ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Workers Perspective

Bhopal: A Year After

One year after the Bhopal disaster, the issues and problems raised by it remain, without exception, unresolved. People are still sick and dying as a result of the gas leak, earning a living is an overwhelming problem. The urgent question of how over 200,000 gas-affected people will survive in future has not yet been answered.
 
The responsibility for this abysmal state of affairs lies, of course, with the Indian and international managements of Union Carbide, which have shown themselves more anxious to minimise their own losses than to repair any of the damage they have caused, and with the governments of Madhya Pradesh and India, whose callous indifference to the fate of the gas victims has prolonged and increased their sufferings immensely.
 
Yet this is hardly to be wondered at. Those whose disregard for the lives and health of the people of Bhopal led to the disaster in the first place, cannot be expected to change their attitude overnight, or even in the course of a year What is more surprising is that the various groups and organisations which have been active in Bhopal have failed to evolve a common strategy which would force Union Carbide and the government to meet the needs of the gas-affected people. And this failure has allowed, even aided, Union Carbide and the government to set about achieving their own ends.
 
After the disaster, UCIL's first plan was to continue the formulation of pesticides under its own or government management and to begin battery production in Bhopal in order to absorb the existing workforce. They also proposed various schemes to be carried out on their own site—a hospital, school, training centre, etc—for the benefit of the gas victims. This plan was clearly aimed at getting some favourable publicity for themselves. And publicity was also the reason why the state government rejected it. After having colluded with Union Carbide in bringing about the disaster, it could not afford to be seen publicly collaborating with the company's rehabilitation efforts! So UCIL management, with a sigh of helplessness, turned to their second plan: selling off the plant. As Managing Director V P GokhaJe said in August, they had received many offer? to buy the plant, but all emphatically stipulated that it must be minus the workers. So the main obstacle to the implementation of this plan was the presence of the workers, which, however, was expected to come to an end once the closure notice issued by management became effective in July, The continued presence of the workers in the plant beyond that date was tolerated in the hope that it would end when the workers' compensation issue was settled and all the workers had received alternative employment.
 
The workers have been a problem for the MP government too. Apart from the irritation of demonstrations and delegations demanding secure employment, they also represent a potential threat as a local organised force capable of rallying the gas victims. Recognition of this danger would account for their systematic efforts to frighten the workers away from the gas victims, telling them that the people in these basils hold them (the workers) jointly responsible for the disaster, and will never agree to anything being produced on that site again. So for the government too, dispersal of the workers is a necessity, and is being achieved through their scheme of 'alternative employment' whereby workers are being despatched to jobs in all parts of MP.
 
What they would find extremely embarrassing would be any public exposure of the farcical inadequacy of the so-called 'rehabilitation' efforts which are going on. According to them, the workers are receiving alternative employment, gas victims are being given free rations, medical treatment, and in some cases training and employment; and any shortcomings in these will be remedied once compensation is paid to gas victims as well as workers. In reality, many workers have not yet received any alternative employment, while for those who have, it has in most cases meant unsuitable jobs, without security of employment, at a fraction of their former salaries and far away frorn their families in Bhopal. The free rations are being tapered off and have in some areas been stopped altogether; the medical treatment, in many cases, is not providing sustained relief; and the few jobs that have been provided for gas victims are at such low wages that they constitute nothing but an exploitation of misery. For example, assistants at the government-run anganwadis opened after the disaster are getting Rs 90 per month for 24 hours per week, of exhausting work, and upto now have felt too arraid to protest because Rs 90, even with arbitrary increases in workloadis and working hours, is better than nothing. And most gas victims today have only this choice: starvation wages or nothing.
 
There is a widespread feeling outside Bhopal that all such problems will be solved once compensation comes through. But neither workers nor gas victims share this feeling. They are quite rightly sceptical about the vague prospect of receiving an unspecified sum of money at some indefinite time in the future. According to any realistic estimate, the actual amounts, when they finally come, will be insufficient to provide anything more than temporary relief They will certainly not be enough to provide lifelong support for gas victims who have lost their health and employment as a result of the disaster, nor to compensate workers for the toss of permanent jobs at the salaries hey were getting before.
 
