Rethinking 1984

gas1.jpgOutside. Sunny and bright.

Inside. Dark and dingy.

A world of contrast opened up before me as I stepped into that small room, with no windows and very little space to move around. My eyes fell on eleven-year old Suraj lying on the bed, his hands and legs sickly thin.

All those questions that I had suddenly wanted to ask simply disappeared and a feeling of despair crept into the air.

Suraj suffers from complete Cerebral Palsy. The term cerebral palsy refers to any one of a number of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination. It is caused by abnormalities in those parts of the brain that control muscle movements. Cerebral Palsy has no cure but special therapeutic treatment can induce certain improvements.

Children with severe cerebral palsy can never sit, stand, walk, talk or play.

The title of this article might have misled many into thinking that it is probably about some political or literary event.

Instead, it is about the dreadful night of Dec 2, 1984 when about 40 tones of methyl iso cyanate (MIC) from the Union Carbide India Limited’s (UCIL) pesticide factory escaped into the air and enveloped various areas of the city of Bhopal. These areas, right outside the walls of the Union Carbide factory were inhabited by poor families who earned a living as daily wage labourers, factory and construction workers. At night, when everyone was asleep, the gas spread like wild fire causing irritation, suffocation and sudden death to about 2,000 people.

It does not make sense to explain the details of the event, as we are all aware that what Bhopal encountered was one of the worst man made disasters.

What we often forgot to mention is that it is also a case of the grossest violation of human rights, environmental safety, of corporate crime and of how the poor everywhere are exploited so easily.

Visiting the now abandoned UCC factory in Bhopal can teach many a lesson. The air is stale and the remaining parts of the heavy machinery continue to rot. The icing remains the chemical slush on the ground.

Mr. T.K. Chauhan, a former supervisor with one of the departments of the factory took us around and explained to us the names of the chemicals. I honestly cannot recollect their precise names. The only thing I remember from what he said is the fact that the chemicals were highly hazardous with the potential to kill.

Had children like Suraj been considered a rare case in these bastees, we would not have been so worried. However the truth is, ever since the incident, there has been an increase in the number of such children being born here, many of them with severe cerebral palsy, mental retardation and Down syndrome. Children born without such deformities suffer from illnesses such as chest pain, eye irritation, weaknesses, headaches, reproductive problems, skin problems, cancer and even immunological changes…pains that could last a lifetime.

The Bhopal tragedy has multiplied over the decades. The people now suffer mostly from water contamination. The chemicals have seeped underground and reacted with the ground water. The water is yellowish at times and people often say that by drinking it, they experience an unexplainable sensation in which they feel that their throat is on fire.

In one of the houses, my friends and I were offered tea. Although we profusely declined (because we were advised only to drink purified mineral water!), we later felt obliged to drink the refreshment. The fear with which I gulped down that tea still rings in my head. I know I am being hypocritical, however, at that moment, all I could think of was the harmful water that was going down my throat. There was such intense nervousness in the air.

But that one small cup of tea has taught me some important lessons.

Isn’t it quite unthinkable for people like us, who are privileged to have access to all the basic amenities in life, to be consuming such contaminated resources? Given a choice, we wouldn’t use it. However, these men, women and children live right in the middle of this nightmare. They continue consuming that very water for drinking, bathing, washing and most of all, for cooking. Poverty has become their worst enemy and many of them feel that they will never escape it.

Corporate companies like the UCC, who work only for profits, couldn’t care less for these affected people. Even after 23 yrs, the former chairman of Union Carbide, Mr.Warren Anderson seems to express no remorse or regret. Indeed, why would they?

Here in India, they received cheap labour. A poor and illiterate workforce who would easily fall prey to the prospects of employment and progress. The initial promises of a completely automatic plant would be hid under the cloak once they had control over the workers. And that is exactly what they did.

Not only did they commit an irreversible act of environmental injustice but also went ahead in violating basic human rights in the crudest of manner.

In a stoic manner, hardened by this devastating tragedy and its implications, Mr. Chauhan told us that on the night of the gas leakage, three parts of the MIC plant were under maintenance and the emergency alarm was muted in such a manner that only those inside the factory compound could hear the siren and those outside its walls were not able to hear this alarm.

However, the rudest shock awaited us. The workers were warned that in case of any gas leak or rupture, all they had to do was stand against the wind and not go along with it. Standing opposite to the direction of the wind would do absolutely no harm to them.

The public were not given this information. When the gas leaked and chaos spread, people ran with the wind, choking themselves to a most brutal death.

