Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bhopal's night of terror

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 29, 2009


Twenty-five years after the Bhopal Gas Disaster, justice still eludes the victims…

There are many smaller Bhopals that have occurred since 1984 and keep on taking place, often unreported.

Ongoing struggle: Victims of the world's worst industrial disaster still haven't got their due. Photo: S. Subramanium

This past week has been one where one anniversary has dominated the news — that of the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The date is like a permanent scar on the memory of not only Mumbai but also on the collective memory of the rest of India that watched the 60-hour siege and battle as it unfolded on television.

But in the coming week there is another anniversary that unfortunately will not draw the same kind of media attention. Twenty-five years ago, on a winter night of December 2/3 1984, deadly poisonous gas leaked out from the tanks of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal and killed over 3,000 people. The factory was located in a densely populated area. As the sirens went off in its premises, indicating an emergency, the mostly poor people living around it rushed out to witness a dense cloud of smoke emerging from the factory. In no time, the cloud had spread to the areas close by and beyond. As terrified men, women, children ran in panic, not knowing what this was or where they should run, they inhaled vast quantities of the poisons contained in that cloud. The immediate sensations were burning eyes, breathing difficulties and vomiting. Those who found a quick way to move out of the area survived; the others, including children and the elderly, died on the spot.


As morning broke, the poison had a name. It was methyl isocyanate (MIC), used by Union Carbide to produce a fertilizer. A runaway reaction inside a tank containing 42 tonnes of this deadly chemical resulted in it spewing out of the tank. Local hospitals, inundated with thousands of panicked residents, had no knowledge of what to administer and the company provided no information or antidote. Indeed, for years it argued that MIC would not lead to any long-term effects. The story of Bhopal has conclusively proved this wrong. An estimated 20,000 people have died from complications resulting from inhaling MIC and other chemicals released into the air that night.

On any count, this is one of the worst stories of callousness. The Bhopal Gas Disaster is still known as the world's worst industrial accident. The accident itself, what followed immediately afterwards, the manner in which the case against Union Carbide was hastily settled by the Indian government for an unconscionably low amount of just $470 million, the desperate struggle of survivors for payment of that settlement and for medical treatment, the callous and cavalier manner in which the rotting plant continued to stand as a reminder of that night of horror, the fact that it successfully poisoned all the water sources in its surroundings, thereby punishing the victims yet again — the list of crimes and misdemeanors is long and will leave you breathless. Yet, the indifference continues even today. The pleas, demonstrations, petitions of thousands of women, men and children make little difference.

Twenty-five years is a long time. At the time of the accident, the government accepted that the affected population could be over 500,000. It was also known then, that a large proportion of these would be young. Thousands of pregnant women were amongst those affected. Inevitably, the symptoms would appear over time and would need to be treated. If people were unable to work as a result, they would need to be rehabilitated.

The government at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh can claim that it has done all this. But the reality on the ground is that the survivors have had to struggle every inch of the way to get their entitlements — compensation, healthcare, work and a clean environment. To compound the tragedy, the rotting plant remained where it was with no one prepared to accept responsibility for the poisons that still continued to leach out from its soil. Over time, these poisons made their way into the wells and water supply in the surrounding area, adding to the burden of illness that the unfortunate people living around the plant have had to live with.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

26/11 and all that anger

The little girl selling candles outside the Taj Mahal hotel was having the best time on November 26. No one quibbled when she asked for Rs. 10 for each candle. All kinds of Mumbaikars bought candles from her and others like her, and lit them ritualistically outside the hotel. Every now and then they would pause as they noticed one of hundreds of photographers positioning themselves to take the definitive picture of Mumbai in mourning a year after the terror attack.

While several thousands of Mumbai’s residents thronged the area in front of the Taj, a virtual wall made up of vehicles with generators separated them from another ceremony on the other side of the plaza around the Gateway of India. This was the VIP mourning session. The aam admi was kept out and Mumbai’s police were tasked with the job of ensuring that this distance between the important and the unimportant remain intact.

