New Internationalist

Bhopal - hunger strike bites

Tim Edwards writes:

In February this year, 50 people from Bhopal, India, survivors of three disasters – Union Carbide’s mass gassing of 1984, the subsequent never-ending health, economic and social holocaust and Dow Chemical’s latter-day toxic pollution plume –set off on foot to India’s capital Delhi to attempt to shame Prime Minister Singh into taking action to address their basic needs.

Victims of one of the world’s epic injustices, desperately tired of watching their families drip fed poisons via their water supplies, sick of the pitiful state of healthcare offered the ailing 150,000 still chronically ill from gas poisoning, despairing of the Indian Government ever making any self-directed effort to bring the perpetrators to court, the marchers – aged between 4 and 80 – covered the 500 miles in just 38 days, sleeping where they could, eating when they could and enduring extremes of weather and physical suffering.

Though they sent communications to the Prime Minster before leaving Bhopal, their eventual arrival in Delhi met a predictable response: stonewall silence.

Undeterred, the Bhopalis set up camp upon a thin strip of footpath at traffi- heavy Jantar Mantar, the officially blessed site for protests in Delhi. They’ve been there ever since, 92 days already. For many of them, the action means a considerable sacrifice: precious jobs that were taken leave of are no longer there to return to; families precariously dependent on these incomes are left high and dry; already fragile health has been worsened by exhaustion.

From their pavement home, the Bhopalis have mounted numerous high-profile campaign actions. Alongside 200 legal experts, they exposed the Prime Minster’s Office’s treacherous attempts to indemnify Dow Chemical against the ‘polluter pays’ principle to be unconstitutional and illegal. They discovered a confidential note that revealed that the Indian Law ministry, of all things, concurred that only Dow – 100-per-cent owner of Union Carbide – could be held legally liable for ongoing claims against Carbide. This in turn led to Dow investors making a complaint to the US Securities and Exchange Commission that Dow had been willfully misleading its stockholders. Brain damaged and malformed Bhopali children were presented to the press, ending any doubt that contamination oozing from unlined dumps in Carbide’s abandoned pesticides factory was having a profound impact upon the communities ringed around it.

A series of peaceful direct actions have ensued. A number of Bhopali children wrote Prime Minister Singh a letter in their own blood urging him to meet the Bhopalis. They received no reply. A number of the water-impacted children appeared outside Prime Minister Singh’s house, demanding that he acknowledge them. He didn’t, so a few weeks later children and adults chained themselves to his garden fence. He had them cut away and arrested.

Finally, on 29 May, buffeted by thousands of faxes, letters from US Congress, Amnesty International and elsewhere (in Westminster 83 MPs signed an Early Day Motion condemning the PM’s intransigence) and stung by a welter of negative press coverage, Prime Minister Singh relented and made a vague public statement endorsing the Bhopalis request for a Specially Empowered Commission on Bhopal to oversee medical, social, economic and environmental rehabilitation but offering no sense of how or when it could be achieved. On the question of pursuing legal action against Dow and Carbide – for 16 years a fugitive from charges of mass homicide in which the Indian Government is the prosecuting agency – there was deafening silence.

Having been here before, the Bhopalis were not satisfied with such a piecemeal offering. They wrote to the Prime Minster explaining their dissatisfaction and outlining what needed to be done. They’re yet to receive a reply. So on 9 June 36 of them staged a peaceful die-in outside the PM’s offices. They were promptly, roughly dragged off to Parliament Street police station, where several of them - including one six- and one eleven-year-old girl - were beaten and abused. Though nine children were released the next day, 22 adults were kept in appalling conditions for another 10 days in Tihar jail.

The day after the arrests, 10 June, seven Bhopal survivors and four supporters stopped eating. Today, they have been on indefinite hunger strike in the heat of Delhi for 21 days. Two are quite ill and all are manifesting developed signs of starvation.

Make no mistake, the hunger strike is a 'last resort' action. Anyone who has fasted for a day or more can attest to the privations brought about by ignoring the body’s desire to nourish itself. The Bhopalis are entirely serious in their intent, and do not intend to eat again until their very reasonable demands of the Indian Government are met.

They are calling for all people of conscience to join them in solidarity to help ratchet up the pressure on an already rattled Indian Government. A Global Relay Hunger Strike has been initiated, wherein supporters are invited to sign up and fast for a day. So far, 600 people around the world have committed, including Booker-nominated author Indra Sinha, who fasted for a week before being forced to stop at the insistence of his doctor.

Click here for further details. Also, in Britain, the charity The Bhopal Medical Appeal supports a free clinic treating victims of water and gas poisoning.

Tim Edwards is a campaigner on Bhopal based in Britain.

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