Bhopal, Plachimada, Worth of an Ordinary Citizen and Development

I was watching a ‘reality show’ titled Citizen Journalist in a Malayalam TV channel. The participant, a young man reported on a colony of adivasis. Supported by effective visuals he showed the deprivation in the area and the utter despair in the life of the people. Strangely the local M.L.A had no knowledge of the area. The people, though poor in every respect, knew that they were remembered only at the time of elections. They knew nothing of their rights. Two of the judges of the show profusely appreciated the young man’s efforts. The third judge, a government functionary had the following observation. Pointing out the increasing number of successful projects and the well-placed people and families in the state, he said that the efforts of the government was to pull out people like the ones in the video to the level of the well placed. What can one say? Some days earlier, another functionary, senior and more important than the one referred to above lamented the closure of the Coca Cola factory at Plachimada and pointed out the loss in ‘revenue, tax and some employment’. He had nothing to say about the damage caused to the water and soil, and thereby to the life and livelihood of the poor illiterate people who had welcomed the project hoping that it would bring some level of employment in the area. Like most parts of rural India, this small and relatively unknown village also was facing acute unemployment and minimum security in life. They could not have imagined that it would only result in poisoning their clean and abundant water and deplete their soil in such a way that nothing would grow there. They could not only not drink or use the water for cooking, but nor could they use it even for washing or bathing. Still, one of the women, Mailamma, led a protest of the poor, suffering people against the giant American company. Many of us supported her and the struggle she led. She became a heroine, known nationally and internationally. She also became an unsung martyr unknown and unlamented. The factory is not functioning temporarily. It is not closed and packed.

Much has been written on the Bhopal tragedy, the death of more than twenty thousand innocent people that followed the gas leak, and the escape of the culprits with the knowledge and support of our authorities at the higher levels. Did it end there? As can be expected ,the emission from the poisonous residue which still remains heaped continues to harm the people’s health and life. Many have already raised the question: "Where does the allegiance of the governments in Democratic India lie?, whether to the people, especially those on whom the rays of ‘development’ which the collective wisdom of academics, bureaucrats, political leaders, together with the central and state governments experimented never reached or to the foreign investors irrespective of whatever they do to the resources of the country or we the people?" The above ‘wise men’ do not appear to have any sense of guilt or shame. This is not surprising, as this is exactly what their erstwhile masters did earlier. Till the ‘poor laws’ were passed the poor people in England were considered as wretched who were destined as such by God. The poor for long included the old too. All those countries which boast of various degrees of social security , which are destabilized as a result of the present economic slowdown,kept the ‘poor’ away from the social networking. This may console our authorities who at least occasionally whisper words like inclusion, 'aam admi' etc. Along with that they redefine employment, unemployment, levels of poverty etc so that on records there will not be any poor or unemployed. This will make it easy for the government to implement their agenda to snatch the tiny pieces of land which the poor might have held, and turn the village into a city. This is what the funding agencies and investors, both desi and videsi, want.

Let us stop here for a while and see how developments as in Bhopal were tackled elsewhere. When the Atom Bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, “with a violent flash that ripped the sky apart and a thunderous sound that shook the earth to its foundations , Hiroshima was pounded to the ground ... In an instant the city was reduced to ash and rubble... Then from where a city once was, a huge column of fire bounded straight up toward heaven... Out of the fierce whirlwind, half naked and stark naked bodies darkly soiled and covered with blood, began moving... Human beings evaporated into dust...", the essential life-support of the city like hospitals and first aid centres were destroyed and doctors and nurses killed. The question of radiation poison was the most sensitive issue. Reports began to appear from different sources that people were dying of mysterious causes. American officials dismissed the allegations as propaganda intended to imply that the United States had used an inhuman weapon.

Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Commissions were set up. Reports were written. Scientists who worked for the establishment and funded by them came up with the concept ‘threshold hypothesis’ that claimed that there was a threshold below which radiation was safe. Fortunately, a small number of scientists did not believe this. There was an anti-nuclear movement in which some famous scientists too participated. Not heeding any of these, the nuclear ‘facilities’ which meant nuclear industry, nuclear energy, nuclear waste all spread to many places.. This also meant, besides the contamination of the environment, increase in fire accidents including seepage. These could not go unnoticed. Apart from the small number of scientists who opposed the growth and spread of nuclear industry, ordinary people rose in revolt which lasted for months, with people’s hearings and conferences. They made remarkable success. But that success was not to be passed on. The craze for power and wealth at any cost in fact has increased. We saw it in the case of Bt Brinjal when the government unhesitatingly could not say NO to Monsanto and his agents.

Recently one of our newspapers (Hindu. 25.7.2010, p20) had the following news item. Jaitapur nuclear project: villagers turn down compensation. "We are totally opposed to this project and want no money.” This can cheer us, but it calls for greater and relentless alertness on our part. I mean those of us who love this great country with its richness, heritage, diversity and capabilities. It is also a warning against our silence when our government unhesitatingly enter into agreements with any country that can provide nuclear (with the adjective civilian) facilities. The explanation given is that it would enhance our energy production which will help the villagers including the poor. In a country with wind and waves in abundance, apart from solar energy we do not need nuclear energy at all, with its known negative impact on the environment and the health of the people. There are other alternatives too for the production of energy. But then, we cannot aspire to be a member of the Nuclear Super Club. Is that the nation’s goal? Do the people of this country wish India to be a Super Power? A certain section may wish for these, but not the majority who includes a large number who live in constant fear, when they would be thrown out of the dwelling place which cannot be called even a hut, whether there will be work the next day, how to feed the children, not to speak of education and health care. It is here that we have to examine what we are made to understand is “development”. We know it is linked to the volume of foreign direct investment which include technology, advise and sometimes control. Wider roads, flyovers, endless stream of newer and newer cars, (public transport facilities becoming rare and difficult) shopping mauls, 24 hours advertising, sponsorship, palatial residential buildings with security guards have become the symbols of development. These together with unreal ‘reality shows’ with prizes which include posh apartments and villas, gold and huge money and serials with the ingredients romance, intrigues, violence, success and failure, break up of bonds – family or friendship - make the people numb to the realities of their own life and surroundings.This is not to obliterate the concern and work of individuals and groups who are constantly engaged in understanding the complex socio-political purposes and searching for solutions. Unfortunately they are not a united body and their voice is not loud enough so that the rulers at the top cannot ignore.

Let us ask them “How is that when a minor lapse in the 'security arrangements' In the case of a minister or political leader becomes a big news and calls for immediate action, all that is talked and written on the people who are still suffering from the Bhopal gas leak and coco-cola poisoning in Plachimada are treated as something that can be ignored. Funnily, we hear intermittently quotations from Gandhiji, either "India is made up of her villages" or "There is enough to satisfy everybody’s need, not anyone’s greed." If these are to become a reality, the present model of development, which is catered to make the rich richer, has to be discarded. The people who are hitherto discriminated and pushed to the backyards should become the focus of development. These two are not at all easy. Such a shift in focus needs serious rethinking , change in mindsets, redefinitions and new priorities. There is no ready-made model for us to transplant in our country. However, with the growing awareness about climate change, environmental degradation, the need to protect forests and nature in total, the commitment of nations to ensure food security to the people, it becomes our responsibility to start discussions on these crucial issues. From different parts of the world the need for alternatives, a different world are coming louder and louder. We should not lag behind.

Let us start the debate.