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The rise of a people's movement

By Eurig Scandrett

Twenty-five years after the world’s most devastating industrial disaster in Bhopal in 1984, Infochange chronicles the history of the remarkable people’s movement that arose from amongst the survivors of the gas leak. The movement has campaigned ceaselessly for justice for the gas-affected, taking on governments and multinational corporations in the process

 world’s most devastating industrial disaster in Bhopal

Bhopal 1984 must remain in the memories of everyone who is old enough, not only in India but also throughout the world. The leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in the early hours of December 3 of that year remains the world’s most devastating industrial disaster and incident of environmental pollution. It is a corporate crime of historic proportions. No accurate death toll exists, but estimates of the numbers of people who have died over the 25 years as a direct result of gas exposure are in the tens of thousands. Yet to date, no company or individual has been prosecuted for the disaster. Throughout those 25 years, a remarkable social movement has been sustained, demanding basic rights from governments, tenaciously campaigning for justice from perpetrators and audaciously taking on multinational corporations and their logic of globalisation. 

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the disaster, much can be learned from this movement. Over the past three years, the Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study has been documenting the remembered experiences of the survivors and supporters who have been active in the various campaigning groups and will be publishing a selection from these interviews as Bhopal Survivors Speak: Emergent Voices from a People’s Movement. Whilst the events in Bhopal have been the subject of research before, surprisingly little has been written on the experience of the survivors who have been actively campaigning for justice. Material has often been collected for medical, legal or campaigning purposes and the gas-affected population presented as victims. 

They are victims, but they are also survivors. People from the gas-affected communities have mounted a sustained campaign for justice: for compensation, for economic rehabilitation, for adequate rations, for healthcare, for clean water, for environmental remediation of the factory site, for legal retribution against the company responsible and its directors. They have also established their own organisations to provide support and services, made resource demands on government and allies, conducted their own research and created their own traditions. Despite powerful enemies and many defeats, they have celebrated their victories and their solidarity. The emphases, tactics and coalitions have changed over the years but there has been a consistent level of protest which is remarkable to anybody, and also fascinating for a researcher to study. 

The Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study uses a method of interview designed to maximise the participation of the survivors in the production and analysis of data, irrespective of their literacy or level of education. The method was derived from the radical literacy education work of Brazilian Paulo Freire. Most of our interviews were video recorded and copies of the video given to the interviewee. A follow-up interview enabled researchers to interrogate the first interview together with the survivor in order to dig deeper into their interpretation of events, and this dialogue was also recorded on video. This video-interview-dialogue process formed the core of the data collection, supported by more extensive survey data and participant observation. Fifty people have been interviewed, all affected by the gas leak or the associated water contamination, and a small handful of outsiders who have campaigned in solidarity during the 25 years. Extracts from 16 interviews and three articles written by solidarity activists are included in Bhopal Survivors Speak. Over 80 hours of interviews have been amassed in total, transcripts of which will eventually be made anonymous and put into a public archive in Hindi and English. Themes which have emerged from the interviews are tested in regular workshops with groups of survivor-activists.

Relevant research must be judged primarily by social and ethical criteria about its impact on society, asking the question of who benefits and who loses. Where these questions are not asked, any benefits go to those who are already privileged: the rich, influential and oppressive. For those of us who explicitly set out to do relevant research, the principal motivation is whether it is useful to the poor, disempowered and oppressed. Our aspiration is for research to be ‘really useful’, after the 19th-century British radical working class education movement which rejected the philanthropic Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge on the grounds that the ‘usefulness’ of the knowledge was judged by the ruling class and designed to stifle political dissent. In parody of the Society, the radicals advocated ‘really useful knowledge’, that is, its usefulness must be judged by movements of the oppressed who are struggling for their own empowerment. 

The Bhopal interviews tell a remarkable story of a struggle against development that denies humanity, over a period in which Indian economic policy has seen radical changes in the opposite direction. Bhopal in the 1960s and ’70s was a rapidly growing city driven by post-independence government policies of home-grown, science and technology-led industrial development. The Union Carbide factory in Bhopal was a product of the green revolution which introduced to India new, patented, high-yield crops and the agricultural chemicals on which they were dependent. This gave multinational corporations a foothold in Indian agriculture at a time when Indian industry was favoured over foreign investment. 

1984 was early days in the global neoliberal experiment led by Margaret Thatcher in UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA. Neoliberalism is a dogma which dominated world economic policy for nearly three decades until the financial world came close to collapse. India’s government came late to this global phenomenon and embraced inward investment from multinational capital from the 1990s. The Bhopal survivors’ movement has been struggling against this tide. 

