Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

March 21, 2012

Out of tragedy

Some communities only discover their real strengths when confronted by tragedy or disaster.  The 25th anniversary of the world’s worst industrial disaster at Bhopal has just passed.  20,000 people died with 600,000 left with irreparable damage to their health – and the poisoning continues to this day.  (Hard to fathom why the company responsible has been endorsed as a corporate sponsor of the 2012 Olympics.) Despite everything, the people of Bhopal have a remarkable story of their own to tell.


Extract of an article written for Guardian by Indra Sinha, 2/3/12

For almost 30 years, some of the poorest people on earth, sick, living on the edge of starvation, without funds, friends or political influence, have found themselves struggling for their lives against one of the world’s richest corporations, backed by the governments, military and economic elites of two of the world’s most powerful nations.

The corporation has it all – wealth, power, political influence, top American and Indian lawyers, PR companies, the ear of presidents, prime ministers and legislators, the power to twist arms, bend policy to its will, and manipulate the courts and laws of two countries to evade justice in either.

The “nothing people”, literally, have nothing. Their efforts to obtain medical help and justice have been opposed and obstructed in every possible way. It’s David against an army of Goliaths.

The Bhopal survivors, thrown back on their own resources, made the pleasant discovery that the slums were full of talent. Out of this poorest of communities came a flowering of science, art and political intelligence. They taught themselves medicine, environmental science, law and politics. They learned the art of forensic investigation, and some of their detective work has the dramatic edge of a Le Carré thriller.

Neglected by every authority that had a duty of care, they have practised kindness and compassion, opened two free award-winning clinics, and brought healing to thousands.

Union Carbide, whose gases killed their families and whose abandoned chemicals contaminated their drinking water, has never been brought to justice. Carbide has now merged into Dow, but Dow disclaims responsibility for Carbide’s undischarged Bhopal liabilities – including criminal charges relating to 25,000 deaths.

What have we “activists” been doing? Trying to tell this story to the world, and to ask good-hearted people, who believe in justice and fair play, to help.

Last year saw the arrival among the ranks of Dow’s rich and powerful allies of the International Olympic Committee, and the London 2012 organisers Locog, headed by a British milord, the erstwhile Seb Coe. What on earth possessed Coe and Locog to drag a foreign corporation with a controversial history into Britain’s “greenest ever” games?

In vain it seems, India’s government, the Indian Olympics Association, Indian athletes, as well as Bhopal survivors, have protested at the inclusion of Dow, deeply mired in the Bhopal disaster.

When Locog uncritically repeats Dow’s PR statements, varying them by hardly a word, when those same statements are being challenged in court by the Indian government, they are in effect finding for Dow before the court has even sat.

The media in the UK and elsewhere could do a lot more to investigate the things that Dow says. In particular, here are the questions everyone should ask: who controls Union Carbide; why does Carbide not answer the criminal charges; whose chemicals are causing the current poisoning?

Finally, for the benefit of Dow and Coe, here is my own deepest understanding of what Bhopal is about, and the reason why I will never abandon the people of Bhopal.

A great catastrophe, followed by years of illness, poverty and injustice, can overwhelm and crush the human spirit, or can enable ordinary people to discover that they are extraordinary. Such people find that they have the grit to survive, the defiance to face their persecutors, and the courage to fight back. Out of shared struggle, even in the midst of terrible sickness, comes strength, the joy of friendship, the realisation that they are not weak, powerless or contemptible, but possessed of great power – the power to bring about political change, to do real good in their community and in the world.

No one knows how this story will end, but it won’t be over until we enter and become part of it.