Victims of the Bhopal Disaster: Abandoned to Their Fate
Victims of the Bhopal disaster are still campaiging for justice. Their suffering is emblematic of the struggle faced by huge numbers of Indians
At the end of January I was dining with an old friend, now one of India's top policemen. Intelligence, counter-terrorism, external threats, internal security, he'd done it all. He knew of my work with the Bhopal gas survivors, whom I'd accused successive Indian governments of betraying.
"Betrayal? Isn't that rather a strong word?"
"Well, what would you call selling out the Bhopalis for a pittance? Canning all medical studies into the effects of the gas? Letting Union Carbide leave Bhopal without cleaning its factory? Turning a blind eye while toxic waste leaks and poisons the local water supply? Ignoring a supreme court of India order to provide clean water? Beating up women and children who dared to ask why nothing had been done? Doing business with Dow Chemical while its wholly-owned subsidiary Carbide refuses to appear in court to face criminal charges? Conspiring to get Dow off the Bhopal hook in return for $1bn? All this while people are still sick, while hundreds of children are being born deformed? What part of this cannot be called betrayal?"
As we spoke, my Bhopali friends were preparing to walk 500 miles to Delhi for the second time in three years. After the last march they had sat for a fortnight on hunger strike before the government deigned to talk to them. The politicians had made plenty of promises but kept none, so the Bhopalis were about to walk again.
"Indra, Indra," replied my friend, when I was finally done. "Don't tell me you are really so naive. Politics isn't about social justice. It is about power."
It didn't used to be. Not entirely. Long marches and hunger strikes were the weapons of Mahatma Gandhi. His portraits still hang in Indian embassies, where his politics are nowadays an embarrassment.
Modern India is everything Gandhi loathed: a society of ephemera that worships money, cheap celebrity and expensive foreign goods. The poor have been abandoned, their memory obliterated by a deluge of commercials for share issues and cars. It is "anti-progress" (and thus unpatriotic) to mention the thousands driven from their homes by huge dams, the 150,000 farmers who have committed suicide over the last decade, the 100,000 members of ethnic communities forcibly displaced by mining and steel corporations in a savage unreported war in the forests of central India. These poor have no share in India's new wealth, no voice and no powerful friends. When they get in the way of progress they can expect to be jailed, tortured, gang-raped or murdered. They are the victims of what Arundhati Roy has called "the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in independent India - the secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country."
Politicians may grit their teeth when Roy speaks (in Gujarat they organised a wholesale burning of The God of Small Things) but for the moment she and other prominent dissenters are protected by their fame. For how much longer? In the central Indian war zone, filing a news story could land you in jail. Or worse. A police phone call was intercepted. "If any journalists come to report," the district's senior officer was heard to say, "get them killed."
In my novel, Animal's People, a character asks: "When grief and pain turn to anger, when our rage is as useless as our tears, when those in power become blind, deaf and dumb in our presence, and the world's forgotten us, what then should we do? Must we put away anger, choke back our bitterness, and be patient, in the hope that justice will one day win? We have already been waiting 20 years. And when the government that is supposed to protect us manipulates the law against us, of what use then is the law? Must we still obey it, while our opponents twist it to whatever they please? It's no longer anger but despair that whispers, if the law is useless, does it matter if we go outside it? What else is left?"
Indra Sinha is an author. He spent fifteen years working with the survivors of the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008