when claims of indian exceptionalism run into bhopal gas survivors

in a month, it will be 27 years since the gas leaked out of that tank in union carbide’s bhopal plant. it is an event which has never quite lost its ability to shock people — the scale of the disaster; the state’s brutal abandonment of the gas affected; the subsequent discovery that households living near the plant’s toxic dumps and drinking the groundwater there were reporting severe abnormalities in new borns and high incidences of cancer; rapidly followed by the bhopal administration siting — wait for it — the new agricultural grain mandi about 500 metres away from these erstwhile evaporation ponds where carbide used to dump its slurry and, for good measure, allowing new houses to come up in the area; the hospital erected to take care of the gas victims slowly turning them all away and treating the city’s affluent instead… i could go on.

three days ago, my edit page editor, tk arun, and i found something new to be horrified by. new documents have been unearthed which reveal that…

Weeks after the tragic Bhopal gas leak in December 1984, the Indian government mutely accepted a settlement offered by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). Among other things, UCC’s offer outlined the quantum of compensation to be paid out to victims and how injuries were to be categorised and compensated. In exchange , it wanted “extinguishment” of all claims against UCC, its Indian subsidary, Union Carbide India Limited, and its staff.

and, wouldn’t you know it, the government agreed. hook, line and sinker. take a look at this story. it briefly explains what the proposal was, why it was flawed. and yet, the bureaucrats and the rajiv gandhi government accepted the whole thing. no application of thought. even though the scale of the accident (india’s first industrial accident which involved communities living around the plant and not just the workers) far outstripped provisions in existing laws.

and you know the worse bit? it has been said that nothing challenges the idea of india as much as the bhopal gas tragedy. not really. there are a thousand unfolding/unfolded bhopals in this country. plant after plant under-represents the risks they expose local populations to. poverty forces people to live close to these. others, to work in them. their pollution leaches, usually untreated, into rivers and the earth. and the safety mechanisms rarely work.

these are not generalised rants. a friend, who did his phd on the nuke plant at kudankulam, told me once that the plant had told locals about low noise levels. not about the threat of radiation. as for the other assertions. poverty pushes people to live in cheaper, if higher risk, areas — slums along the riverside, next to drains. as for the pollution, i am reminded of a trip as a freelancer to orissa. plants were dumping waste into the hirakud dam’s reservoir! incredible, that. because those waters are then used for irrigation. in the same trip, i also heard about how plants would switch off their smoke/pollution capturing systems to save on bijli (electricity).

and 27 years after bhopal, while we have better laws, we continue to be crap at enforcing them.

not a country given to learning from its much-feted past, india.

ps – also see this story written last year after the court awarded two year jail terms, a mere 26 years after the event, to some of the staff and senior managers in UCC’s Indian ops.