Bhopal 25 Years On
An important new book for the environmental justice movement has just been produced by independent Edinburgh publisher Word Power Books.
‘Saving the World: Twenty Five Years of the Bhopal Survivors’ Movement’ edited by Eurig Scandrett is a powerful testimony of survivors left unbowed by vicious corporate crime. The book was launched in Bhopal during 25th anniversary commemorative activities and will be launched in Scotland on 28th January .
Scandrett spent 15 years working in adult education and community development but was also until recently Head of Community Action at Friends of the Earth Scotland. This book, this movement, has important lessons for us in Scotland looking for a world not dominated by the equivalent of Dow and Union Carbide.
As writer James Kelman has commented: “On one hand the repugnant complicity of political authority and capital: on the other the indomitable courage of the survivors and survivor-activists, mainly women. This important work offers insight into the history of the struggle as well as campaign strategies; when to negotiate , whether to stand alone or ‘allow’ outside support: broad issues but always fundamental. Their complex struggle for justice may have developed into a movement but the horrific effects of the contamination continue.”
Eurig has just returned from India where he has been meeting with survivors and campaigners, participating in various 25th anniversary protests and launching the book in Bhopal and Delhi. He says: “It’s worth remembering that I’m not the author but the editor and the principal investigator of the Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study. The ‘author’ is the Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study – which recognises the contribution from all participants including those who wish to remain anonymous.”
He writes here for Bella:
“Twenty five years ago, a pesticide factory in the central Indian city of Bhopal leaked toxic gas into the densely populated neighbourhoods. The number of people who died from inhaling Methyl Isocyanate gas on 3rd December 1984 is estimated to be 8,000, with tens of thousands more suffering serious injuries. The Bhopal gas disaster of 1984 remains the world’s most devastating industrial environmental catastrophe and corporate crime. The company which owned the factory, Union Carbide, had been running down the factory, cutting every health and safety corner, cutting maintenance staff, reducing training, switching off protective equipment, neglecting safety practices and dismantling emergency devices. There had been several incidents already at the factory, including one fatality. Even after the disaster the company refused to provide any information on the composition and toxicology of the gas on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
Despite this litany of dereliction, the company and its executives have yet to be made accountable and the survivors’ compensation and rehabilitation remain inadequate. The disaster continues, moreover, through the water contaminated by organochlorines from the factory site, which sits rusting and overgrown, and in the lives of the severely disabled children born to gas affected women.
The survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster have not remained passive victims. Over 25 years a remarkable social movement has been sustained, demanding basic rights from governments, tenaciously campaigning for justice from perpetrators and audaciously taking on multinational corporations and their logic of globalisation. Over the past three years, the Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study has been documenting the remembered experiences of the survivors and supporters who have been active in the various campaigning groups and has just published Bhopal Survivors Speak: Emergent Voices from a People’s Movement.
Many survivors are not literate and very few have any knowledge of English, so Bhopal Survivors Speak is an opportunity for movement activists to tell their story to a wider international audience. The Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study used an interview method designed to maximise the participation of the survivors in the production and analysis of the material, irrespective of level of literacy or education. Most of our interviews were video recorded and the video interrogated by researchers and survivors together at a follow-up interview. This video-interview-dialogue process formed the core of the data collection and has amassed over 50 hours of interviews, anonymous transcripts of which will eventually be in a public archive in Hindi and English. Through this process, academic research is made accountable to, and hopefully relevant to, the movement’s campaign for justice.
The interviews tell a remarkable story of a struggle against development that denies humanity, over a period in which Indian economic policy has seen radical changes in the opposite direction. Bhopal in the 1960s and 70s was a rapidly growing city driven by post-independence government policies of technology-led industrial development. The Union Carbide factory in Bhopal was a product of the ‘Green Revolution’ which introduced to India high yield crops and the agricultural chemicals on which they were dependent. This gave multinational corporations a foothold into the Indian economy in the early days of the global neoliberal experiment which dominated economic policy for three decades. India embraced neoliberalism in the 1990s and tries to seduce multinational capital, which Dow Chemicals has exploited by acquiring the assets of Union Carbide. The Bhopal survivors’ movement has been struggling against this tide of unaccountable inward investment.
The people’s movement emerged in the days following the gas leak. Immediately after the disaster there was a spontaneous outbreak of angry, unfocused protest from survivors amongst the frantic hunting for lost loved ones and panic about the sick. Within days, people arrived from all over India to give what support they could. Action in these early days was driven by necessity and focused on community organisation to deliver basic needs of food, water, shelter and comfort. Once the initial influx of outsiders went away, a few intellectuals and activists with long-term commitments, remained behind to carry on with the work. They reflected a range of ideological and political affiliations: liberals religious, Gandhian, socialist, Communist and ultra-left. Most organised into the Zehreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha (Poisonous Gas Incident Struggle Front).
The leader of the Morcha, Alok Pratap Singh, writes in Bhopal Survivors Speak “All of us already had experience working with various forms of mass movements before the gas disaster and had used the locality committee structure, where key people were identified and given responsibilities at grassroots level. We were aware that these people are the real back-bone of any mass movement, and sometimes better than us or any Government official, to understand the complexity of the situation. We knew that this was going to be a long struggle and it was evident that it had to be done by the organised, conscious and disciplined local people.” The Zehreeli Morcha however broke up within a year of its formation as ideological differences erupted under the pressure of state repression, leaving behind disparate fractions of community-based and intellectual-led groups.
The second wave of the movement emerged when women in government rehabilitation schemes organised into trades unions to tackle low wages, poor terms and conditions, corrupt practices and premature workplace closures. Through the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS, Gas Affected Women Workers’ Union) and Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh (Gas Affected Women’s Stationery Employees’ Union), women with no history of industrial action or even work outside the home learned the disciplines of militant trades unionism.
Rabiya Bee, the first convenor of BGPMUS describes its formation: “When I started working I did not know what a Chief Minister was. I was poor, looking for a job. I was 28 years old at that time and I had 5 daughters. We did not know what a union could do or what it was. When [the boss] began exploiting us it would make me very angry but I somehow continued to work despite the exploitation because I had a small baby to feed. Soon I raised objections and they [tried to] isolate me. So I began talking to these women [in the fabric cutting unit] to motivate them to join me. The women slowly began to get my point and we spoke about this more regularly at break times.
“Then ideas to make this group stronger were proposed in order to build pressure. A proposal to stop the cutting for a day was presented in one of the conversations and it was accepted because that way the centre would come to a standstill and work to all 300 women would stop… When we stopped all work [the boss] shut the shed and there was a lock out at the centre for a week. Then the women from the sewing unit also joined us.”
With growing grassroots militancy, the Government of India negotiated a ‘no fault’ out of court settlement with Union Carbide for a derisory $470 million. Despite opposing the settlement, activists’ energies were diverted into the details of supporting survivors’ claims for compensation and dealing with the corrupt practices of government officials. Although the movement sustained itself, it was the exposing of water contamination from the factory site which rekindled its militancy and its international profile. Toxins had been leaching from the factory since before the gas leak and Sathyu Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA) had been uncovering information about continuing contamination. Stationery Workers’ leader Rasheeda Bee tells the story: “I met up with Sathyu and he told me about the contamination of the water. And after the reports in 1999 it was found for a fact that the water was indeed toxic. Greenpeace came in 2000 and it was after this that we in the Stationery Sangh joined hands with Sathyu. Then in 2004 the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal was formed.
“After hearing about the contaminated water, and from what I had learned over the years, I started to realize that this is about saving the world… What happened in Bhopal has already happened, but we need to join forces to stop it from happening again anywhere else in the world.”