The following letter, with a printed copy of The Bhopal Marathon, recently went to the generous souls who keep our free clinics running in Bhopal. If you hate injustice, admire courage and celebrate kindness, it is meant for you too.
The Bhopal Marathon is the story of how for nearly three decades some of the poorest people on earth – sick, hungry, illiterate, without political allies or clout – have found themselves struggling for their basic human rights, and often their lives, against one of the world’s richest corporations and its friends in the US and Indian governments.
It’s an unequal, often hopeless-seeming struggle. The corporation and its allies have it all: wealth, influence, the ear of presidents and prime ministers, battalions of lawyers, PR flacks and billions to spend on advertising and sponsorship. The nothing people have literally nothing.
Yet, plunged into a nightmare of cruelty and pain so extreme that it almost defies imagination, the survivors, with the help of friends like you, opened their own clinics, brought healing out of horror, and returned good to others from the harm done to them. Their brave struggle for justice tells of a better side to human nature, of compassion, fellowship, laughter and the healing power of love.
This is a big document – it has to be to cover almost thirty years in any meaningful depth. We could not have afforded to publish the printed edition it had not the costs of printing and postage been met in full by generous sponsors, so we could save core funds for our medical work.
To our sponsors, and all our donors, thank you.
A LEGACY OF DEAD & MAIMED CHILDREN
The need for this report became clear after Dow Chemical was appointed a sponsor of the Olympics. Dow wholly owns and is merged with Union Carbide whose neglected factory caused the 1984 gas disaster, and whose toxic wastes still poison the water of people living nearby. Please see pages 89-90 for a short list of chemicals dumped by Union Carbide, then turn the page to look at some of the children we have treated.
Among them is Rupesh, born in 1997 to parents who had both been exposed to Union Carbide’s poison gases. He was nine and a half when photographed here, struggling in his mother’s arms. Breast-fed till two, he had ever since drunk water that, unknown to his family was poisoned by Union Carbide’s toxic wastes. The company had evidence of the danger at least 8 years before Rupesh was born (see pp. 62-3) but warned no one, denied there was a problem and did nothing to clean up the chemicals.
Aged four, Rupesh suffered a series of fits so violent they left him paralysed. A year later a study found chemicals that cause cancers and birth defects in the milk of nursing mothers, so the breast milk Rupesh drank in his first two years had likely also been contaminated.
Rupesh’s short life was filled with pain. He never learned to speak and had no control over his body. His mind, as far as anyone could tell, was burned away. Weeks after this picture was taken, he died in circumstances so grim that we can’t bring ourselves to talk about them.
Lowest left on page 91 is bald, web-fingered, thick-tongued Raju. He too is dead, drowned in a monsoon ditch rushing with toxic water. Shanu’s short life was all agony, her long lashes fringing a livid tumour where an eyeball used to be. She too is gone – as is Imtiyaz whose story echoed Rupesh’s. There have been many many others. Their names alone could fill every line of every page of this letter.
COULD ANYTHING BE WORSE THAN WATCHING A CHILD DIE IN PAIN?
Yes. It’s the unbearable knowledge that the same thing is going to happen again and again to children as yet unborn, not even conceived – and that unless we can shift the world we will not be able to prevent it.
In many parts of Bhopal the ground water is poisoned by chemicals which several scientific studies have traced to hazardous wastes dumped by Union Carbide in and around its factory site. In contaminated areas children are being born damaged at rates many times higher than the Indian average. Union Carbide and its owner Dow Chemical deny that they are responsible for cleaning up these chemicals and refuse to help the families whose lives have been ruined.
The company needs to change its mind and the Indian authorities need to end their neglect. Both sides must quit the game of blaming each other in public but colluding in private. For this to happen will take a miracle.
IT’S HARD TO FIGHT MONEY & POLITICS
The Bhopal survivors were sickened when Dow Chemical was announced as an Olympic sponsor. Were these not meant to be the most ‘sustainable’ games ever? Did the organisers not see the obscene irony of Dow Chemical sponsoring the Paralympics and Team GB’s paralympians even as children continued to be born damaged in Bhopal? Many others did.
London 2012 Sustainability Commissioner Meredith Alexander resigned in protest. Amnesty International and Greenpeace called for Dow to be dropped and the Indian Olympic Committee threatened a boycott if it were not. Labour MP Barry Gardiner spoke for a cross-party group of MPs that included the Speaker of the Commons when he said Dow’s involvement was ‘a stain on the ambitions of the Olympics.’ The London Assembly said it ‘caused damage to the reputation of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games’ and called on Lord Coe and LOCOG to rethink. A Guardian poll found 93% wanting to drop Dow as an Olympic sponsor. A PR industry survey reported that online coverage relating to Dow and the Olympics was 92% negative. ‘Dow’s sponsorship of the Olympics,’ wrote the investment website MSN Money, ‘has turned into a PR disaster for the company.’ Investment analysts at The Motley Fool dissected and rebutted each of Dow’s publicly stated reasons for refusing to assume Carbide’s liabilities in Bhopal and suggested that ‘Dow can reverse this PR nightmare by taking responsibility for Bhopal on the global stage of the Olympics.’
Of course, it didn’t happen.
The public may well have felt uncomfortable about Dow’s role in Britain’s Olympics but no one wanted to spoil the games (incidentally one reason why we left publishing this report until they were over) – and public outrage, anger and revulsion were never strong enough to worry the politicians.