So none of the official measures which have been taken so far or which are being contemplated in the future at alt touch the basic problem of the survival of the gas victims. Even worse, these people are left in the same condition of powerlessness which produced the disaster in the first place. The sense of this is expressed in the frequent circulation of rumours that MIC production is orlce more going to begin at the factory. And these rumours are not entirely baseless. So long as neither gas victims nor workers have any control over the factory, there is every probability that production of hazardous chemicals will be resumed once more— if not under Union Carbide management, then under the management of some other private or public sector company, and if not this year, then next year or the year after. And the numerous reports of accidents which have been coming out ever since the Bhopal disaster indicate that other chemical companies are really no better than Union Carbide in their attention to safety. That the victims of the disaster should be exposed once again to the same hazards would be the ultimate irony; and yet, as of today, neither they nor we can be sure that this will not happen.
 
The right to know', 'the right to a clean environment', 'the right to suitable employment' and so on are all very well as slogans. But so long as decision-making is left in the hands of those who do not even recognise these rights, they will remain slogans and nothing more. The Bhopal disaster was only a spectacular example of a tragedy which is going on every day and which is now at last beginning to be reported by the press: the destruction of life and health which is being perpetrated by companies, transnational and Indian, private sector and public, with the knowledge and collusion of the government. Any response which fails to challenge the control over our lives, health and environment by forces which have little or no interest in safeguarding them, fails to reach the root causes of the Bhopal disaster. Nor is it possible to ensure the future welfare of the gas-affected people by any solution which leaves them as powerless as they were before the disaster.
 
Seen from this standpoint, the response of most of the significant groups and organisations in Bhopal miss the point. The Zahereeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha demanded that the Bhopal factory be closed and Union Carbide be made to leave Bhopal and India, but were favourable towards a government takeover—a solution which would once again leave the gas victims helplessly exposed to the effects of hazardous chemicals and deprived of any means of survival. They alio demanded that the workers be given alternative employment—a demand which was seized on by the MP state government as nesttly falling in with their plans. The Nagrik Rahat aur Punarvas Committee, while recognising the importance of employment for the gas victims, tried to satisfy this need by a scheme for providing them with thelas. This solution, apart from being incapable of providing ah income for more than a very small number of gas victims, leaves open the possibility of pesticide production being resumed at the factory and does nothing to alleviate the sense of fear of the gas-affected people which arises out of their helplessness on this score.
 
Initially the Union Carbide Karamchari Sangh was demanding that the factory be turned over to the workers and gas victims for taking up alternative production; but this demand was dropped as soon as the closure took place, leaving their other two demands —alternative employment and additional compensation (i e, compensation above the statutory rate of fifteen days' pay per year of service)—which were identical with those of the INTUC-affiliated Union Carbide Workers' Union. What is immediately striking about these two demands is their purely sectional character. It is understandable that the loss of employment of their entire membership should preoccupy these union leaders; but surely not to the exclusion of any consideration for the immense suffering and loss of life inflicted on the gas-affected people. These unions, in common, with most of the unions in other Carbide plants, have conspicuously failed to launch any agitation or industrial action to support the claims of the gas victims. In this they have no doubt reassured the state government that victims and workers will remain isolated from each other.
 
Apart from failing to support the interests of the gas victims, moreover, these demands are very far from meeting the needs of even the -workers. Lack of any means of subsistence has forced some of them to accept jobs in which they are insecure, unhappy, and in many cases separated from their families, while others are getting deeper and deeper into debt with no income at all. This is the reality of the 'alternative employment' demanded by the unions themselves, and has resulted in such deep demoralisation and dispersal of the workforce that even a powerful agitation for additional compensation has become impossible.
 
it was after the closure notice was issued in April that the workers began to take the possibility of alternative production at the factory site really seriously. Even earlier than that, some of them had been involved in medical relief work among the gas victims, but their own impending joblessness made theni more alive to the huge loss of employment and income suffered by the gas victims as a consequence of the disaster. Here was a possibility of joint demands and a joint struggle. But would the gas victims join the workers in such a struggle? The police had taunted the workers with their supposed hostility, and the Chief Minister had said that they would never agree to alternative production on that site—was this true? There was only one way to find out. The workers carried out a rapid opinion survey in the bastis, and within a few days collected over 8000 signatures and thump impressions in support of their idea.
 
