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Foot-dragging by the Centre and a short public memory have meant a long wait for justice for Bhopal’s victims, writes Karuna Nundy.

india Updated: Jul 05, 2010 01:26 IST

Fali Nariman reportedly said last week, that public expectations of justice in the Bhopal gas tragedy would not be dashed if the cases against the corporate officials responsible are not reopened, because “public memory is short”.

The eminent jurist is right. Public memory is short, if ‘public’ excludes the families of the 25,000 people who died and the 1,50,000 who were diseased and disabled by the gas leak of 1984.

Safreen Khan, 17, suffered her first tragedy long before she was born. The gas leak partially blinded her mother, gave her father chronic heart disease, and her brother — two years old at the time — developed lung problems. After a brief spurt of shock and anger, the gas and its effects were forgotten by the rest of the public.

Safreen’s second tragedy began when her family moved to a new house in Gupta Nagar. They soon discovered that their water was laced with the same poisons that caused the 1984 tragedy. They had been leaking into the groundwater since 1977. The water Safreen drinks today is a chemical cocktail of dichlorobenzene, mercury and lindane. She knows it can damage her lungs, brain and reproductive system but she has no option. The 20,000 people who have been drinking this toxic water for 30 years have been forgotten too.

Safreen’s third tragedy is the tragedy of hope. The judgement of June 7, which sentenced seven people to a light two years in prison for the death of 25,000, ignited spontaneous national outrage. During the week that followed, there was hope that the blaze would bring what justice was still possible to Gupta Nagar.

The central government acted quickly. Within two weeks, a Group of Ministers (GoM) put together a package of relief, rehabilitation and compensation for the survivors. The central government has, commendably, committed itself to filing a curative petition against the 1996 judgement that reduced criminal charges against company officials responsible for the leak. The Attorney General will also examine if a curative petition can be filed against the insufficient compensation paid by Union Carbide.

But many of the essentials of justice are still missing. The package directs that 350 metric tonnes of toxic waste at the Union Carbide factory site be disposed of in an incinerator in Pithampur, Madhya Pradesh. Safreen’s group, Children against Dow and Carbide, has pointed out that the toxic waste should not be sent to Pithampur, as the incinerator is seriously faulty (as the government’s own reports acknowledge), and in clear violation of the Hazardous Waste Management Rules — being located less than 200 metres from the neighbouring Tarpura village. But the GoM did not listen.

On Friday, six workers at the Pithampur incinerator began vomiting and complaining of vision loss. They were taken to the Getwell Hospital in Mhow, but as soon as the doctor on call said he would have to register a medico-legal case, they were whisked away to another location. The order to incinerate in Pithampur still stands.

The package also proposes to transfer Rs 720 crore to the MP government for human and environmental rehabilitation, placing more funds in the hands of agencies that have frittered away such money in the past. There is very little to show for the Rs 530 crore that has been routed through the state government for the rehabilitation of the gas victims in the past. Through a Right To Information application, survivor groups have recently acquired a list of equipment that the state government ‘bought’ using these funds. The list includes ridiculous fabrications. ‘Automatic micro-organism detection instruments’ and ‘identification & sensitivity of micro-organism’ are among the more amusing; costing over Rs 35 lakh alone. The corruption that’s riddled in the allotment of funds set aside for the survivors is well-documented. So is Carbide’s Houdini-like escape from serious liability, facilitated by the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board, which was subsequently fired en-masse for corruption, its chairman arrested.

In June 2008, the Centre agreed to set up an Empowered Commission on Bhopal to address these problems. The GoM package, quite inexplicably, goes back on that commitment. As things stand, the Indian taxpayer will pay for the pollution of the multinationals. The GoM has said that it will pursue Union Carbide and Dow’s liability in court; it is, in effect, keeping open the possibility of their being absolved of their responsibility to clean up the toxic waste. So far the only move by the Centre to make the polluters pay is a single three-page application, filed in May 2005, asking that Dow deposit Rs 100 crore as a preliminary contribution towards the cleanup. Survivor groups have repeatedly met with government lawyers asking them to pursue that application, but it remains buried under a dusty file in the MP High Court.

It’s interesting how our democracy has worked in these last 26 years. One would think that the outlook of a government that pioneered the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the RTI would be susceptible to moral, technical and legal arguments concerning the lives of lakhs of people who have suffered the worst kind of harm. But the partial shift in the government’s perspective after June 7 is not attributable to such arguments. Two-and-a-half decades of struggle by a small but committed band of activists and a smattering of professionals — which included endless representations to the prime minister, other ministers, meetings with bureaucrats, dharnas, and interminable hunger strikes at Jantar Mantar — have largely been ignored. This change has been powered, instead, by the threat of a possible shift in the votebank and by responsible media coverage. Most importantly, it has been powered by public outrage.

But the memory of public outrage is indeed short. There are so many tragedies to be outraged about — the honour killing of two girls in Haryana, a special force jawan being killed by Maoists in West Bengal, and CRPF excesses in Kashmir. The reading, writing and TV-watching citizens learn to insulate themselves so as to reap the rewards of not being the impoverished ones who face everyday injustice. Besides, the World Cup is so much more fun.

Safreen likes football too. But she will turn 18 this September and is wondering whether or when the lindane she has been drinking all her life will turn into cancer. And she is also wondering whether the companies that caused this will ever be made to pay.

Karuna Nundy represents Bhopal’s survivor groups before the Supreme Court of India

The views expressed by the author are personal