The November 26 anniversary in Mumbai was a spectacle in more ways that one. The candle lighting was predictable. Since the Jessica Lal murder case and Rang de Basanti, this form of remembrance, magnified by the electronic media, has now become a virtual norm. But the anniversary went beyond that.

The city seemed to be under siege again, or at least its southern part, as streams of important people went from one location to another paying homage to the dead while the police waved their hands and blew whistles to keep the roads clear for them. Earlier in the morning the flag march by the Mumbai police, when a part of the busy Marine Drive was blocked off at peak traffic time, failed to either awe or to reassure Mumbai’s harried citizens.

Omnipresent at every location was the OB van and dozens of journalists and cameramen. The media circus was on full display and was as much an object of interest as the events. Assorted groups with their own agendas used the presence of the media to put forward their messages. So a group from the BJP shouted slogans like “Phansi do, phansi do” demanding that the lone surviving terrorist Ajmal Kasab be hanged. The Hare Rama Hare Krishna brigade sang bhajans and danced around. An old poster, created after the 1992-93 communal riots by a garment manufacturer in Dharavi, the late Waqar Younis, showing four young boys depicting four different religions under the slogan “Ham Sab Ek Hain” was held up by a woman accompanied by a young man with a cutout of India and a national flag. Within minutes a crowd had gathered around them. And so on. It was a mela of personal messages and agendas. And somewhere in the background was the memory that a year ago the structure before which all this was happening had been under siege in one of the most spectacular terror attacks seen in India.

The odd slogans apart, what one did not sense was any anger. Disappointment, yes. But not anger. Not of the kind expressed a year back. So what had happened? Had people changed? Or had the anger drummed up at that time subsided because it had not been channeled into anything constructive? Of course, if you believed what you heard on television, Mumbaikars apparently were angry. Some of the talking heads on TV—the famous and the glamorous – declared repeatedly that they were angry and fed-up with the government and the political class.

Strikingly, those who said they were not angry were people who were still grieving a personal loss. People like Ragini Sharma, the wife of a ticket collector who was shot down at CST station. Or journalist Sabina Sehgal Saikia’s brother, who suggested that people needed to move on beyond anger.

Unfortunately, Mumbaikars have not moved on beyond anger or disappointment to any kind of engagement or effort to change the system. Venting is the easiest form of expression and the electronic media, in particular, now gives the famous and the ordinary a chance to do just that. But what is achieved at the end of all that except an accumulation of hot air?

In the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, one person did attempt to engage with the system. Banker Meera Sanyal stood for elections as an independent candidate in the sincere belief that the anger expressed following November 26 would translate into votes for someone like her. Nothing of the kind happened. Her supporters deluded themselves up to the last minute. Ms Sanyal lost her deposit. Ms Sanyal has to be saluted for at least taking this step but have those who convinced themselves that she would win because she echoed the sentiments of people upset about the events of last November understood why she lost?

The elite and the middle class in a city like Mumbai are convinced that if they speak, the rulers must listen. So if they shout and say they are angry, those in power should shake in trepidation and immediately set about making changes. If they ask questions like “Why didn’t the NSG use tear gas in the Taj while tackling the terrorists?” they must be given a studied response even though the question arises from complete ignorance about how such situations are handled.

In between such questions being raised on prime time television, there is little or no engagement with the realities of the city. Some are engaged – and they are always the people who speak some sense. But their numbers are few, not enough to make a dent in the city’s development plans, to break the growing and obvious nexus between builders and politicians, to impact the course of decision-making on issues vital to people’s daily existence. The few exceptions are where people have decided not to sit back and protest but to organise and resist. Thus the residents of Gorai in northwest Mumbai, for instance, successfully prevented land acquisition for an SEZ that would have destroyed the lives and livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk and farmers. But apart from a handful of such examples of successful interventions in changing policy, Mumbaikars continue to demonstrate amazing indifference to their surroundings and only wake up periodically when disasters hit them – a flood, a bomb blast or a terror attack.

The problem with the hype around anniversaries like November 26 is that it is only hype. When anger does not lead to constructive engagement, not only does it dissipate but it also serves no purpose. If there is anything we should learn a year after November 26, it is this, a truth that has been self-evident for decades in this city.