This result is not surprising, although it was not anticipated by the workers. Many gas victims lacked documentary evidence that their relatives were killed or they themselves injured by the gas leak, so it was doubtful they would get any compensation at all. Even the others might not get anything for years, and then only an insufficient amount. Having to live on government handouts was highly insecure, apart from being an insult to their dignity. To be able to do something for themselves, regain control over their own lives, was obviously an attractive alternative. They would surety join the workers in such a struggle! Their readiness to sympathise with the plight of the workers —many of whose families had suffered from the leak, who had themselves been exposed to hazardous chemicals in the course of their work, and who were now to lose their jobs— was particularly moving.
 
The next step was to form an organisation of workers and gas victims to conduct the struggle. There were problems in registering this organisation, but finally, with an amputated name and constitution, it was registered as the 'Gas Peedith Rahat Samiti'. And so, when the UCKS dropped the demand for alternative production, the workers involved in the Gas Peedith Rahat Samiti did not do likewise. Today, along with the gas victims, they are launching a campaign demanding (1) that they be allowed to clean out all poisonous chemicals from the factory and dismantle the purely chemical pans of it at Union Carbide's expense, so that the fears of the gas victims can be finally laid to rest, and (2) that Union Carbide and the government should provide them with the investment and facilities to begin alternative production which will be run on a cooperative basis by the gas victims and workers. Throughout this period, the Samiti has been receiving the support and encouragement of the Trade Unions' Relief Fund for Gas Victims of Bhopal (TURF). This organisation was formed by several independent trade unions in Bombay and has also been carrying out medical relief work in Bhopal On July 11, 1985, the TURF organised a demonstration at the Bombay office of UCIL protesting against the closure of the Bhopal plant and demanding that the plant together with a lumpsum be handed over to the workers and gas victims order to start alternative production. Initially it also demanded that the workers should continue to receive monthly payments aqui-valent to their salaries until a settlement should be reached, but this demand was later dropped because it conflicted with the union demand for additional compensation. Elsewhere in the world, most notably in Britain, similar actions were organised putting forward the same demands. Largely as a result of this pressure, V P Gokhale consented to a discussion with a TURF delegation and agreed in principle to make part of the plant (the rest, he said, was under CB1 control) available for alternative production.
 
Subsequently, the director of the Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering has said that the machinery in the Formulation Plant can be used for making soya food products and animal feed, for both of which there would be a good market. With a relatively small additional investment, large numbers of gas victims could be employed as well as the workers, and the food products would be an important aid to improving the health of gas-affected people as well as other undernourished children and adults throughout India. The machinery in the fabrication Shop can be used to make agricultural implements—which, Interestingly, would fulfil the avowed aim of the Agricultural Produces Division of UCIL, namely that of increasing agricultural production, but without the hazards associated with the production and use of pesticides. The production of many other useful goods and services is possible, both within the present Carbide premises and outside. The factory premises themselves, with their large area and many usable buildings, could be the site of a number of industries. But this would depend not only on Union Carbide but also on the government, which owns the land and has the power to give or wit hold licences and other facilities.,P> In order to help in the process of planning alternative production, the TURF sponsored a survey of the workers' skills, education, experience, working capacity and work-preferences, and is planning to carry out a similar survey of gas victims. In the case of the latter, it would be necessary also to work out a method of measuring employment need; as there are such large numbers needing employment, commonly accepted criteria for deciding who should get priority would have to be evolved.
 
Thus today there exists the real possibility of starting socially useful alternative tion co-operativ and workers. In the meantime, however, there is the danger that Carbide management will sell off the plant and quit Bhopal. Given the policy of the UCKS (the INTUC union having long ago vanished from the scene), it is quite conceivable that once a compensation settlement is reached, it will abandon the partial occupation of the plant, thus removing the chief obstacle to its sale. And organisations like the Morcha could actually assist Carbide management to achieve its purposes by organising a 'Union Carbide Hatao' campaign without specifying the conditions on which the company is to be allowed to leave Bhopal This would not only be a blow against the plan for alternative production, but also a defeat for all those who feel that Carbide should be made to pay for the damage it has caused.
 
The type of participation of the gas victims and workers will of course be very different depending on whether the primary means by which Carbide is forced to pay is a campaign in Bhopal or a court-case in the US. In the latter case, they will be compelled to depend on others and more or less passively await the outcome; whereas a campaign in Bhopal, even if its success crucially depends on support from outside, is inconceivable without their active involvement and their efforts to recreate and reap-propriate their own lives, to reverse the loss of control which resulted in such tragic loss of life, health and happiness.

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