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It has been 30 years since the world’s worst industrial disaster asphyxiated Bhopal. Photo courtesy: India Today Group
It has been 30 years since the world’s worst industrial disaster asphyxiated Bhopal. Photo courtesy: India Today Group

Bhopal in the grip of history

History offers a premonition of what will be repeated, and Bhopal seems set for exactly that kind of a horrifying rerun

History offers a premonition of what will be repeated. The repetition reveals that we did not learn our lessons, or that we misread history. Bhopal seems set for exactly that kind of a horrifying rerun.

It has been 30 years since the world’s worst industrial disaster asphyxiated Bhopal. From that point, we have been uninterruptedly talking of the lessons to be learnt. Brilliant minds from every part of the globe have invested their wisdom in understanding the consequences of Bhopal and the resultant lessons to be learnt. Each has this paramount concern: Bhopal should not be allowed to happen again anywhere in the world.

The most pertinent question here, obviously, would be: what really caused the disaster? Answers to that question have led to one unanimous prescription: tougher laws to regulate safety systems in dangerous plants.

But I feel that we are missing the finer points, especially the one which is the most crucial. It relates to corporate greed for profits, and a wholly corrupt system that works hand in hand with corporate interests to violate all safety rules.

We cannot afford to ignore the fact that we are living in an age of extreme complexity—Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is jolting us right now. Growing money power of corporations in this era of globalization is sweeping away our concerns for the environment and human life. At any rate, human life is being appraised in euros and dollars.

The case of Bhopal is the most glaring example of this devaluation of humanity because of which the state happily agreed to bail out Union Carbide Corp. from criminal proceedings in return for the paltry sum of $470 million. It meant just 50 cents for each Carbide share.

Another vital aspect that needs to be studied and thoroughly understood is the aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy. It has been, in fact, much more apocalyptic than the disaster itself. These 30 years after the leak have yielded greater shock, despair and disbelief for the survivors. Their lives have been beset with unending mental and physical suffering. They walk like characters of Greek tragedies—doomed to eternal misery and death.

The aftermath exposed the unpreparedness to deal with medical care and social and economic rehabilitation of the survivors. It exposed the political system which chose to collude with a criminal corporation rather than ease the torment of its own people. It also demonstrated the nonchalance of the so-called justice in US courts and the inability of the Indian judicial system to dispense justice to victims even in 30 years. And the verdict which was delivered on 7 June 2010, by the Bhopal district court appeared to have been based on the dictum that in the long run, we are all dead. Hence, it seemed, it’s not a big deal if people died in Bhopal.

The court verdict, coming after 26 years, pronounced seven accused people guilty of causing death by negligence, under section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code. The quantum of punishment was two years’ imprisonment. A simple calculation will tell you that two years’ imprisonment for seven people for causing the death of 25,000 innocent people comes to just 35 minutes in jail for each death.

But this is what should make us gasp: the accused were granted instant bail for a surety of 25,000 each—a rupee against each death.

It would not be out of place to draw public attention to a dismaying tactic adopted in the Bhopal case. In March 1985, the Union government took away the rights of the victims to sue killer Carbide and appointed itself as the sole representative of the victims. It entered an out of court settlement with Union Carbide in February 1989.

The Supreme Court put a seal of approval on this dubious deal, granting Union Carbide immunity from “…all past, present and future claims, causes of action and civil and criminal proceedings by all Indian citizens…" No citizen of Bhopal was consulted in any manner by any forum.

Similarly, on 7 June 2010, when the Bhopal district court was to pronounce its verdict in the criminal case, restored after the 1989 settlement was challenged, none of the gas survivors were allowed inside the court. Only the seven accused, their lawyers and a Central Bureau of Investigation team were let in. When I insisted on entry into the courtroom as one of the petitioners on whose plea the criminal case was restored in October 1991, the police retorted with brute force. These were the very same policemen who have been receiving the accused such as Keshub Mahindra and V.P. Gokhale at the court gate with the salutation of sir.

One feels fearful about the fate of the future generations because these travesties suggest that we have not learnt a single lesson in the decades following the disaster. In 2010 I worked for an ESPN documentary project, The Children of Bhopal. The soil in and around the abandoned Union Carbide plant had been heavily contaminated by toxic materials used and dumped in the adjoining areas. People still live here with their children, without being aware of the danger beneath their feet. Though several diseases are commonplace among the residents of the area, authorities are unwilling to see that the poison is the cause of the damaging effects on the sufferers.

Indeed, there is no authority to save these children. Warnings from concerned individuals get a poignant response: Aur kahan khelenge? Doosri koi jagah hi nahin hai (Where else will we play? There is no other open space for us).

The toxins from the dumps of the Union Carbide plant had seeped into the ground and contaminated the drinking water source of a nearby habitation. This peril has made some non-governmental organisations engage in an exhausting battle just to get safe water. Court intervention has brought some relief but is not enough. Similarly, the problem of disposing of toxic materials lying within the factory premises is still unresolved.

It is going to be a challenging task for all those who care for the preservation of the environment—and of humanity—to find hope for the victims.

These days companies audaciously sell their products with slogans like daag achhe hain (blots are good) with the help of media. In fact, a book by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, elaborates on the bleak tale of polluter companies using public relation agencies to justify every wrong.

To conclude, I will borrow a thought from this highly provocative, eye-opener of a book: “‘Publicity’ was once the work of carnival hawkers and penny-ante hustlers smoking cheap cigars and wearing cheap suits. Today’s PR professionals are recruited from the ranks of former journalists, retired politicians, and eager-beaver college graduates anxious to rise in the corporate world."

Rajkumar Keswani is a senior journalist. He had written several stories about the poor safety standards at the Union Carbide plant before the accident occurred.

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