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Victims twice over

By Dilip D'Souza

Contaminated water is just one of the problems that the gas victims of Bhopal have to face. There's also the continued apathy about their compensation, the continuing struggle for medical treatment, and the reluctance of Dow Chemical (Carbide's new owners) to clean up around the old plant

 On January 22, 2001, the Hindustan Times in Bhopal carried a news item headlined: ‘Gas victims brave dry taps in filthy colony’. The colony HT referred to was set up for victims of Bhopal's 1984 gas tragedy. The item says the "water supplied to houses (in this colony) could contain human excreta as the drainage lines intersect water supply lines at many points, thus contaminating the drinking water."

This spectre of contaminated drinking water was corroborated in Bhopal's Central Chronicle of April 21, 2001. There, you can read that the "Engineer-in-Charge, Public Health Engineering Department (PHED), H N Vajpayee, said that it was totally wrong to presume that the groundwater (where gas victims live) is safe for drinking."

Then on November 27, 2001, the Central Chronicle had a news item headlined ’Gas victims drinking highly contaminated water’. An excerpt from that news story:

"Thousands of gas victims residing around the now-closed Union Carbide's Bhopal pesticide plant ... were forced to drink highly contaminated water ... Apart from benzene, there were several other chemicals which were present in the closed plant and their seepage is leading to water pollution. In some of the handpumps, water is giving (a) foul smell. ... (A) report of (the) National Institute of Toxicology said that they have detected a large number of hazardous chemicals in the samples of water and soil collected from the residential areas around the factory. These (include) aromatic hydrocarbons, benzine oxide, dichlorobenzine, napthaline..."

These are three random bits of news, out of literally reams of Bhopal gas disaster news over two decades. I chose these for two reasons:  

   * They are all from one year, which I also picked at random.    

   * They all refer to the same problem: contaminated water.

More than 16 years after the disaster happened, its victims were forced to use contaminated water. Not just because colonies to house these victims were built so carelessly as to have their water supply ‘intersect’ drains carrying excreta. That's bad enough. But over the years, chemicals stored in the defunct Carbide plant have also seeped into the groundwater.

If all that seems hard to swallow -- like the water itself -- consider this. Contaminated water is actually just one problem -- some would even say a minor problem -- that gas victims have to face. There's also the continued apathy about their compensation, even if a recent Supreme Court judgment holds out hope there. There's the continuing struggle for medical treatment; yes, even 20 years later there are gas victims being treated -- thousands every single day. There's the hostility from fellow citizens who don't want to hear about the gas leak any more. There's the reluctance of Dow Chemical (Carbide's new owners) to clean up around the old plant. There's more. You see all this happening, and it might strike you that one kind of person you don't want to be in India is a victim of a major industrial disaster. Because not only do you suffer the effects of the disaster, nobody gives a damn about your rights afterwards either. The official machinery that's put in place to help you will, in fact, make life more difficult for you. You end up being a victim twice over. Maybe more.

And in this piece, I want to use just this one travesty -- water that is contaminated -- to demonstrate this truth about victims' rights.

Of course, there are human rights documents that spell out what should happen with victims of a disaster, as in Bhopal. Take just one example, the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal Charter on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights. This carefully thought out document was drafted in the wake of the Bhopal calamity. Here are two excerpts from its introduction:

"(The Charter's) substance, and hence its authority, derive directly from the collective experience of those who have been forced to live with the consequences of industrial hazards.

”It is a set of demands from below, to be seized by individuals and groups acting in the context of particular struggles. The way in which it is interpreted and used will necessarily vary from one situation to the next, but it nevertheless articulates a universal vision of a world in which people are able to lead their lives without industrial hazards."

In other words, this Charter is a fair representation, an encoding if you will, of the needs and desires of victims of industrial disasters. It is a document that, if adhered to, will greatly reduce both the risks of living near hazardous plants and the fallout of a catastrophe like Bhopal saw.

If adhered to.

In any case, the Charter has these lines that you might apply to the situation that the three news items above speak of:

"All persons affected by hazards have the right to effective and innovative policies to reduce, abate or compensate for hazardous activities. To achieve the realisation of this right, the steps taken by states and businesses shall include (among others) pollution abatements or cessation."

Now contaminated drinking water supplied to gas leak victims 17 years later hardly qualifies as ‘pollution abatements or cessation’. But neither the state nor the firm concerned (Union Carbide, and now Dow Chemical) has taken any serious ‘steps’ to achieve that ‘abatement or cessation’.

In fact, they have disputed the very existence of pollution. In 2002 the head of Dow in India, Ravi Muthukrishnan, wrote to me saying "there are differing views on the science surrounding the extent and source of any contamination." He mentioned studies by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institude (1997) and the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (1998). According to him, these concluded that the contamination in the water could not be linked to the "chemicals formerly used" at the Carbide plant, or to "past disposal activities" there.

Yet these two studies -- or at least Muthukrishnan's mention of them -- do not address what even the sleepy security guards at the rusting plant warn passers-by about, even today. The chemicals stored at the plant, they tell you openly, have seeped into the ground and are a health hazard. "The soil itself is now poisonous," one guard said as he refused to let me enter. (What about you, I asked him, what do you feel about doing duty standing on this soil? "I don't even touch it," he said).

Dow can speak of ‘differing views on the science’. But everyone around the plant knows: their water is contaminated.

In JP Nagar, across the road from the Carbide plant and thus the closest residential area to it, I visited wells that nobody is willing to use. One had a municipal board warning that the water was unfit for human consumption. Another was in the home of a man called Govandi Lal. The irony was not lost on him: he has a well at home, but he must use a municipal tap for water.

Victim groups have been and might have remained stuck in this twilight zone of "the plant has contaminated the water" versus "no, it hasn't." Luckily, the US justice system has taken a different view. Earlier this year, Judge John Keenan of a District Court in New York asked the Government of India to submit a letter saying it had no objection to Dow cleaning up the pollution around the abandoned plant.

Hidden somewhere in there is yet another twist in this sorry tale. Among the papers Carbide was forced to disclose to this Court in 2002 is a report of an internal study Carbide conducted on the contamination issue. It's called ‘Presence of Toxic Ingredients in Soil/Water Samples Inside Plant Premises’, and here are some lines from it:

"The seriousness of the issue needs no elaboration. Samples drawn in June-July '89 ... inside the plant were sent to R and D. ... The solid samples had organic contamination varying from 10% to 100% and contained known ingredients like napthol and naphthalene in substantial quantities. Majority of the liquid samples contained napthol and/or Sevin in quantities far more than permitted by ISI for onland disposal. All samples caused 100% mortality to fish in toxicity assessment studies and were to be diluted several fold to render them suitable for survival of fish."

Carbide has known about the contamination for 15 years, but has chosen silence and denial.

After sustained pressure from citizens around the world, including a hunger strike by three activists, and after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally intervened, the government did submit the necessary letter to Judge Keenan in June 2004.

You might wonder why it takes so much for a government to hand over a mere letter that assumes no obligations anyway. Let that pass as just more evidence of official apathy towards victims. Instead, this episode means that we might finally see some move, even if 20 years on, towards that Charter's "pollution abatement and cessation."

Yet that figure -- 20 years -- is itself a final sign of the struggle victims must wage for their ordinary rights.

(Trained as a computer scientist, Dilip D'Souza has written two books and has won several awards for his writing.)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004