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Search words: Bhopal
Bhopal Gas Survivors' March for Justice
21 years after the Bhopal Gas disaster, which has resulted in 20,000 deaths to date, survivors have still not received justice, or adequate compensation, and the factory site itself has yet to be cleaned up. Many Bhopalis are still drinking poisoned water, while the officials responsible for the plant, including Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson, continue to abscond from facing legal proceedings for their callous negligence. Thus, a group of sixty Bhopalis have embarked on an 800 km walk for justice from Bhopal to New Delhi, where they will meet with the Prime Minister and voice their demands, following it up with a hunger strike if action is not taken. They have been on foot for more than a month now and are due to arrive into India's capital city and political Centre on 25th March.
I’ve just returned from a weekend spent walking along a long long road. My feet are sore, my body tired, and I really need to go and wash. However, while I walked for just two days, the people I joined have been on the road continuously for over a month now, and are determined to continue, in spite of aches, pains, pesky mosquitos, scorching sun and other such obstacles, until they reach their final destination, which is New Delhi, and more specifically the office of the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh.
Back on the morning of 4 December 1984, the world’s worst industrial disaster occurred at the Union Carbide Chemical plan in Bhopal, a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Over 35 tons of toxic gases, including highly poisonous methyl isocyanate were leaked into the atmosphere, resulting in the death of at least 8,000 people, quite possibly many more, in the first 2-3 days after the accident. Over 500,000 people were exposed to the gas, while the current death toll till date over the last 20 years stands at 20,000. Still, now, more than 120,000 people are suffering recurrent, serious health problems, ranging from gynaecological and reproductive problems, chronic respiratory illness, immune system impairment, neurological damage and growth defects in children born after the disaster occurred, among various other health problems.
More than 21 years later, the survivors of this disaster have still not received justice or compensation for this shocking event. The people affected were the most poor and marginalized in the city, and thus the powers that be prefer to ignore their voices and calls for justice, rather than admit that a serious and deadly mistake was made by the many ‘responsible’ authorities, and take a hard and serious look at the policy of indiscriminately encouraging multinationals to invest in and develop plants in India. The Indian and state government is more interested in attracting international investment, with promises of a cheap educated work force and various other perks in this globalized world, than in ensuring the safety and health of their citizens, and that justice is done in the case of such a despicable and callously negligent incident.
The events of that night continue to have a huge impact on many Bhopalis to the present day, including a second generation of gas victims, who were not even alive when the disaster occurred. Many people cannot work due to chronic health problems, women cannot give birth or miscarry, adolescent girls experience delayed, erratic or painful menstruation, children have growth deformities. The factory site has never been cleaned up, and remains as a depressing monument to official apathy and inaction. As a result of this, the local soil and groundwater is highly polluted and contaminated, and thus 21 years later people are continually and repreatedly poisoning themselves by drinking this water, having no other option or means to get access to safe or clean water.
Furthermore, a despicably low compensation settlement was made in 1989 between the Indian Government ‘representing’ the victims of the gas disaster, and Union Carbide Corporation, of $470 million, amounting to a paltry sum of $300-500 per victim. Much of this money has still not been distributed and is held by the Government of India, while the process of distribution was complicated, drawn out and subject to corruption. Meanwhile, legal cases against Indian and American accused Union Carbide Employees are still in process, with Warren Anderson, the CEO of UCC at the time of the accident, evading arrest and extradition and refusing to respond to warrants since 1988.
It is in the light of these problems, among many others, and the consistent inaction of the Indian government to make attempts to resolve them, that the Bhopal Gas Survivors have resorted to a most traditional form of Indian protest to draw attention to their struggle for justice, a padyatra, or march for justice. Approximately 60 survivors of the gas disaster and fellow activists embarked on a march from Bhopal to New Delhi on foot, a distance of almost 800 kilometres. They departed Bhopal on 20th February, have been marching for more than a month now, and are due to arrive in Delhi on 25th March.
Having joined the marchers for two days and nights as a small gesture of solidarity with them I can only express my admiration and respect for this bunch of determined, committed people, who are willing to give so much in their pursuit of justice. The extent of their unflagging good-humour, team spirit and commitment to communal decision-making is truly inspirational. As visitors from Delhi joining for the weekend, we were welcomed with such warmth and enthusiasm as to make me feel truly humbled and embarrassed. The padyatras are walking along a long, straight, two lane highway all the way to Delhi. They walk an average of 25-30 kilometres a day. They stay wherever they can in the evenings, often sleeping outside or in the large porch/veranda of a building, braving fierce cold and blood-sucking mosquitoes. A truck accompanies them, carrying bags, equipment (it is a fabulous mixture of the old and the new, this padyatra, emails are still downloaded every day on a neat laptop, and campaigning phone calls made from a nifty, tiny headset, aswell as the numerous mobile phones on the march) and some of the largest steel cooking pots and implements I’ve seen in my life. Twice a day a rotating team sits down to cook up a meal for all the padyatras, and it truly is quite amazing to witness people who’ve been walking for hours on end happily and without complaint, sit down and roll chapattis for an hour and a half, or cut and cook vegetables for 60 plus people.
