A barter Government

Independent journalist Nityanand Jayaraman writes about our tradable government, the  police and the indomitable Bhopalis

The Delhi Police see them as a threat to law and order.

Our pro-corporate PM sees them as impediments to foreign investment.

Their state government likes to make money out of their misery.

The media sees them as a never-ending story.

Their supporters see them as an inspiration.

They see themselves as people who will not sit quiet to watch the rich and mighty trample on their rights.

These are the Bhopalis. On that December night in 1984, a poisonous gas leak from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal killed 8000 within days, and left lakhs injured and too sick to work for a living. Many are children of survivors, some very young, some in their twenties – Bhopal’s Gen-Next victims. Some like 14-year old Sarita Malviya had nothing to do with the disaster. She and her parents are sick because they drink water with cancer and birth-defect causing chemicals in it. These poisons are leaching into the groundwater from the thousands of tons of toxic wastes that Union Carbide left strewn in and around its factory. Union Carbide knew the water was getting contaminated even in 1981. The State and Central Governments knew since 1991. Dow Chemical, a chemical giant from the US, purchased Union Carbide in 2001. It knows about the wastes and the water contamination. Nobody did anything.

The struggle waged by the indigent, but persistent survivors of Carbide’s chemical holocaust in Bhopal is bleeding the world’s second-largest chemical multinational – Dow Chemical – to a slow death. Core to their creatively non-violent struggle is a team of children ranging in age from 11 to 19, another team of 20-somethings, a large number of older people, and a vast network of volunteers who do everything from updating websites, attending Dow shareholder meetings, sensitising university managements to give back Dow’s tainted dollars, to confronting Indian officials during their visits abroad.

As satyagrahas go, what the Bhopalis have undertaken is no mean task. Four political parties and eight Prime Ministers have come and gone. Bhopalis have staged more than 1000 demonstrations, and covered 800 kms between Bhopal and Delhi on foot three times in the last 23 years, asking for the same things — rehabilitation, clean water, environmental clean-up and legal action against Union Carbide and Dow Chemical. Lesser mortals would have been driven to madness, suicide, guns and violence by the arrogant silence of successive governments.

“The lessons of Bhopal do not lie in our past, but in our future,” wrote Arundhati Roy in a statement to the media. “By refusing to meet the people of Bhopal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is sending out a clear message to the corporate world: In India, you are free to poison, rob and kill our people. The government will protect you. You will never be brought to book.”

On the other hand, by fighting for legal liability to be pinned on Dow and Union Carbide, the Bhopalis are sending out a clear message far more powerful than the Prime Minister’s – that power does not rest with those who can be purchased, but with those that dare to fight. But for this fight to yield results, the support of youngsters particularly college-going youth is essential.

Nityanand Jayaraman

Volunteer, International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal

Independent journalist, Chennai