(Also read my column on The Hoot on the media and 26/11 --

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Message for Copenhagen

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 15, 2009


The environment ultimately is about people and this must drive the negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark next month.

It is the most vulnerable, the poorest, who will be hit the hardest if the earth continues to grow warmer.

Photo: Debatosh Sengupta

Local solutions: Lessons from the women of Ladakh...

Prime Ministers, Presidents, Environment Ministers, scientists, journalists and bureaucrats the world over are counting the days to December 7, when they will gather in impressive numbers at Copenhagen, Denmark for the United Nations Climate Change Conference to discuss what can and should be done about global warming. They will quibble over how to fix responsibility, they will fight over words in long documents, they will challenge evidence presented as proof of the crisis, and they will negotiate percentages and deadlines for curbing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Regardless of how the responsibility for the current mess is apportioned, one factor that everyone agrees on is that it is the most vulnerable, the poorest, those who depend on the environment, who will be hit the hardest if the earth continues to grow warmer. Yet, the most vulnerable are also, often, the most sensitive and the most sensible when it comes to making environmental choices.

Fragile ecology

To understand this, travel up to the rooftop of India, the high Himalayas where in a veritable desert sits Ladakh, a land of history and spectacular geography. Here you see no trees but the presence of those silent snow-capped peaks more than makes up for this. Here streams are so clear you can see every pebble over which their waters flow. Here men and women are strong and sturdy as they battle the harsh climatic conditions every day. Yet the extremes in climate have not affected the Ladakhi approach towards life and people. Hill people are generally known to be friendly. But Ladakhis must qualify as some of the friendliest and kindest people I have ever encountered.

Especially impressive are the women of Ladakh. Kundes Dolma is the Vice President of the Women's Alliance, an organisation set up more than two decades back by a remarkable Norwegian woman who made Ladakh her home, Helena Norberg-Hodge. Ms. Dolma, her weathered face wearing a perpetual smile, recounts the work of her organisation. She tells us how they have managed to stop the use of polythene bags in Leh for the past 10 years. “We saw the problems polythene bags caused for our cattle, which swallowed them and also how they blocked the natural streams that flowed into Leh,” she says. So the women campaigned for an end to plastic bags and today no shopkeeper in the town will sell you goods in a plastic bag.

With the growing number of tourists visiting the town, this is not easy to sustain. But the women continue to campaign and monitor. But what do they do about the impact on resources, such as water, in the face of growing tourism? A decade ago, people in Leh had enough water from the snow-fed streams. Today there are only a few of such streams and the quantity of water in them is notably less. “I worry about the coming generation because of the water scarcity”, says Ms. Dolma.

Some scientists hold that what Leh experiences today is the consequences of decades of accumulation of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. This has resulted in a rise in temperature affecting the glaciers in high mountain ranges like the Himalayas. The evidence of this is still being gathered. Glaciers are notoriously inaccessible and tests and surveys have to be conducted over a span of time to convincingly establish that there is a change in the amount of ice accumulating in them each year. It may take many more years before such scientific proof is available.

But the observations of women like Kundes Dolma suggest that some significant changes have begun to take place and that these cannot be ignored.

Women also tell us that part of the problem is the manner in which Leh is developing. Instead of traditional forms of building that consisted of using mud and rocks, materials that are locally available and suitable for the dry climate of Leh, people are now using cement and concrete to build hotels and guesthouses. Instead of the traditional dry toilets, where no water is used and that produce a mountain of manure for the fields after a few months, people are now using flush toilets that use up precious water. Instead of depending on water from the mountain streams and shallow wells, hoteliers are now sinking tube wells that draw out water from deep in the ground.

Familiar yet strange

The result is water shortage, and no recharge of natural underground aquifers. With less snow in the winter, the quantity of water in the streams has decreased. You now see boys pushing carts full of canisters of water on the streets of Leh, a sight that was unfamiliar in previous years.