The early days of the movement

The people’s movement emerged in the days following the gas leak. Immediately after the disaster there was a spontaneous outbreak of angry, unfocused protest amongst those who had survived, those who were frantically hunting for lost loved ones or panicking about the sick. Within days, people arrived from all over India to give what support they could. Action in those early days was driven by necessity and focused on basti-level organisation in order to deliver the basic needs of food, water, shelter, comfort. After the initial influx of outsiders, a few grassroots workers, intellectuals and activists with long-term commitments, remained behind to carry on the work. They came together under different banners that represented a range of ideological and political affiliations: liberal and religious through nationalist, Gandhian, socialist, communist and ultra-left. Most organised into the Zehreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha (Poisonous Gas Incident Struggle Front). 

The leader of the Morcha, Alok Pratap Singh, writes in Bhopal Survivors Speak:

    “With the formation of the Zehreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha on December 7, 1984 we decided on the following lines of action: to save survivors; to struggle for relief, rehabilitation and medical care; formation of people’s committees at grassroots level; mass awareness and education to the victims for their right to life; survey and data collection; building up national and international support networks; and legal interventions.

    “All of us already had experience working with various forms of mass movements before the gas disaster and had used the locality committee structure, where key people were identified and given responsibilities at grassroots level. We were aware that these people are the real backbone of any mass movement, and sometimes better than us or any government official, to understand the complexity of the situation. We knew that this was going to be a long struggle and it was evident that it had to be done by the organised, conscious and disciplined local people. We had decided during the inception of the Morcha that this would be a people’s movement: it would be fought by the organised people and the mechanism would be designed by the people with our assistance.

    “The first demonstration of victims was led by us at Rajbhawan (Governor’s House) on December 18 and the state government was compelled to establish centres for free distribution of basic rations, food, milk, tea, cloth etc at neighbourhood level. Recognising the need of the situation, we immediately organised people’s committees at neighbourhood level to make the distribution system smoother by ensuring effective people’s participation. It was the beginning of the people’s committee as an instrument of struggle.” 

Within the early days of immediate relief and human rights demands, there were already disagreements over structures of participation. Sathyu Sarangi, another outsider involved in the Zehreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha from the early days remembers:

    “Survivor activists participated in the Morcha as representatives of their individual communities and their participation was mostly sought in mobilising survivors for demonstrations and rarely if at all in important decisionmaking in the organisation. As someone working in the community (as opposed to the leaders who seldom visited the affected areas) I was always troubled by the lack of democracy in the organisation but those were such fire-fighting times that there was very little time ever for discussions on organisational questions. The repression by the state and the practical need for secrecy in the organisation further legitimised the top-down structure.” 

The early wave of action linked urgent provision of services for health and survival with protest. As Sadhna Karnik, also a Morcha activist says:

    “In 1985 we decided to start People’s Health Clinic Jana Swasthya Kendra (JSK) inside Union Carbide premises. Union Carbide Corporation USA was suppressing facts about treatment of the poisons. The post mortem reports of the dead bodies of victims performed on the night of December 2, 1984 showed the cherry red colour of the organs which was clear evidence of cyanide poisoning. But the criminal company UCC refused to acknowledge the presence of cyanide in the poisons that leaked that night.

    “A German doctor had brought a few hundred doses of the cyanide detoxificant sodium thiosulphate (NATS) to Bhopal. State government provided them only to the rich and influential people in Bhopal. JSK … [started administering sodium thiosulphate to victims and] recorded the relief in various symptoms before and after the course of injections of NATS. We also took urine samples of the victims before and after... The higher than normal level of thiocyanate in urine was a clear indication of cyanide poisoning...”

Evidence of cyanide poisoning contradicted Union Carbide’s claim that the gas could not cross into the bloodstream. The clinic was too much of a threat and Jana Swasthya Kendra was raided by police after 20 days, all documents confiscated and volunteer doctors and activists imprisoned. 

Conflict with the state increased until in June 1985 a mass protest at the state secretariat was severely repressed. Alok Pratap Singh takes up the story:

    “All the other leaders were detained in the control room so the rally headed there first to get them released and then headed to the Vallabh Bhavan (Secretariat). We went there to meet the chief minister but he had already fled to Delhi so no policy decisions could be made. The chief secretary called in a delegation of 35 people for discussions… Finally the chief secretary agreed to direct the collector to sort out within a week all of the most basic demands of the people like surveys and medical care.

    “When we returned downstairs to talk to the people all we saw was a sea of footwear. There had been a heavy lathicharge on the people. The movement had been tricked.” 

Workplace unionism – the second wave

The second wave of the movement emerged from several small, independent trade unions. With the establishment of the government rehabilitation schemes in 1985, aimed largely at women, the next phase of activism focused on workplace organisation as wages, terms and conditions, corrupt practices and ultimately the closure of the worksheds were challenged. Women with no history of industrial action or even work outside the home learned the disciplines of trade unionism. Unions such as the small but longstanding Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karmchari Sangh, the short-lived, communist-linked Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Karmchari Ekta and the mass mobilising and sustained Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS) were formed. 

Rabiya Bee, the first convenor of BGPMUS describes its formation.