The intensity of all these injustices is immense coupled with the realization of the injustices that these people continue to be inflicted with. When asked about the Government, there was only hopelessness and disappointment. Truly, what has the State done for them?

In 1989, the Indian Government assumed the responsibility of representing all the victims under the Bhopal Gas Leak Act and settled for a sum of US $470 million — nearly one-seventh of the original claim of US $3 billion.

A compensation of Rs 25000/- was meted out to the victims. A mere sum for the tragedy that they continue to live with. And for those who have been permanently disabled, this amount holds absolutely no value.

What these people demand now is access. Access to basic healthcare, relief and medication, safe drinking water and land. They want the government to recognize their children as second generation victims. Their demands for basic facilities shouldn’t be considered as merely part of this struggle. It is what they rightfully deserve and the State ought to provide them these facilities for being citizens of the country.

What can one do if the food, the soil, the water and one’s own body are contaminated with toxic chemicals? How does one live healthily and support a livelihood? How can one survive the deep violation of human rights, embodied by the seeping poison unleashed by a powerful corporate which was never brought to book for its crimes?’

These are questions raised in a recently released report by a Fact Finding Mission (FFM) on Bhopal. The report, ‘Surviving Bhopal: Toxic Present, Toxic Future’, which focuses on human and environmental chemical contamination was conducted by an environmental toxicologist Dr Amit Nair and coordinated by Delhi-based environmental non-government organization (NGO) Srishti. They discovered that the water is highly contaminated with dangerous levels of lead, chromium, nickel and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like dichlorobenzene and halo-organics like dichloromethane and chloroform

These toxics have interfered with the functioning of many of the bodily systems
and they remain intact (which means they are not bio-degradable) and have a disastrous tendency to accumulate in fatty tissue. They can also cause other reproductive disorders like prolonged menstruation, sterility, low sperm count and repeated miscarriages.

One of the most shocking findings is the presence of these carcinogenic toxins in breast milk, which has the potential of affecting future generations.

There was a lot of furore post-Bhopal and we witnessed a worldwide regulation on chemicals and toxicity. We also witnessed a demand by communities to the right to information and to be participants in the process of industry-sitting. Tomas Mac Sheoin’s report on the Union Carbide Corporation notes, “It is one of the bitter ironies of Bhopal that its major reformist effects were felt in Union Carbide’s home country.” The US increased its regulatory activities owing to public pressure. The Toxic Releases Inventory was set up, providing freedom of information measures that greatly increased public access to information on toxic chemical releases. However, in countries like India, the major problem plaguing community struggles is also their acute lack of access to the right information. Many people in Bhopal are not aware of the hazardous impact of the contaminated ground water. And those who are continue to consume it because the government has not provided any alternative sources of portable water.

Women are the worst hit. Apart from their close daily association with water, they have to bear the responsibility of looking after the children. The specially challenged children require great attention and there aren’t enough special schools or care centres for them. Many of these mothers have adopted a fatalistic attitude and do not realise that with therapy and certain treatment, the condition of their children can be improved.

Easier said than done. When there is no work or money, food or water, how can one expect these parents to provide specially for these affected children?

The Bhopal issue has many complex layers to it. It shouldn’t be rendered only as an environmental disaster. There is more to it than meets the eye.

Initially I felt very disturbed. I had gone to Bhopal expecting a loud protest or a dynamic struggle. I found none. I didn’t find activists mobilising people on to the streets, holding dharnas or staging protests. However, I did hear that somewhere, it is happening. There are people who have come together to seek justice.

Then, I realised that there is a bigger struggle going on in Bhopal. An internal struggle by all these people who feel betrayed by the world.

A woman once told us that ‘she felt most angry towards herself…for being poor’

Children like Suraj suffer for no fault of theirs. If you wrap your fingers around his, he laughs loudly. He rolls his eyes and tries to bend backwards to look at you. However, the world outside has turned a blind eye towards him and many others. We seem to have disappointed these silent victims

With multiple disadvantages and neglect, these people continue to fight a silent battle to win against all odds. They continue to hold up their spirit to survive solely for their children and the future generations.

It is easier for us to talk endlessly about it. The struggle would become pointless if we did nothing about, even in our own little ways.

Like my friend Tanushree said,’ We owe them a struggle’.

We owe them at least that.

(The Union Carbide has now merged with Dow Chemical in 2001 to form the largest chemical corporation in the world.)

Divya Kannan