As we study the structural injustice that is the Bhopal gas tragedy, it is important not to forget that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are still affected by the disaster. This was made very clear to us in our short meeting with an organization called the Bhopal Gas Pedith Mahila Udogh Sangathan. It is also known as Swabhiman Kendra or a self-respect center. This group provides rehabilitation services for people who are disabled as a result of the gas leak. The members are trained to hand make items such as clothing and paper bags. The decision to make paper bags is to discourage the use of plastic bags because Dow Chemicals is a major producer of plastics.
This rehabilitation program provides help to thousands of members, many of whom pay five rupees per month as a donation to the organization. This group receives no outside funding and relies solely on personal aid from the community.
One important aspect which we have heard in multiple places, is that there is not only one Bhopal. There are many small to mid size chemical plants just like the one in Bhopal all around India and the world. The gas leak happened about twenty seven years ago, and still no safety regulations have been tightened for existing plants. This tragedy is not confined to one city in India, this is only an example of the danger that this type of operation presents.
Corporate greed caused carelessness and a disregard for the lives of the people in Bhopal. This must call us to question the amount of power and value that corporations have in the United States and the world. Dow chemicals has yet to be prosecuted in either American or Indian courts. IT is allowed to continue to generate a huge revenue, while giving minimal compensation to the people of Bhopal. Each effected survivor was given a compensation equal to about 1,000 US dollars, a fraction of what was asked for and what is needed to pay for medical treatment and damages.
Swabhiman Kendra reminds us that a disaster such as this is so tremendous it calls us to action on three levels. First, the immediate needs of affected people cannot be ignored. Thousands of people continue to be born mentally or physically disabled. Working directly with them through the rehabilitation centers we have visited has immense positive effects on their lives and the lives of their families. Second we must look a the broader aspects of the issue. The Indian government has yet to give any aid to the area and the American government has refused to even acknowledge the disaster. Law suits have been filed against Dow Chemicals with few results. A fight must take place on this larger, governmental level as well as a local, personal level. We must demand justice and compensation from both the government and the company because rehabilitation efforts should not have to rely solely on personal donations. Finally, we must question why this situation was able to happen in the first place. Why is it that the Indian government is siding with an American company rather than its own people? Dow Chemicals has bribed government officials to allow chemicals which are banned in the United States to be produced in India. Dow continues to claim no responsibility for the issue and the US government has yet to acknowledge that it has happened. The third level we must think about is the priorities in our modern society. We now live in a world where a corporation’s interest is more important than hundreds of thousands of lives. We must work for this structural change, if we want to have any hope of having a government which remains accountable to its people in the future.