocks, some the size of boulders. "Be careful with your cigarette," one of our party was admonished. "Those are not rocks, they are lumps of Sevin, which has a low ignition point. If it catches light, it will release MIC."

Some months after our visit, the Sevin did catch light. A carelessly tossed away cigarette set fire to the grass and once again there were stinging eyes and noses and lungs and panic in the bastis (poor neighbourhoods). Mercifully this time, nobody died. But the poor who live near the factory are being poisoned in any case. Each rainy season, the abandoned chemicals, among them heavy metals and organophosphates, leach into the ground and contaminate the water table. The inhabitants of local bastis are forced to drink this poisoned water, with calamitous consequences for their health. People who have moved into these places years after the disaster are demonstrating similar symptoms to the gas survivors.

While I have been labouring over this email, Dominique, with characteristic energy has already written several letters and articles. In one of them he describes what it was like to drink a glass of water from an area near the factory. "I recently wanted to reckon the aggressiveness of this pollution by drinking half a glass of the water of one of those wells. My mouth, my throat, my tongue instantly got on fire, while my arms and legs suffered an immediate skin rash. This was the simple manifestation of what men, women and children have to endure daily."

Who should be held to account for this second holocaust, which is not covered by the original criminal charges, nor by the infamous "settlement"? Can anyone have the slightest doubt that Union Carbide needs to be brought to court? Of course Carbide no longer exists. It has been subsumed into Dow. But Dow has assumed liability for various Carbide misdemeanours in the US. Why not in India? Worthless though their lives may be, compared to those of Alaskan sea-otters, don’t Indians too deserve justice?

"We'll fight," says Tara Bai, youngest of the three hunger-strikers, "till justice is delivered. In fact, with every passing day, our fight grows stronger. After all, we have the power of being right with us." Tara Bai,is thirty-six years old. She was nineteen when the gas leaked, and three months pregnant. The gas burnt her lungs as she fled the lethal cloud. She lost her baby, and was told that she could never conceive again. She is partially blind, has chronic breathing difficulties and has been diagnosed with neurological problems. By last Saturday, eight days into the hunger strike, her blood sugar level had dropped to 38. She is under close observation by doctors.

Rashida Bi is forty-six and has lost five gas-exposed members of her family to cancers. Left permanently semi-blind by Carbide’s gases, she leads one of the most active survivors’ organizations. This hunger-strike is not the first time she has undertaken an ordeal. In Bhopal she is legendary for having once led several hundred women and children on a month-long march to Delhi. When we were in Bhopal, Tara and I met her and she described how they had walked, day after day, through the heat, often thirsty, sleeping at night in forests full of snakes and scorpions and animals as hungry as they were. They met with great kindness from people along the way, who gave them food and water from their wells. When they reached Delhi and Parliament, they stood in the very street where the hunger-strike is now happening, and waited. And waited. And waited. No one came out to receive their petition. The politicians did not want to know. Plus ca change. A week into the hunger-strike, Rashida’s blood pressure had soared and according to the doctor present, she was showing signs of starvation

On July 17th, in the Bhopal court will hear the application to dilute the criminal charges against Warren Anderson and his merry men. If the application is granted, the charge will be reduced from "culpable homicide", which is an extraditable offence, to "negligence", which is not. Mr Anderson, if he can ever be found, will probably get off with a fine, and the gas-survivors will once again have been shafted. The hearing is on July 17th and it is already the small hours of the 10th here in Britain. In a few hours we will begin a vigil and a one-day fast outside the Indian High Commission in London. In Delhi the hunger-strikers are into their twelfth day without food.

We have one week in which to persuade the Indian government to change its mind. Please do everything in your power to help. Some ideas are given on where there is an electronic petition you can sign. Attached to this email, I’ll also include a list of other things that can be done, like sending faxes to your nearest Indian embassy or high commission.

Most of all, I urge you to forward this message to all your friends, and to anyone you think of who might be able to help. Unlike Dow-Carbide, we have no money for advertisements or PR companies. Hopefully our message will travel by people-power from one network of friends to another. And if everyone who receives it sends a fax, or an email, the Indian government will be swamped by the protest. Please make it happen.

I want to end with a few words about my friend Sathyu. A brilliant metallurgical engineer (his old professor at Varanasi University told one of our friends that Sathyu was the best student he’d ever had), he gave up everything to help the gas-affected of Bhopal. He came to the city the day after the disaster and has stayed ever since. When I first knew him, he was living in a tiny room in one of the city’s most squalid districts. Like his neighbours he did not have enough to eat and was drinking polluted water. He had had TB, and was weak, but still continued put in long exhausting days of work. He is probably the most tireless person I have ever known.

"Non-violence," said Gandhiji, "is a more active and real fight against wickedness than retaliation whose very nature is to increase wickedness. " Sathyu has had some pretty weird encounters with "wickedness". Check for his account of being visited in jail in Houston, Texas by an executive of Union Carbide, who'd had him arrested the day before for distributing leaflets about Bhopal at its AGM. "Where you and I have eyes," wrote Sathyu, "he had frozen cubes."

I wrote about him in my book "The Cybergypsies" which (after describing a scene in which Sathyu and I attempted to hijack an advertising awards ceremony, in order to put out a message about Bhopal to the watching TV cameras) concludes with these words:

"During my wanderings in worlds, real and unreal, I have often come into currents of pure evil, but I have also known the touch of great goodness. I think of M, unselfish to the point of self-destruction, searching for someone upon whom he could lavish his love. I remember Alastair McIntosh blowing his conch barefoot in the April slush, and how he once came home and narrated highland yarns to our saucer-eyed children, and played tunes on a penny whistle. But most of all I think of Sathyu, who lived in a slum, thanking the champagne drinkers at the Grosvenor House."

Love and goodness to all,