Bhopal disaster - 20 years on (part II)

Challenging the situation

Feature story - November 26, 2004
Imagine waking up one morning to find that dangerous chemicals have contaminated your home and community, and that the culprits are ignoring your plight. That is the reality that both Paul and Ruby faced at a very early age. But rather than become victims, they chose to become warriors.

The river in Midland now has a danger sign warning people of the pollutants in it. The pollution comes from the Dow plant upstream and Dow has refused to clean up its own pollution.

Paul and Ruby have been campaigning for their local environment and taking on a large corporation at a time in life when most teenagers are more concerned with the latest music, movie or fashion. Rather then ignore the situation they are taking on the system. Read more below about their experiences and what called them into action.

Paul

Before knowing I was living with Dow's dioxin, I wasn't very political. When I found out about the dioxin in my yard, the parks and every place I have lived in, I was enraged. I felt as if I was stuck on a rollercoaster. For many days I had this feeling of nausea and disgust.

I knew I couldn't just sit around and be quiet anymore. I started campaigning in my high school by placing announcements throughout the school about the toxic damage in our town. I would say the majority of my graduating class knew about the issue. All my teachers knew because I would talk to them about it. This made me I realise that raising awareness is an important step.

Understand I only play a small role in this issue. There are others from environmental groups and the state and federal government who are working day and night. Their dedication marked the beginning for me, it gave me the inspiration to stand up and have a progressive part. Over the years I have listened to these people and have learned from them and I am applying their knowledge. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have been as active and knowledgeable today.

What truly set in stone my determination to fight Dow was its annual stockholders meeting in 2004. There I met many people from around the globe, united in making Dow accountable for all its atrocious crimes.

It was a feeling of deep sadness, and yet great inspiration for me, listening to story after story of toxic threats, especially the issues concerning Bhopal. It was extremely depressing listening about these events and struggles. But while I listened I thought to myself that these people hadn't quit and will never quit. At that moment I knew I couldn't ever quit and will continue to be active for as long as it takes. Those few days around Dow's stockholders meeting were enough to energize and inspire me to the extent that I will never lose the need to fight and help others Dow has wronged.

Now I am away at college and have started a petition asking for the university to stop all donations from Dow until it cleans up the toxic waste in Bhopal and the Tittabawassee River. It has been an interesting experience and I can certainly point out who is from Midland when talking to people. It seems that most of the people are more concerned about getting funding and the cost of tuition rates than threats to other people. That's the majority of the US for you!

I know it will be a rough ride ahead, but the last two and a half years of watching others actively take on state congressmen and gather knowledge of the issues, will guide me in my efforts. The thoughts of those few days around the Dow's stockholders meeting will always be engraved in my memory. I will draw on the inspiration that the people of Bhopal and elsewhere filled within me, to encourage me to succeed.

Ruby

For more than half my life, I have witnessed one simple fact of life - some people make mistakes, while others live with the consequences of those mistakes.

Nobody can forget that night of 2-3 December 1984, even if they try. I have seen how my grandmother suffered - even a year after the tragedy, she would be so ill that my mother had to spend four days a week in the hospital with her. Our neighbours too faced much the same situation. It was as though life itself had forgotten how to smile in Bhopal.

When I was in Class Seven, my favourite teacher was Malavika Joshi, she taught me environmental science. One entire chapter in my textbook was about chemical disasters, and the first example was the Union Carbide gas disaster of 1984. She gave us a whole month and 18 days to research our subject. She set us a challenge too: the pupil who presented the most detailed notes about the gas disaster would be given the opportunity to present a project at the school's Annual Day and would also win a cash award.

Fired by this challenge, I sought the help of all my family members - my mother was a great help, and thanks to her, I won the prize for the best project. Now that I look back at it that was probably when I first got drawn into the campaign, because I really did a lot of research about the gas leak.

It was around the same time that Satyu, who now runs the survivor's clinic here, came to Bhopal and stayed in my uncle's house. He told my mother that he wanted to help the gas victims, and to set up an organisation to work towards rehabilitation of their health. My mother agreed to join him, and thus began a long story.

There seemed a new hunger for the campaign - a hunger for justice, not just for one individual but for all the people of Bhopal.

As I grew up, I became a part of the struggle too. Since my handwriting and drawing were rather good, Satyu used to ask me to help the campaigners draw and paint banners. While painting the banners and posters, I would often add my own words to the slogans. Armed with those banners and posters, we'd march down to the Union Carbide factory, shouting slogans. I started enjoying the work.

When my school teachers would see my pictures in the newspaper, shouting slogans and campaigning outside Union Carbide, they would praise me and encourage me. My friends would tease me and call me a 'Leader', because in India, that is what most political leaders do - lead processions and shout slogans.

Every year, on the 2-3 December, people in Bhopal would mark the anniversary of the disaster while other communities prepared for festivals like Diwali and Christmas. We would make a huge effigy of Warren Anderson (CEO of Union Carbide at the time), then take it on a procession, to right outside the gates of the factory site. Once there, we would beat the effigy with gusto, then set it alight - this annual ritual was a vent for our collective anger against the corporation, the factory and its CEO.

Soon, Satyu started giving me the responsibility of showing foreign journalists around Bhopal, because I knew the localities well, and had many friends amongst the survivors.

One of the people I took on the 'Bhopal disaster tour' was a French lady called Martina who invited us to France. She said there had been a similar industrial disaster in a French place called Toulouse in September 2000. She wanted to establish the fact that both Toulouse and Bhopal were victims of the same evil and if the people of both cities were to fight against such chemical factories together, both communities would benefit.

We have taken the Bhopal issue to many parts of the country, indeed, even the world. When we visited Toulouse, it truly felt as if we were in a different part of our own Bhopal. The circumstances, the people, everything was the same. Each night, we would meet the survivors. It felt good to see that they were thinking about our disaster as well, and to feel that we were contributing to each other's battles.

Also in Paris, we met members of the European Parliament, described our present situation to them, and invited them to visit Bhopal. We even visited the World Social Forum in our country, and staged a street play there to present the Bhopal issues to a new audience, in an interesting new way.

My fight is still on - God knows how many young girls like myself have seen their dreams destroyed by the disaster. I don't want any other Ruby to have to live with a reality as grim as mine. I fight, and I wait. I wait for the time when this struggle will be over. But before it is, I have many questions that need to be answered by the people who allowed this poisonous factory into our lives.

What part of their conscience allows them to open such a poisonous factory in the middle of a residential area? If another such disaster is to occur, who is to be held responsible for it?

Doesn't the community (in which the factory is being set up) have the right to know what is being produced, and what the risks from the factory are? And if a disaster were to occur, then how long will it take to clean up the damage caused by the disaster?

If a disaster of this magnitude were to take place in any other country except India, they would have to answer many questions, be chased by many laws, but in India, a quick cover-up is all it takes. Why these double standards? No matter which part of the world faces such a disaster, the impact is felt by the community and the environment.

Next Week

In the last part of our series, published next week, Paul and Ruby look to the future.

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