In a harsh climate, you need fuel to keep warm. In Leh, people can get gas, although at a higher price. But in the scattered settlements, perched on the steep mountains — where access to a road means walking for three or four days — the only source of fuel is what can be foraged in terms of fuel wood. Dry shrubs and bushes provide a tenuous source of fuel for heating and cooking. It is this dependence on nature for something as basic as fuel that joins the women of Ladakh with millions of women in the rest of India.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Making war over love

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 1, 2009
Propaganda wars, such as the recent rumour about the “Love Jehad”, undermine women’s right to choose as citizens of a democracy.

In the war of competing ideologies, women are often caught in the middle.

Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

In a free country? Protesting the attack on women by Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore.
In a recent television discussion on the challenge posed by the spread of Naxalism in India, several participants spoke glowingly about the strength of Indian democracy and how all Indians should celebrate the freedom and tolerance that exists in thi s country. If you constantly compare yourself to countries that work under different systems of government, then perhaps you can persuade yourself to believe that this is indeed a country that allows all its citizens free choice.
The reality, as we know, is very different. There is little of free choice for the small and marginal farmers whose land is forcibly acquired for industries, special economic zones, large dams or other infrastructure. There is no free choice for Adivasis demanding their rights when the land they have nurtured and depend on is upturned for the mineral wealth that lies beneath it. And there is no such thing as free choice for the majority of Indian women whose life choices are pre-determined by patriarchy, community, caste, religion or social class. If any of them dare to break out and actually make a free choice, they risk at worst death and at best being outcast.
Strange rumours
It is against this background that we have the strange case of stories circulating first in Kerala and then in Dakshina Kannada (South Karnataka) about a so-called “Love Jehad” where Hindu girls were allegedly being lured by Muslim youth and forced to convert to Islam. The rumour mill began with a report in a Kerala newspaper and was soon picked up by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (which claims to be “uniting Hindus globally”) and dozens of other similar sectarian groups in Dakshina Kannada. Through the Internet, public demonstrations and statements, they claimed that thousands of Hindu girls were being lured and converted to Islam in Kerala and Karnataka and that the State must intervene.
The courts were also brought into the act, first the Kerala High Court that ordered an inquiry followed by the Karnataka High Court. The Director General of Police, Kerala has already reported to the Kerala High Court that there is no such group or organisation called “Love Jehad” or “Romeo Jehad” (another name doing the rounds). But the reports are being investigated. The Karnataka High Court has also instituted an inquiry and holds that the issue has “national ramifications concerning security, besides the question of unlawful trafficking of women.”
Proved baseless
Like the Kerala police, the Dakshina Kannada police has also clarified that the rumour is baseless in the face of facts. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) claims that 3,000 Hindu girls are “missing” in Dakshina Kannada and 30,000 in the rest of the state. The police have clarified that till the end of September 2009, there were reports of 404 missing girls of whom the police had traced 332. By end October, only 57 women were still missing. Furthermore, the police have clarified that where women were missing because they had eloped, there were many cases of non-Hindus as well as Hindus eloping with Hindus.
The Dakshina Kannada police also explained that in one particular case, that of a 22-year-old girl who had been missing since June and who was rumoured to have fallen victim to this so-called “Love Jehad”, in fact, she had been murdered by a Hindu man, a serial killer who confessed to his crime.
If the Kerala police and the Dakshina Kannada police are right, it is evident that this “Love Jehad” rumour is a figment of the same imagination that concluded that women drinking at pubs in Mangalore were a threat to “Indian” culture. Yes, the same Pramod Mutalik of the Sri Ram Sene and the Mangalore pub attack fame has now re-emerged to fight against “terrorism and love Jehad”.
The story does not end with the so-called Love Jehad. In Kerala, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mouthpiece, Janmabhumi, sacked a woman journalist who got married to a Christian and converted. They claimed they could not employ a convert because they were against conversions.
One could laugh off this as the desperate and ridiculous attempts of the Hindu Right to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment in any way they can. But we cannot and should not take it lightly. Every Indian citizen is guaranteed freedom of choice under the Constitution.
(To read the rest of the article, click on the link below)