When George Orwell wrote his celebrated novel ‘1984’, he perhaps never realised that India would actually be witnessing a series of events in 1984 which include the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the genocide on the Sikhs which followed and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. ‘The party leader’, in his novel, is euphemistically named ‘Big Brother’ who is only interested in power and like the party he represents, not in the good of others. ‘1984’ was written by Orwell in 1949 – 35 years ago. Today, as one looks back at the year 1984, one can say that Orwell could have conveniently situated his novel in Bhopal. Strangely, the adjective ‘Orwellian’ has become synonymous with official deception, secret surveillance and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian or authoritarian State.
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy will be etched forever in living memory; despite every effort, by those across the ruling divide, to sweep things under the carpet, to stifle dissent and even to buy up victim-survivors. On the eve of the 31st anniversary of the tragedy, the Bhopal Group of Information and Action (BGIA) categorically stated that “the Modi Government as well as the previous Governments have been totally deaf to the demands of the victim-survivors.”
In a book released last year, entitled ‘Bhopal Gas Tragedy: after 30 years’, authors Sunita Narain and Chandra Bhushan write, ’it was on the night of December 2, 1984, when Bhopal died a million deaths. The chemical, methyl isocyanate (MIC), that spilled out from Union Carbide India Ltd’s (UCIL) pesticide factory turned the city into a vast gas chamber. People ran on the streets, vomiting and dying. The city ran out of cremation grounds. It was India’s first (and so far, the only) major industrial disaster. Till then, governments had handled floods, cyclones and even earthquakes. They had no clue how to respond in this case. The US-based multinational company, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which owned the plant through its subsidiary UCIL, did little to help deal with the human tragedy. Thirty years later, there is no closure. Not because of what happened that fateful night, but because our response has been incompetent and callous. Bhopal was struck by two tragedies: the one that happened immediately, and the other that unfolded in the years that followed”.
According to official estimates by the Government about 5,295 people were killed in the early hours of December 3rd 1984. Those fighting for the victim-survivors maintain that more than 25,000 more have died from various illnesses related to the leakage. In 2012, the UPA Government engaged in some tokenism providing additional compensation to about 33,000 ‘severely-affected’ survivors but the BGIA and others maintain that the Government underestimated both the number of victims, the amount of compensation and who should actually get it.
In the meantime, Dow Chemical Company who now owns Union Carbide has washed its hands off the whole affair and the incumbent Government of India is doing pretty little to ensure that the cause of justice is served; its ‘Make in India’ campaign seems to be an open invitation for foreign companies to maximise their profits at the cost of Indians, our natural resources and the environment. Organisations like ‘Greenpeace’ who identify with and take up cudgels on behalf of the poor and the marginalised are hounded and prevented from continuing their good works.
Even though the ‘Orwellian’ seems to have an upper hand, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy should be a grim reminder, however painful, that much more needs to be done not merely for the victims of this colossal tragedy but for every single citizen – who may fall prey to the greed and profiteering of callous corporations who are often in nexus with the Government. It does not matter if the victims are illiterate, poor and ordinary people – they are still humans endowed with dignity and deserving of justice.
About Author: Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace.)