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Sunday, June 13, 2010

To Bhopal In Smaller Cars And Wider Roads

Posted by: danish Ahmed 12:58 AM

Sick and tired of the necrofest going on in the wake of the verdict given out by the court against those found responsible for the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Media and the civil society have blamed the corporation, politicians,judiciary,police,administrative officials (in that order) for the worst industrial disaster ever. But the culpability must be shared more broadly across the spectrum and include the media,intelligentsia and the entire Indian middle class. The gas leak and its aftermath, up to until this day,is a comprehensive system failure.

The Congress has been defensive and guarded in its statements,the then CM Arjun Singh has virtually gone underground but Digvijay Singh,a minister of the then state government has shared some interesting insight. According to him,the Union Carbide installation was originally based much outside the city but in later years slums began to crop up as illegal tenants poured in. I must confess that I am presenting Digvijay Singh's statement slightly out of context but his statements do reflect the attitude that tragedies like the Bhopal gas leak occur and are likely to repeat in the future.

The real tragedy is not only the gas leak on the fateful night but also the fact that rehabilitation and decontamination of the effected area was never undertaken properly all these years. This ordeal has been going on since 25 years, successive governments have largely done very little for the victims. I must say that there have been individuals and organizations (mostly NGOs) working tirelessly to rehabilitate the victims and have been relentlessly crusading for justice but the media and the civil society had all but forgotten it.

It is but a coincidence that the Bhopal verdict came out at a time when the media was not pre-occupied with something else, such as a star couple wedding or an American (or any other national) of Indian origin achieving something spectacular or some similar news event. Perhaps, the fact that the then government helped  the American national accused in this tragedy flee India must have given the media the perfect opportunity go on the overdrive. This 25 year old episode was certain to generate a wave of self-righteous rage among the  resurgent Indian middle class. The the Chairman of Union Carbide is twice guilty- death of thousands of people and secondly, for accidentally exposing to the world a face of India that dents our claim of emerging as a major world power, an inconvenient truth which even we don't take cognizance of. Vendetta was due. True enough, the focus now is on meting out punishment to  Anderson rather than on rehabilitating the victims or waking up to reality. 

What happened in Bhopal may be happening now in other parts of the country but in a limited scale and over a much longer duration. Industrialization over the last few decades,entry of MNCs and rise of the consumer culture has seen the Indian middle class grow to more than 300 million but it has not been without costs. Unfortunately the major part of the cost is being paid by the hundreds of thousands of people across India who have missed the development bus and now live in abject poverty. The collapse of the agrarian economy has been a major factor in this immensely lop-sided development, scores of migrants who could not make it in urban areas found themselves
living in slums and shanties forming the underbellies of the host cities. 


Of course, one need not remind about the unrest in the tribal areas of India,land acquisitions,marginalization of the indigenous people in the development projects and anger over decades of apathy on the part of the establishment
but that would require another discussion, in the present context it should suffice to say that we have seen enough turmoil to know that there is some serious discontentment among the people there. Large scale displacement of indigenous tribes and villages  for various development projects,illegal mining and threat to the habitat has led to mushrooming of numerous anti-establishment organizations,many of which are likely to be in alliance with the Maoist militants posing a serious security threat to the Indian state

Authorities have always argued that these development projects are necessary for national development which in the long run would benefit the very people who are now opposing them. There is much truth in this argument but not without irony. It may help them in the long run but the long run may span generations, in the immediate aftermath they find themselves living in worse conditions. Further, development is always welcome but corruption and looting are not. Private companies world over have shown little regard for ecology. (BP oil spill is a stark reminder). In India it has already been apparent that most corporations operating in mineral rich areas have been steadily destroying the ecology and thus posing an existential threat to the indigenous population.  


Then of course there are, the marginalized communities of different hues and the dalits, the people oppressed historically for having been born to a certain community. Lately,affirmative action by various governments have been successful in helping them develop but there are still groups who have not been able to get rid of the thousands year old yoke. Typically,these are the poorest section of the population who already do not have access to shelter,food and water or even the basic dignity that every human is born with. It is not at all surprising to find some of these people living in wastelands, right next to hazardous industrial wastes. Living in conditions detrimental to their health, leading to health complications, disabilities and even death in the long term. Living in conditions that would be considered unthinkable in a English news channel talk show but in the absence of large scale deaths,destruction, in absence of a sensationalizing  factor, discussing the issue on prime time would be equally unthinkable 


Do we, the civil society,groups now livid over the judgment passed in Bhopal gas tragedy case and over the overt support extended to the American corporation by successive governments show similar sentiment when we come across people who continue to live in conditions that pose extreme health hazard ? Let us face it, it is we who stand to gain most ( after the corporations of course) from these development projects, so it is natural for us to be more restrained. Demolishing shanties to create wider roads without any rehabilitation,knowing fully that they have no where else to go doesn't bother us.  Evicting peasants from their lands to set up automobile factory for production of smaller and cheaper cars seems perfectly reasonable to us. MNCs contaminating drinking water, depleting water tables, India becoming world's junkyard for toxic waste is fine with us,these help our national economy grow and meet the needs of India's gargantuan middle-class. In the process some people would have to face inconveniences, even existential ones but that's unavoidable.       

Now that the development juggernaut is rolling, anyone who is not on it must get trampled under its giant wheels. 

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