The gripes of wrath
Today in New Delhi, India
Jan 16, 2019-Wednesday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

The gripes of wrath

India must learn lessons in corporate liability from a 1939 classic novel. Hozefa Merchant writes.

india Updated: Mar 21, 2012 23:28 IST

If John Steinbeck had written The Grapes of Wrath after last year's Fukushima tragedy, the Joad family would have been replaced by the Kobayashi family and the land grabbing banks would have been replaced by the ones that supplied Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) its reactors in Fukushima. But the main theme, the government's apathy coupled with the lack of liability fuelling a human tragedy, would still remain.

Steinbeck's book talks about the self-interest of the landowners and businessmen that pushed people into poverty and homelessness. Decades later, not much has changed. Today, his message would expose the government-facilitated nexus between nuclear suppliers and operators. Steinbeck would, like he did in 1939, still maintain that the ultimate duty to safeguard its people rests on the shoulders of the government.

Any disaster that occurs, naturally or man-made, sparks off a series of consequences. Almost all these involve human displacement, cost of life as well as economical and environmental consequences. Similar to the Joads, who had to leave their home and move in search of land where they could survive, the Kobayashi family, too, had to leave Fukushima and move to a temporary housing at Yonezawa. Just as the Joads had to leave most of their belongings, most of the people who were asked to evacuate Fukushima also had to leave their belongings. Critics often judge a disaster by the number of deaths, but the question is not about death, the question is how these displaced 100,000 people will survive?

Though Steinbeck's book was fiction, the story was based on real events that happened in America during the 1930s. The famous drought in America, coupled with extensive farming without crop rotation, caused soil erosion. Eventually, farmers didn't have a penny left in their pockets and soon the banks owned the lands due to defaulted farmer debts. With unbearable economic hardships, people migrated to other parts. The Great Depression of the 30s made it more difficult for them to survive.

Steinbeck didn't blame banks for this injustice, he stated that a bank needs to breathe profits and eat the interest on money to survive. He forced his readers to feel the pain of the Joads and, in turn, be angry towards the injustice they suffered at the hands of the government's apathy towards accountability. Accountability can be achieved by rules and regulations, by processes and procedures. It is not a difficult task and it has been done before. British Petroleum (BP) was made to pay for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by the US; Tepco is being forced to pay by the Japanese government. Whereas in India, the biggest industrial disaster still awaits justice. There is no accountability for corporations in India. There is a foreign hand though.

Steinbeck's Indian version of The Grapes of Wrath would not be complete without the foreign hand bogey. The fictional Indian prime minister in the book would term everything that he can't explain as foreign and anti-national. He would listen to the repeated cries of the foreign diplomats who wouldn't want accountability for themselves for the 'benefit' of the nuclear industry.

There are lessons to be learnt from Steinbeck's writing, Fukushima, Bhopal as well as the BP oil spill. These lessons are relevant for us today. My thoughts and reasons are influenced by history and encouraged by the possibility that corporate liability can exist in India. If nuclear supplier liability can be strengthened, we would not need to pay through our nose for a fault should never be ours to bear.

Hozefa Merchant works on the nuclear campaign for Greenpeace India.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 21, 2012 23:25 IST