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Meet the green warrior

columns Updated: Oct 30, 2010 22:15 IST
Tithiya Sharma

Around the world in 54 weeksdestination 18: Budapest

A few weeks ago Hungary faced its most daunting ecological disaster. A reservoir at an aluminium refinery ruptured, sending a wave of toxic sludge across three counties, and into the Danube River.

The Danube is Europe's second longest river and flows from Hungary into Croatia, Serbia and Romania, reminding everyone that a threat at your neighbours' door is a threat at yours as well.

The millions of tonnes of toxic red sludge flooded people's homes and farms and made its way into surrounding lakes and rivers; ensuring that nothing living or growing there would escape unscathed.

Nine people have died and more than 120 hospitalised owing to contact with industrial waste. The 41 sq km area that bathed in it will take years to decontaminate and will most likely never be optimally habitable again.

In Budapest, I scanned the newspapers for updates and heard only two voices — the official press release from the office of the Environment Minister and the environmental activists from Greenpeace Hungary.

The government tried to quell the panic and even assured residents it was safe to go home, barely three weeks after the spill. Greenpeace came forward with laboratory reports and analysis that contradicted the government's pacification, informing the public of the dangerously high levels of mercury and chrome in the sludge.

Raising the pitch
Greenpeace activists were among the first to reach the disaster site and offer the expertise of their international team. I spent an afternoon with the director of Greenpeace Hungary, Zsolt Szegfalvi.

Zsolt, a marine engineer turned teacher turned environment activist, has a quiet strength about him. He is undeterred by the two ongoing court cases against him. Greenpeace is known for its radical activism and unabashed, eye-popping demonstrations, often ending in detention of activists. "Our activism is not about aggression — we're usually at the receiving end of it. We follow a radical ideology — great injustice needs an even greater reminder of the power of the people and the strength of their opposition," he says.

Unprepared for the crisis, the government fumbled and flapped, issuing short-sighted press releases about the situation being 'under control', even likening the toxic sludge to red paint that would be washed off and cleared rapidly. Greenpeace was the thorn in their side that made them retract these and issue clear and fair warnings to the citizens.

Zsolt says: "We know the bureaucratic process well. It's not going to change at the pace our country deserves it. Our protests don't stem from a disregard for the establishment, but rather from a reverence for it and from a sense of duty to ensure that it serves the people in the most righteous manner."

Zsolt knows that when you ask the uncomfortable questions, you slide down the popularity charts. The slide becomes a cliff dive if the probing inconveniences the powers that be. If being bullied and cornered doesn't cure you of your doggedness then the media bashing and tainting probably will.

The message is clear: Raise your voice and we'll raise the stakes.

But Greenpeace Hungary is never short of volunteers and activists. A sign that people are aware concerned and motivated. Zsolt and his band of merry greenies dare to rattle the system, demand transparency and information and challenge its motives. And they bear the consequences so that others may live in a safer, more just world

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