Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bhopal: 25 years of sheer apathy

Bhopal: 25 years of sheer apathy
By M J Akbar

Every anniversary of a trauma, whether Bhopal, Bhagalpur, Bluestar, Ahmedabad or the anti-Sikh riots on Delhi's streets, turns into a struggle between anger and amnesia. It is a no-contest. Amnesia wins every time.

Eyeless in Bhopal. Heartless in communal riots. Clueless in Ayodhya. Mindless in government. And, maybe, pointless in rage. Perhaps the determining fact is that everyone, apart from the victim, has a vested interest in silence since the guilt, active or passive, extends beyond the obviously culpable. Governments might inspire and abet riots, but they are never possible without participation of the people. Every political party has an inconvenient truth in its history.

What, however, explains the callous indifference to the perpetrators of the Bhopal tragedy, Union Carbide and Dow Chemical? Twenty-five years ago, Union Carbide's factory in Bhopal spat out 40 tons of aerial poison in the form of methyl isocyanate, killing nearly 4,000 immediately and some 15,000 since then. It was a crime of greed, since this gas was used because it was cheaper than safer alternatives. The cover-up was dubious, at the very least. Carbide attributed the accident to sabotage by a disgruntled employee who was never named. This evasion was prelude to escape. In 2001, Dow Chemical bought Carbide for $11.6 billion.

Dow priced the Indian dead at an average of $2,200 per corpse, or around Rs 1 lakh at today's exchange rates. The blinded and maimed were dismissed with a compensation of $550 on average. That, explained a Dow spokeswoman, was "plenty good for an Indian". When Dow Chemical sets the price for Indian lives, we natives had better accept with folded hands. How much, incidentally, do you think your infant's eyes are worth? Raghu Rai, who gave the world the iconic image of Bhopal, of a dead child's face, could have provided the answer, but which establishment, political or corporate, has time for a photographer's pain?

Our governments, whether led by Congress or BJP, made the usual thundery noise in public and, in private, cooperated with Carbide/Dow Jones, starting from the day Carbide chief Warren Anderson was airlifted out of Bhopal to escape local wrath. Over time, even the noise has become a passing perfunctory statement. We have never asked for Anderson's extradition, although there is an international arrest warrant against him. Is Anderson hiding in the Amazon forest? No. He is living in a luxurious American suburb. Why should American authorities worry about accountability if we don't? Our unstated reason has been that action against Anderson would frighten foreign investors. Why let a few thousand corpses interfere with the balance sheet?

In 2006, Dow wrote to America's then ambassador in India, thanking him for obtaining our government's assurance that Dow would not be held liable for the mass murder of Bhopalis. Dow should now send a letter to our present minister of state for environment, who went to Bhopal to jeer at those who are still protesting against continuing death from left-over toxic waste. According to critics, from 15 to 30 people are still dying every month.

Dow Chemicals dare not be as casual about Americans. In 2002, it set aside over two billion dollars to cover Carbide's asbestos contamination liabilities. An American cough is far, far more expensive than an Indian life. Why? Because America cares for Americans. The poor in America have won their right to justice, and every company knows that it cannot sweet-talk its way through sleepwalkers in power.
If there is any explanation for Delhi's fudge-and-fuss approach, it can only lie in the Indian elite's very real indifference to the poor. What, one wonders, would have been the reaction if Carbide had leaked its poison over Lutyens' Delhi rather than five kilometers from the old Bhopal city? Would Anderson have spent 25 years in Tihar rather than a villa in Hampton's? You can bet your last silver dollar that Dow would have been both poorer and more contrite.

Abdul Jabbar Khan, convenor of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan, had much to say to the media as he led a rally from the homes of the dead to the death factory on the 25th anniversary. One sentence said as much as was needed: "We got no justice, no adequate compensation and not enough compassion." He was expecting justice from a meandering legal system, compensation from a caustic foreign company - and compassion from fellow-Indians. Of the three, the last hurts most.

Media has done what it could. The Times of India has done some moving reportage of the 25th anniversary in the last few days. It would be interesting to find out, possibly through market research, whether the readers of the nation's most powerful newspaper have been moved at all.

Appeared in Times of India - December 6, 2009

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