Lord Coe never met us, but during a chance encounter with Bhopal survivor Sanjay Verma (see pages 174-5) it became clear that he simply did not believe what Sanjay was telling him. But why should he? In his briefings from Dow lawyers and executives he had heard a very different story and Dow’s CEO Andrew Liveris had stated that the Bhopal survivors’ attitude was ‘beyond belief’ and motivated by greed.
DO-TO-DO AND LA-DEE-DA
What truly is ‘beyond belief’ is the relentless cruelty with which Bhopal survivors have been treated for almost thirty years. It’s as if the corporation and its political friends blamed them for having been stupid and inconsiderate enough to get in the way of the lethal gases and foetus-bending chemicals.
In the first hours, as the dead lay in the streets, Carbide said the gas was not poisonous, people should not have run, or should have run into the wind not away, should have put wet cloths over their faces. Asked why it had never issued warnings or any instructions about what to do if gas leaked, Carbide’s chief medical officer was disarmingly candid. (see page 22):
‘If I say that I’m carrying a deadly thing in my pocket, people just turn you out of the town. [They] don’t allow you to remain there, even though you aren’t going to use it… Here people are so emotional… if you tell them, then the next day there will be a big procession and do-to-to and la-dee-da, “will you please stop this factory we don’t want it,” even though it is not dangerous. Telling the truth is sometimes a difficult problem in our country.’
Fast-forward one year. In Bhopal previously healthy people are coughing up their lungs and vomiting blood. Pregnant women are full of fear, because the city is experiencing an epidemic of monstrous births, but the Sunday Times quotes Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson as saying that accounts of the suffering in Bhopal have been exaggerated and in New York Union Carbide lawyer Bud Holman says the company expects ‘a considerable number of fraudulent claims’, and blames TB, emphysema and malnutrion for the victims’ problems. ‘The 200,000 claimants will have to appear in court’, he says (see p. 43) and asks the court allow one day per witness.
Given that over 500,000 claims were finally granted by the Indian government, the stream of coughing, blood-vomiting Bhopalis arriving in New York would last 2,000 years. Ridiculous, yes, but Carbide’s appetite for delay wins a cheap settlement. In secret talks with Indian politicians it dictates terms, injury categories and even the meagre sums awarded in ‘compensation’. (See pp. 40-45) The survivors are never consulted.
COMPENSATION WORTH 7 PENCE A DAY
The Bhopal Marathon documents a marathon of suffering reckoned not in miles but years. The red booklet (see below and pages 54-7) tells how the survivors were swindled out of their paltry compensation by corrupt officials and contains this poignant comment:
‘Never before in history except in Hitler’s gas chambers have so many died at one time from exposure to industrial chemicals. Never before except at Hiroshima and Nagasaki have so many people been maimed by a man-made disaster. Never before have so many victimised people struggled for so many years in the face of repression and propaganda for justice, accountability and the right to a dignified disease-free life.’
‘For so many years?’ That booklet was published twenty years ago.
$500 IS PLENTY GOOD FOR AN INDIAN
Ishrat’s mind was slow to develop. She grew up a silent, withdrawn child. When, aged ten, her parents brought her to our Chingari Centre, her father, a gas victim who is often ill, apologised for having no money to buy food, much less to take Ishrat to a doctor or pay for medicines.
Ishrat is one of the reasons we now give all our children a nutritious free meal every day. Today she’s an athlete and wins races at all-India level. That’s Ishrat, on page 177, in the lead.
It wasn’t. It isn’t. It was always an insult. And no, Mr Liveris, when the Bhopal survivors ask for justice and an end to being poisoned, it’s not greed. These are their basic human rights.
The Bhopal Marathon isn’t just about charred lungs and deformed foetuses, corporate crime, political skullduggery and dirty deals, years of neglect, medical malpractice, failed hopes and dishonoured promises, cruelty, corruption and contempt for the poor meted out by police fists, sticks and boots… It’s also the story of how a great catastrophe somehow enabled ordinary people to discover that they were extraordinary and do amazing things like thrice walking 500 miles to Delhi through snake- and scorpion-infested jungles to ask for justice, only to be thrice denied (the stories are on pages 50-3, 146-153 & 154-5); like terminally sick people asking that the knowledge gained by treating them should be used to help others around the world suffering from chemically-caused illness.
Perhaps what Dow and the politicians really find
‘beyond belief’ is that sick, ragged nobodies should find the guts to face their persecutors and fight back; that being treated abominably themselves they should practise kindness and generosity to others and with the help of friends (this is you) open free award-winning clinics and bring healing to thousands whose lives had been hell. Hardest of all to forgive is that despite everything they are still singing and, for god’s sake, dancing!
IT’S YOUR STORY TOO, TELL EVERYONE
As one old lady recently wrote, ‘in nearly 30 years of struggling for our basic rights, you are the only people who have ever helped us’. Please help get this story out into the world. We believe that it has the power to transform the world’s understanding of the word Bhopal from grim tragedy to an inspirational symbol of courage, steadfastness, and love that overcomes impossible odds. If the poisoning of Bhopal is ever to end, it will take a public outcry strong enough to shake the politicians and the corporate bosses. The means to achieve this is now literally in your hands.
Yours in friendship,
Managing Trustee Bhopal Medical Appeal