New Delhi: With Modi fighting the 2019 elections by raking up Rajiv Gandhi’s record as prime minister, it was only a matter of time that after Bofors and the 1984 Sikh massacres, he would set his sights on the Bhopal gas disaster.
The tragedy took place on December 1-2, 1984, when poisonous gases leaked from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide Limited in Bhopal. The state government claims that 3,787 people died. Over 5 lakh people were thought to have developed long-term health conditions that have also been passed on to following generations.
Last month, Modi said at a public event: “Who will do Nyay to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy—the world’s worst industrial catastrophe? That too happened under Congress.”
He used the word ‘nyay’ because it is the catchy acronym the Congress has given to Rahul Gandhi’s universal basic income proposal, the centrepiece of the party’s election manifesto.
While the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal says that both the Congress and BJP have failed to bring justice to the victims and their families even 34 years after the disaster, “the BJP/NDA has actually outdone the Congress in terms of protecting the interests of the US multinationals and denying the rights to justice and a life of dignity to the survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster.”
The campaign says that various central and state government were “cozying up to criminal corporations” and neglecting victims of this corporate crime.
So for example, the campaign has been chasing the progress of what is happening to the promised houses which families who were living in sites affected by contaminated groundwater from the leak were supposed to get. About 2500 families are estimated to be affected by this groundwater.
In 2010, a group of ministers examining the issue had agreed on a sum of Rs 40 crore which was to be transferred from the Central government to the Department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief & Rehabilitation, Government of Madhya Pradesh.
But by 2016, advertisements in papers appeared, asking for applications from survivors for these houses and the prime minister’s scheme for housing, ‘Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana’, took credit for it.
It became apparent that the state government was trying to get this Rs 40 crore diverted to other purposes. Survivors wrote to the Central government against this and one request by the state government for this diversion was then denied.
But by 2018, the campaign says that the Central and state governments came to an “in principle agreement on the proposed diversion of funds.” And as of May 2019, “not a single house” has been built for those who were originally supposed to get a house, i.e. those suffering with contaminated ground water.
The victims have also been struggling as the government has failed them on specialised health care. In 2004, in response to a court case filed by survivors in 1998, the Supreme Court put together a committee to monitor the delivery of healthcare.
But over the years, this committee found there were insufficient polices on treatment, shortage of staff and non-functional equipment: “Non functional and old equipment in BMHRC and Gas Relief & Rehabilitation hospitals should be directed to be repaired/replaced and other life saving equipments which are required to be installed without undue delay.”
A third example of failure comes on the yoga centres. The group of ministers commissioned to examine issues of the victims even recommended yoga centres for the victims in 2010, in 36 municipal wards. Five years later, only seven had apparently been built, at an expense of Rs 3.68 crore. By 2016, activist groups found that some centres had been given to RSS members and others converted to wedding halls, a government college and into government offices. But none were functional for the benefit of the victims of the gas tragedy.
Modi has also sought to target the Congress on the failure to hold Warren Anderson, then head of the Union Carbide Corporation, accountable for the disaster:
My open challenge to Congress.
Fight elections in the name of the former PM associated with Bofors in:
Delhi and Punjab, where innocent Sikhs were butchered in his reign.
Bhopal, where he helped Warren Anderson flee after the infamous Gas Tragedy.
Challenge accepted? pic.twitter.com/CstT0VyITd
— Chowkidar Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 6, 2019
However, successive governments – including the first NDA one of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the current Modi administration – have dropped the ball on holding Anderson, UCC and Dow Chemicals accountable.