Today, people in the United States – and particularly in Louisiana – reeling under the environmental impact of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, probably imagine this is as bad as it gets. Hundreds of livelihood affected adversely, wetlands almost irreparably damaged; what could possibly be worse? Well, trust me, it can be.
On the night of December 3, 1984 at the Union Carbidepesticideplant in Bhopal, India, there was a leak of methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins from the plant. Over 500,000 people residing in the vicinity were exposed to the poisonous gas. It was a biological disaster and the world’s worst industrial accident. It is estimated that around 15,000 people fatally succumbed over a period of time. Today, 25 years later, hundreds of families are still suffering the after effects of that toxicity.
The real tragedy of Bhopal, however, is that among the grandstanding, blame-shifting and the most contemptible hypocrisy displayed by our political parties; and the totally misguided hysteria generated by the Indian media, the genuine victims of the Bhopal tragedy have been all but forgotten.
The most ludicrous manifestation of the dog and pony show currently being played out is the cacophonous clamour created by the media for the extradition of Union Carbide former Chairman, Warren Anderson. It is as if the return of a senile 89-year old American will spontaneously and magically bring “justice” to the 15,000 victims of the gas leak, who have been patiently enduring their misery and pain, unheeded and unheralded, for a quarter century.
On the other side of the fence, the ruling Congress party is tying itself in knots, trying to justify why they facilitated the quick departure of Anderson to his native shores. They seem to have settled on then Chief Minister of Bhopal, Arjun Singh as the designated scapegoat. The hapless Singh, who had been put out to pasture during the Congress’ second innings, is not even being allowed to enjoy his senility in peace. Meanwhile the BJP, who believes that its primary function as the chief opposition party is to oppose everything, has got on its moral high horse, conveniently oblivious of the fact that they, too, suffered a collective amnesia about the Bhopal victims during the 5 years they were in power.
The India media, suffused with self righteous indignation, is completely missing the point. Instead of concentrating on Anderson – the Times Now television news channel, in an unpardonable invasion of privacy, went to the extent of barging in, uninvited, to the Anderson residence – and the embarrassment of the Congress, they should be asking the pertinent questions, not to mention indulging in self introspection.
The only reason anyone is even talking about Bhopal now is because of the shockingly delayed court verdict – 25 years after the accident – that imposed a laughably inadequate two-year prison sentence and a paltry fine of $2000 on seven former Union Carbide employees, including Anderson. The same fire-breathing media was oblivious to the suffering of the gas victims in the 25 intervening years. Now that they have woken up from their Methuselahan slumber, these are the questions they should be asking.
One: Why did the government of that time accept a paltry $450 million as a final settlement from Union Carbide, when the initial demand was for $3.5 billion? Remember the then Prime Minister was no less than the hallowed Rajiv Gandhi who, according to the Congress, walked on water. Even more pertinent, how much of that $450 million has actually reached the intended parties? Knowing the predilection of our politicians and bureaucrats to siphon the cream off any large disbursement, the answer to that should come as no surprise. Still, aren’t they even more culpable and accountable than those who let Anderson off the hook? Why isn’t the media probing this aspect?
Two: isn’t it convenient that the then Chief Justice of India, who let the Union Carbide top executives get away with a mere slap on the wrist, subsequently got a cushy position as the head of the Bhopal Memorial Trust Hospital set up by – surprise, surprise – Union Carbide? Or that Arjun Singh allegedly received two crore rupees from Union Carbide for one of his Trusts? Those familiar with how these “trusts” work can make a fairly good guess in whose pockets most of these funds ended up. If this does not smack of quid pro quo, I don’t know what does.
Yes, these are the questions the media should be asking – but don’t hold your breath. Right now they are content to play up the myth of Arjun Singh and Warren Anderson as the chief villains, because the government has its exit strategy in place and, therefore, winks at media “outrage”. Never forget that our media barons have a cosy relationship with the powers that be; the benefactors who keep the profits rolling in the form of advertising revenue. They may rock the boat slightly, but will make sure that it does not overturn. And as for the thousands who are still enduring the after effects of that terrible day 25 years ago, well, who really cares?