Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rip Van Winkles wake up to Bhopal

Everybody was sleeping for 26 years!

It’s extremely unflattering for media, especially the so-called national television news channels, that after a fortnight of sustained hyper-coverage of events related to the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal and outpouring of anger over nobody being punished for the horrific death of 15,342 people, there appears to have been little, if any, impact on the masses that populate this country. Just because the politically correct in media have suddenly woken up to a gruesome mass murder that occurred 26 years ago and decided to make common cause with perpetually aggrieved jholawallahs — it has helped fill column space and air time during Delhi’s silly season — does not mean everybody else is equally energised.

The popular Gujarati newspaper Sandesh had an interesting story about aspiring journalists who appeared for this year’s entrance test for the media course offered by Saurashtra University. I have no idea about the quality of the course, but it would be safe to presume that those who applied for admission are from average middle-class families, representatives of what political parties, particularly the Congress, refer to as aam admi — the common man, average Indian, or whatever term you may want to use for the masses. The answer scripts have revealed that among the applicants are those who believe Warren Anderson is a Hollywood superstar and (though not connected with the Bhopal tragedy) Teesta Setalvad is a Bollywood actress.

Cruel and uncaring as it may sound, the fact is that most people do not really care about whether Warren Anderson, who was chairman of Union Carbide Corp, the US-based parent company of Union Carbide India Ltd when lethal gas leaked from the company’s ill-maintained pesticides factory with virtually no plant safety system in place on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, was allowed safe passage by the then Congress Government at the Centre headed by Rajiv Gandhi under American pressure or for reasons that, if stated in print, could invite charges of libel and defamation. It’s not only cynicism that prevents a mass upsurge bordering on rebellion against a ‘system’ that allows criminals to walk free but also certain unsavoury facts that cannot be wished away.

In a country with appalling poverty levels — we are yet to figure out how many millions of families live below the poverty line — there is little or no appreciation of the value of human life. Those of us who are beneficiaries of an unregulated market economy allow ourselves to be persuaded by glib talk of India as an emerging global power and are impressed by GDP figures that by no means reflect gross domestic well-being. For us, India is shining. Those who struggle to make ends meet, and they do not necessarily belong to the underclasses, know claims of prosperity are bunkum. For them, life is a drudge, an unexciting passage of days, weeks, months and years in the hope that things will improve, which, of course, won’t happen in their lifetime. Incremental betterment, when it happens, is wiped out by inflation which the Prime Minister wants the people to grin and bear, as if it’s their bounden duty to silently suffer his indifference and incompetence.

The political resolution adopted at the BJP’s National Executive last weekend had a revealing paragraph which should provide the thinking classes with some food for thought: According to the Planning Commission, 27.3 per cent of rural households are below the poverty line. The NC Saxena Experts Group, basing its estimates on calory intake, says 50 per cent of rural households are below the poverty line. The Arjun Sengupta Commission has found that 77 per cent of the population lives on less than Rs 20 a day and said this should be the basis for determining poverty levels. The Suresh Tendulkar Committee, on the other hand, has concluded that 37.2 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.

So, nobody really knows either the extent of poverty in India or the number of people who are barely able to keep body and soul together. Just as nobody really knows how many people actually died and were injured in the Bhopal disaster even 26 years after the ghastly incident. Nor do the authorities have any comprehensive statistics on compensation paid to victims over the years and their rehabilitation.

I had asked our bureau chief in Bhopal to access relevant details from the officials handling relief and rehabilitation. And here is what he could ferret out. More than 11,000 people affected by the disaster are still waiting for the compensation awarded to them simply because there’s no way of contacting them, or so we are told. This despite the elaborate bureaucratic machinery that was set up to deal with compensation claims. Mr Bharat Bhushan Shrivastava, one of the officials involved with disbursing compensation, told this newspaper that he and his colleagues are still waiting for 11,735 people who have been awarded compensation in different categories to turn up and collect their money. “We have sent several notices to them at their addresses, provided lists of such claimants to voluntary organisations and widely circulated their names, but to no avail.”

Who are these claimants? Are they real people without real addresses as most poor people in this country are? Were they migrant workers who lived in the shanties that were allowed to proliferate in the vicinity of the hazardous factory? Did they move to industrial slums with open drains carrying toxic wastes in other cities after the disaster? Or are they ghost claimants whose names were submitted by racketeers who are now unable to produce people whose identities match those recorded on paper? Or is this part of the elaborate charade mounted by jholawallahs, ironically funded by foreign donors, who have made Bhopal’s tragedy into a prosperous enterprise? Why is it that media has never bothered to seek answers to these questions over the past 26 years? Why has no RTI been filed as yet?

It’s easy to wax eloquent on the plight of Union Carbide’s victims and berate America. But shouldn’t we also look within? Do we really care for the poor for whom we now feign treacly concern? Do we really want them to rise above poverty levels through higher wages? What would that do to profit margins, India as a favoured destination for investors looking for cheap labour, and stock prices? Or is the outrage we read about in newspapers and hear on television just so much poppycock and no more? A reality game show by another name? Little wonder that in Saurashtra youngsters believe Warren Anderson is a Hollywood superstar and Congress spokesman Manish Tewari condescendingly declares that anybody pointing a finger at Rajiv Gandhi is being “unpatriotic”. We do live in a wondrous land.

[This appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on June 20, 2010.]


varun said...

Union Carbide is free of any laibilities as per 1989 Out of court settlement between Union Carbide & Rajiv Gandhi's govt.

Still we need more funds 4 even site cleanup.

Poverty is the issue u raised. but was out of cpntext.

Unknown said...

congress has been screwing (up) the country forever now. the party and the leaders should be deemed criminal (they were accomplices in murdering Indians) and banned. that day, there'll be hope yet for the country and its people.

Sourabh Dharmeshwari said...

Nice piece, Sir. The problem with disbursement of compensation, to my knowledge, is not just that a large number of people could not be given compensation because they cannot be contacted, but it's also that many non-affected people made their place in the list of victims and received compensation, while cries of many affected victims fall only on deaf ears.

I should mention here that among those who received compensation are also residents of nearby towns like Raisen (my home town), Sehore, Mandideep, Obedullahganj etc, who falsely showed their presence in Bhopal on the night of gas leak. I'm personally in know of many such people.

Interestingly, many Bhopalites fled the city within hour of gas leak on that fateful night to nearby towns either using their own vehicle or on trucks and buses. They were hardly affected. Many of them have received compensation.

There's much hue and cry about revisiting the compensation. It's good. But, it'll be good only if real victims could be identified and contacted and fraudsters deleted from the list of victims.


Sourabh Dharmeshwari