There are other logistical complications of course. Water can be scarce and may have to be pumped from its source. Toilets are not generally in abundance, so all must get used to answering the call of nature behind an appropriately broad and bushy shrub or tree (as many of Indian’s rural poor do every day, not having access to toilets). Bathing can also be difficult, privacy is a scarce thing, as are spaces in which to bathe and an adequate supply of water. The marchers must wash their clothes by hand when they get the opportunity and can summon up the energy on one of the extended lunch breaks which are taken to gather strength and avoid the glaring midday sun. At least twice a day impromptu medical clinics occur, with pained legs being massaged, cream applied to tired muscles, and blisters being lanced and tended to. Impressively, while there are some young people on the march, including international supporters, the majority of the marchers are at least in their middle ages, with quite a bit of grey hair and frail-appearing old bodies to be seen. However it is these individuals, who have been demanding their right to be heard, acknowledged and to get justice for more than two decades now, who are the heart and soul, the inspiration and the dogged determination of the march.
The two days we joined for were I think, indicative of the general experience of the march as a whole. We arrived on Friday night, to be immediately presented with chai and a tasty dinner of chappati and veg, and ate it cross legged on the floor of the large hall where all the marchers had spread out their sleeping bags in anticipation of the nights sleep. A slightly long but humour-filled meeting was held between all, to discuss various logistical issues, decisions to be taken by the group, and trade/debate precious recipes and methods of cooking! The next morning was an unusual day of rest and recuperation, as a press conference was planned for the afternoon in Mathura, and so only ten kilometers had to be covered. The capacity of the organizers of the march to recurrently reiterate with conviction, clarity and articulacy, the same demands over and over again to the media, is truly inspirational. While marching inside the city the padyatras loudly and enthusiastically shouted various slogans, carrying banners and distributing informational leaflets to interested and bemused bystanders. A meal eaten outside in the grounds of a local school, was followed by a relatively short walk to our home for the evening, the office of an old factory on the outskirts of the city. In the evening I managed to ease my aching conscience at the level of hospitality being encountered somewhat by feebly cutting up some cauliflower for the evening meal, but was prohibited from helping any further. Once again, after eating a meal of chappatis cooked on an open fire and spicy aloo and gobi under the stars, all settled down for what sleep could be had by 10 o’clock, as it was to be an early start the next day.
By 5.30 am the next morning, there was much noise and various voices to be heard, such that even an adament non-morning person such as myself, could not help but be roused. Slowly we all washed, packed up our bedding, rubbed the sleep from out eyes, and at our mosquito hives, and drank char-grilled, sweet thick chai. By 6.30, still crisply cold with dawning light, we set out onto the long road, which stretched straight on into the horizon as far as the eye could see. The first two hours of walking are the easiest, one is rejuvenated by a night’s rest, eager to make progress, aided by a fresh cooling breeze and the slowly brightening day. By 11.45 we had put over 15km behind us, and stopped for rest and shade in the green garden of the district cane officer’s building. Some people stretched out in the shade and slept, others tended their aching limbs, some soaped themselves up and rinsed clear, and others still took the opportunity to pump water and pound their dusty clothes clean. By 3.30 we were all sufficiently rested and well fed enough to move once more, having avoided the most intense period of the afternoon sun. Still the pace is slower post-lunch, all are starting to fade somewhat, breaks are more frequent, and the timely distribution of sweet juicy oranges late in the afternoon is a godsend for flagging energy levels. But even though we’re slower than in the morning, there is still a determination and steadiness to our progress, with different figures taking a moment now and then to joke or urge us all on. At one point, the group of women with whom I am walking begin to stridently sing, and keep it up for an inspiring 15 minutes. This is particularly impressive bearing in mind the fact that I and my walking partner have lapsed into a comfortable, mutual silence, not needing to acknowledge verbally that our previously laid back and varied conversation will cease for now as we must concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other. Finally we reach a roadside restaurant, drink carbonated sugary drinks with much relief, and cross the road to cover the last few hundred metres to the evening’s stop-off point, where the advance party have already begun cooking dinner, with spices sputtering on the fire.
As the light begins to fade once more, the three of us visiting only for the weekend say our goodbyes, and leave with words of encouragement, apologies for not staying until the end and promises to meet in but 5 days in Delhi. We step into the car, and begin to speed our way back to the big city, filled with lights and cars and people rushing around doing business, on the one hand relieved at the prospect of soaking our painful feet and a night sleeping in a comfortable warm bed mosquito free, but on the other hand reluctant to leave behind that open road, that inspirational group of people demanding justice, dignity and right to life, aswell as corporate, industrial and official accountability worldwide, the incredible determination to keep campaigning and pressurizing the powers that be until the situation is finally dealt with and those who are responsible for the suffering of these people are held to account.
When the padyatris arrive in Delhi on 25th March, various social and people’s movements, activists, politicians and supporters will to welcome them to the city. We can only hope and demand that the politicians, and administrative and government officials will also give them the welcome they deserve, listen to their demands, and respond to them in an appropriate manner. The Bhopalis have been waiting too long, and traveled too far a distance, not to be heard this time.
To get involved you can send a free fax to the PM of India’s office by following this link http://www.studentsforbhopal.org/FaxAction/fax_action.php, or post one of the attached to your local Indian Embassy, or the local office of Dow in your country.
Ireland – Indian Embassy – 6 Leeson Park, Dublin 6
Dow - Dow Chemical Company, 25 St. Stephens Green, Dublin 2 and
Dow Corning Company, Unit 12, Owenacurra Business Park, Midleton, Co. Cork
Statement of Support and Six Demands of the Marchers
Letter to PM of India
Letter to Dow