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Bhopal gas tragedy: Rs 100 crore memorial may 'expose' visitors to contamination

By Badal Choudhary* 
Life may seem ordinary at large for Bhopal city, but for many, the nightmare of a tragedy still haunts. No one would have imagined that the night of December 2-3, in 1984 was going to leave a forever scar on lakhs of people in Bhopal. The tragedy had an impact not just on human lives, but it also left several repercussions on the environment and contamination of groundwater around the factory site of Union Carbide.
One of the leading activists fighting for the delivery of justice for the victims is Rachna Dhingra. Born in Delhi, she completed most of her education in the United States. She had been associated with welfare associations for relief work for the survivors of the Bhopal disaster.
After completing her graduation in Business Administration from the University of Michigan, she started working with Accenture as a business consultant. Interestingly or coincidently, during her job, one of her clients happened to be Dow chemicals. This incident happened to be the turning point in her life, and she came to Bhopal in 2003 to work in support of the struggle for justice.
During our conversation, she pointed out how the subsequent government in the Centre and the State have been neglecting the issues raised by the survivors. The settlement amount in the US courts amounted to three billion dollars at that time. However, in India, the government settled at 1/7th of the amount. And this had been the case in many corporate settlements in developing countries like India.
Many corporate giants walk by, turning a blind eye to their responsibilities towards the communities and surroundings of their operations. Even after more than three decades of the disaster, the site is yet to be cleaned of the contaminated waste.
Over time, she has been at the forefront of campaigns such as walking from Bhopal to Delhi with supporters to ensure clean drinking water for the affected communities. She points out that authorities are not transparent enough to put forward the consequences due to the disaster.
There have been numerous demands by the communities and activists to carry out an expert-led investigation of the impact on the individuals and environment in the surrounding. In 2019, a study was conducted on the children and progeny of the survivors for any abnormality. But the results were never published. Similarly, there has been evidence of heavy metals in the groundwater, but proper testing for the same has never been ordered.
She says that the state government plans to build a memorial to remember victims by spending Rs 100 crore at the factory site. The plan is proposed without a clear deadline for the clean-up of the site. The implementation can expose the visitors to risks without complete removal of contamination.
The settlement amount in US courts was estimated at $3 billion. However, in India, the government settled at 1/7th of the amount
The state government has a separate department to overlook the rehabilitation of gas victims. Rachna shared that there are empaneled hospitals like the Bhopal Memorial Hospital dedicated to serving the gas victims. However, its functioning is hampered by administrative issues like allocation of funds, lack of dedicated bureaucracy, to name a few.

Activism during Covid

Rachna Dhingra, with her organization -- The Bhopal Group of Information and Action --demanded the resumption of the widow pension of Rs 1000 per month, which was stopped for 20 months, citing lack of funds due to covid. This non-transfer of funds happened when the widows were the most vulnerable and in need of assistance.
Rachna also pointed out that due to the pandemic and the post covid complications, the number of causalities in the gas victims is four times more than other individuals implying severe cases of co-morbidities arising due to the gas disaster.
Despite a movement continuing for more than three decades, there is constant support outpouring from the local and international communities. Rachna believes that the younger generation has a more significant role in spreading awareness and using newer means of communication to get the voices heard by the power holders.
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*Pursuing MBA from Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore

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