December issue 2011
Letter From India: Boycott Over Bhopal
Boycott Over Bhopal
It was in 1984 on the fateful night of December 2 and I was just a school-going teenager in Kolkata, when I heard that the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh had been engulfed by a poisonous gas that killed thousands of people. Back in the days when news reached us via the good old newspaper and not via satellite, I recall terribly disturbing black-and-white images in a Bengali daily, of bodies strewn or lined up in rows in the streets of Bhopal. Later, a chilling image of the burial of an unidentified child victim of the gas leak, with vacant, gaping eyes, by celebrated photographer Ragu Rai, became the most poignant and enduring reminder of what can only be called a man-made disaster.
The city of Bhopal was victim to one of the worst industrial disasters of our time when 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate — a highly volatile toxic chemical stored at the plant owned by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) — was contaminated with water and other impurities. As a result, a mixture of deadly gases escaped from the factory to surrounding areas, eventually killing 20,000 people, including 3,000 within days, and inflicting grievous injuries on at least 500,000 others. UCIL was an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide that was later taken over by the US-owned company, Dow Chemical.
That year thousands of people fled Bhopal, but eventually life went on in India and while governments of all hues were slothful about the issue, the people also forgot the continued suffering of the victims of the Bhopal tragedy and their never-ending battle for justice. Occasional media interest during symbolic anniversaries and the work of a handful of documentary filmmakers and writers from the West, who captured the tragedy as fodder for their profession, kept Bhopal in the news.
In June last year, 25 years after the tragedy that killed thousands and impaired about half a million, a cry for justice gained momentum after a court hearing in Bhopal sentenced eight former top officials (one of them already deceased), of the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corp (UCC), to two years imprisonment each, as punishment for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak.
The judgment was dubbed as a mockery of the justice system in India. According to Bhopal activist Rachana Dhingra, the message of the verdict was clear to the multinationals — that they could come to pollute and kill and leave without any punishment.
In fact, the court was silent on the absconding former chairman of the UCC, Warren Anderson, who is now in the United States after his brief arrest and subsequent bail in India many years ago. The old man can be spotted on a YouTube video from last year, in the garden of his house in New York. Barack Obama’s visit to India during the verdict and the subsequent uproar did not make any difference.
Recently, Bhopal activists took their battle to an international forum and made some noise in the western world. This November, they took on the Indian government and the Olympics organising committee, to protest against the sponsorship of the London Games’ by Dow Chemicals — the company that took over the US corporation responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak from its plant. The fight against Dow intensified when British lawmakers took note of the protest and 21 Indian Olympians lent support to the victims in their battle against the company.
Tessa Jowell, UK’s shadow Olympics minister, wrote to the Chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, and asked that all documents relating to the decision to award the Dow Chemical Company the tender for the Olympic stadium wrap, be made public. She urged the commission to study Dow Chemical’s link to the human rights and environmental tragedy in Bhopal.
Dow, however, trashed the charges of forgoing their responsibility to the Bhopal victims and said they were proud sponsors of the Olympics, stating in the press that though the 1984 Union Carbide Bhopal incident was a terrible tragedy, “it is disappointing that some people are trying to assign blame and responsibility to Dow.” Dow continously stated that it had acquired the shares of Union Carbide Corporation more than 16 years after the tragedy, and 10 years after the US$ 470m settlement agreement — paid by Union Carbide Corporation and Union Carbide India, Limited — was approved by the Indian Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, the Bhopal activists were pleased with Tessa Jowell’s intervention which mars Dows high-profile sponsorship of the Olympic games. “It’s better that we have an unwrapped stadium, rather than a stadium wrapped in the continuing controversy of Dow Chemical’s sponsorship,” she said.
Meanwhile, the first form of protest from the political class — though somewhat over-the-top — came via a letter from Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who urged India’s Sports Minister Ajay Maken to boycott the Olympics if Dow continued as a sponsor.
While I was fine-tuning this column for readers in Pakistan, a ruckus unfolded in the Indian parliament over the issue of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the retail sector. The houses were adjourned again and again as the otherwise ideologically polarised opposition — ranging from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to the Communists, and several regional parties, including Trinamool Congress, a key ally of the ruling Congress that shores up the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — were up in arms against the government.
In November, India’s cabinet decided to allow 51% FDI in the multibrand retail market and 100% in single-brand retail, paving the way for global supermarket giants to step into the $450 billion sector. The decision means global retail giants like Wal-Mart, TESCO and Carrefour can now invest in the retail sector.
But the move triggered angry reactions from the opposition. While the rabble-rousing BJP leader Uma Bharati said she would set any Wal-Mart shop that arrived in India on fire, the Communists and other political parties, though tempered in words, were also virulent in their opposition and expressed concern for India’s small retailers.
India’s commerce and industry minister, Anand Sharma, said that the decision to allow FDI in multibrand retail would create nearly four million jobs in the next three years. The government also issued full page ads in national newspapers on the benefits of FDI in retail.
J. Jayalalitha, the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, said the announcement of the central government has shocked millions of small vendors who have been caught off-guard. “Their fear that this move will completely throttle small retailers and distributors is not unfounded. It will affect the livelihood of millions of small departmental store owners and completely destroy the unorganised retail sector within the next couple of years,” she said in a statement.
The industry bodies, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), suggested that the government spread awareness that the move would not result in huge job losses, nor would small stores be impacted in a major way. “FDI will introduce more competition and efficiency and create lakhs of new jobs as well as reduce the price gap at levels of farm gate, wholesale and retail,” said D.S. Rawat, the secretary general of the chamber. The industry bodies believe that the Indian agriculture sector needs to find ways to reduce wastage from farm production, and improve the efficiency of its highly fragmented food supply chain. More than 30% of agricultural produce is spoilt before it reaches consumers,” said Rawat.
However, the going will get tough for the corruption-embattled government of Manmohan Singh, with mounting opposition against the decision and demand for a rollback on the policy emanating from the UPA’s key constituent, the Trinamool Congress.
What is trendy in the world of showbiz and entertainment in India right now? In the Bigg Boss house, where the toast of couch- potato kitsch last season was Pakistani actress Veena Malik, this season it’s Indo-Canadian pornographic actress Sunny Leone. Perhaps we can talk more about her if she emerges as winner at Bigg Boss this season.
But what has really gripped India right now is ‘Kolaveri’ fever — a Tamil song recorded by Tamil actor and playback singer Dhanush, for the movie 3 (Moondru) — directed by his wife Aishwarya, the daughter of India’s southern superstar Rajinikanth.
This toe-tapping number by Dhanush received millions of hits on YouTube and spoofs of the song are also a dime a dozen — the latest, a mischievous parody of the enraged Sikh youth who slapped India’s Agriculture Minister and International Cricket Council (ICC) President Sharad Pawar, due to the price hike and corruption.
So what does kolaveri mean? Well, I am not a Tamil but what I’ve found out is that it’s a Tamil word which means murderous rage and is most often used by youngsters to refer to an angry girlfriend.
The song title ‘Why This Kolaveri Di,’ according to Anirudh Ravichander, the 21 year-old composer of the super-hit song, means “Why do you have this murderous rage against me,” but said in a lighter vein. The video of the song, which features a smiling Dhanush singing in a happy-go-lucky style, adds to the fun mood. On that note, why don’t difficult neighbours — India, Pakistan and China, with the USA thrown in for good measure — ask each other: ‘Why This Kolaveri Di?’
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “Boycott Over Bhopal.”