Tuesday, June 8, 2010

India - The day a nation died

It's been 26 years of hell for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, and the blame sits squarely in one place.

To some people 1984 was the year WA abolished capital punishment, Medicare began, and Lionel Ritchie sang All Night Long to close the Olympics, or all of those things and more.

For those in the Indian city of Bhopal, it ended as the year of living dangerously.
On December 3, a gas leak at the Union Carbide plant claimed the lives of thousands, and altered the lives of many, many more.

On Monday, apparently they received "justice". Rarely has the word been more misused. But the Bhopal story is as much a story about the long-stuttering progress of the nation it sits in.

Little more than a month earlier, the strong arm Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. It was an event met with shock or joy, the dividing line, as always, being communal.

But Bhopal was an exception. Apart from the grief, it was met with almost-universal condemnation of Union Carbide, the US-based mutlinational and majority owner of the plant an obvious villian.

Yet how times have changed. And it's all thanks to the Indian government.

It's role since that fateful day has been nothing short of shameful. Allowing Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson to slip out of the country, and then deciding not to pursue his extradition from the US after the company claimed it wasn't under Indian jurisdiction.

Then accepting a woefully-inadequate US$470 million settlement - with Union Carbide to this day denying any responsibility - before the decade was out. The peanuts most victims' families and survivors got was in inverse proportion to the hoops they had to jump through to get it.

And to top it off, further delays in prosecuting anyone.

When charges were laid, it was for the much less serious offence of negligence rather than culpable homicide.

The eventual sentencing of eight people - described as senior management and middle-ranking plant supervisors, the latter which for anyone familiar with Indian factories basically means "poorly-paid fall guys" - to two years jail seems not only manifestly inadequate, but laughable.

As someone with Indian ancestry, I have watched with curiosity from afar in the past 30 years as the country struggles out of its slumber to take part in the world.
At first, it was with hope. But that quickly, after Bhopal, turned to despair. Even if that despair is not matched by the public image. December 3, 1984, was the day more than a city in India died.

Seemingly every day, we hear of India being the next economic superpower (something that's actually been touted for more than 20 years), and its potential value to the rest of the world, including Australia.

To back up this theory, all sorts of impressive statistics, usually demographic, are produced.

And that the country is "open for business", which in India means "we have lots of poor people who you can use to do whatever you want with so please come here and take advantage of them. Pleeeease".

I attended a talk in Perth recently by the Indian Education Minister, Kapil Sibal, in which he went on and on about "human capital", yet paid lip service to the problems local Indian students were having with their education providers, and the Indian-based agents ripping them off.

To an Australian, to hear a politician deride his audience as publicly as Sibal did would truly be an eye-opener. To the audience, it was par for the course.
With Indian politicians, money talks. People walk. As long as the statistics look good, they must be doing all right, eh?

Surely every right-minded Australian would question the government of a country which values its own citizens so poorly, while angrily denouncing deaths of those abroad.

The US State Department said yesterday that it hoped the Bhopal court case would bring "closure" to the victims and would not inhibit relations - "economic, cultural and political" - between the two countries.

Fat chance of the former. The Indian government has bent over backwards to its eternal shame to ensure the latter. After all, the main prize it has its eye on is US nuclear technology.

The rest of the world will pay little heed to the victims of Bhopal either.
One wonders, if such a tragedy happened now, and in the unlikely event of some Indian politicians developing the guts to pursue a multinational, how different the result would be.

Meanwhile, the Bhopal tragedy continues. Today, 390 tonnes of toxic chemicals stored at the site continue to pollute the area.

In India, life is cheap. But in Bhopal, it has been given away.

For shame.

By Chalpat Sonti - Sydney Morning Herald

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