    “After the gas leak, Nirmala Buch, who was the wife of a government bureaucrat, started an organisation named Swavalamban to generate employment for poor women and widows of the gas disaster. The centre provided stitching, knitting, embroidery and jute work to the women; this ran for one-and-a-half years. There were around 300 women in this centre and around 75 staff members who were divided into various departments… The whole system at the centre was corrupt…

    “When Nirmala Buch began exploiting us it would make me very angry... A proposal to stop the cutting for a day was presented in one of the conversations and it was accepted because that way the centre would come to a standstill and work to all 300 women would stop… Then we decided to go to the chief minister’s … residence and met the security guards who … explained to us the concept of the union and advised us to form a union… They chose me as president because I had the oratory skills, it was god’s gift, and I could speak effectively, and we went to Indore for registration. We needed money for that so we went to where the heavy machinery stores were located and begged for donations.

    “We stopped all work and there was a lockout at the Swalamban centre; when Nirmala learnt about this she shut the shed for a week. Then the women from the sewing unit also joined us because they were anxious to know what had led to the lockout. Some supported us and some opposed us but we went ahead with our plans and registered the union.  

    “Our first meeting was at the Central Library near the Shajahani Park, around 300 women from the entire centre participated. Then we took our first rally to the CM’s residence. We were underestimated at that time by the government but they were yet to taste the real power of women.” 

After little more than a year, many worksheds were closed down, supposedly having achieved their goal of ‘economic rehabilitation’ by retraining a few hundred women. Protecting jobs became a new struggle for the union. Another early leader Rehana Begum describes the change in focus:

    “When the sewing centre was closed down, we were left without money or jobs, we had no choice. So that’s when a few older women suggested a rally because they remembered seeing political parties do it during elections. Our first demonstration was at the chief minister’s house. We did not have anything at that time so we broke some tree branches for the banner and wrote our demands on a dupatta.

    “After 1986 when we succeeded in securing our jobs, people from outside, politicians and trade union leaders, met us and advised us to demand compensation. That’s when the issue of compensation was introduced. After that we began mobilising more women and that’s how our strength grew and we began demonstrations in Delhi.” 

BGPMUS continued to attract membership, not just from the rehabilitation centres but also from amongst gas victims in the bastis, men as well as women. Under the leadership of grassroots organiser Abdul Jabbar Khan, the union expanded its demands from the workplace to other issues, as Mohini Devi describes:

    “To start with it was just workplace issues, and then other things started coming up. So our voices were raised for everything from medical healthcare, economic rehabilitation, compensation, environmental, social etc, or for that matter the continuing rise in prices. For every problem, if you look at it on a larger level, there is a problem that relates all other humans not just the ones suffering in that place and time.

    “We have also worked on communal issues. A lot of [reactionary] religious outfits tried to impose restrictions. Muslim women were abused and beaten because they wanted to step out of their homes and the Hindu women were criticised for joining an organisation led by a Muslim man. We also faced opposition from the Muslim religious leaders who were opposed to Jabbar Bhai’s views on the purdah. I can say with pride that it was only after BGPMUS that the divide between Hindus and Muslims was bridged.” 

Another union, the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karmchari Sangh, was established in the stationary production worksheds by Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi Shukla. Rasheeda tells of how she had never spoken to a male outside her family, and in a few years was using strikes, dharnas, hunger fast and a padayatra to  Delhi to keep the workshed open, regularise pay and bring working conditions in line with other government employees. 

Destitute pensioners

A third strand of the movement developed from an existing group campaigning for the rights of those dependent on state pension and rations to protect them from destitution. The numbers of elderly, disabled and widows greatly increased after the gas disaster as did their needs, and the Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha, led by Balkrishna Namdeo, took up their issues. As Badar Alam, an activist with the group describes:

    “The Pension Bhogi Morcha is a very old organisation. It was formed before the gas disaster and Namdeo-ji was already working on pensions. Since the gas leak he gave the organisation a new direction and included the issues of gas victims into the agenda. The members were already fighters and were used to this kind of work, they did not need to learn anything new, they were already fighting and this issue showed up. The existing organisation Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha (Destitute Pensioners Campaign) took on the gas issue under the banner of Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha.” 

Within a few years of the gas disaster, the Zehreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha had effectively broken up and fragmented into smaller campaign groups. A few of the neighbourhood committees survived and the leadership of the movement moved to these grassroots organisations based in the independent trade unions and pensioners’ campaign. However it was the decision of the Government of India to settle with Union Carbide in 1989 which stimulated a new wave of activist activity. 

(This is Part 1 of a series of articles for Infochange documenting the 25-year history of the Bhopal Survivors’Movement. Eurig Scandrette is lecturer in sociology at the    Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. 

This article is an edited extract from the forthcoming book Bhopal Survivors Speak: Emergent Voices from a People’s Movement. Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study 2009. Word Power Books: Edinburgh.The Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study comprises Eurig Scandrett, Suroopa Mukherjee, Dharmesh Shah, Tarunima Sen and many named and unnamed survivor activists who have contributed.)