Bhopal Gas Disaster: A larger crisis of Development!

It has been more than a month that the Bhopal High Court making mockery of all sense of justice passed the shocking judgment on the Bhopal gas disaster, almost 26 years after the incident, that had resulted in the death of more than 25,000 people along with inducing genetic mutations and deformities amongst many more with the numbers still on the rise. Another name was thus added to the long list of non violent struggles which in the past few decades have knocked on the door of every institution of this country for justice and have in turn been humiliated. However this time around, the criminal insensitivity of the Indian state towards the victims and the impunity provided to Union Carbide for the worst industrial catastrophe in human history seem to have evoked strong sentiments amongst many, with even the media, which for long has been acting as a spokesperson of various corporations, joining the debate. However while the terms of debate within the corporate media have revolved around higher compensation for the survivors, Anderson’s extradition, location of the plant, or even ‘what would have happened if a similar catastrophe happened in the US’, etc. there has been hardly any focus on questioning the development policy pursued by the Indian state over the past 6 decades. And here in lies the catch. Despite all the passionate rhetoric that media persons and various mainstream political parties have been employing ever since the judgment, an inability to question the ‘developmental’ policy of the Indian state and why it happened would only lead us to confusing the symptoms with the disease and would be, to quote economist R.S.Rao, “like Union Carbide’s suggestion for treating the gas victims symptomatically”. While these are definitely legitimate questions to be put up before the Indian state but to restrict the debate to only these would be to trivialize the entire disaster.

Answers to questions such as why Anderson was allowed to move scot free by the Indian state and even flown out on a government plane; why it took theCBI almost 3 years to even file a charge-sheet; why were the charges greatly diluted in 1996 by the Justice AM Ahmadi Bench and why despite large and sustained protests and campaigns over the past 26 years the Bhopal high court made the judgment in which Union Carbide’s subsidiary in India was fined a paltry amount and the guilty were sentenced to a mere 2 years imprisonment only to get bail within a few hours; why there was not even a single word on Warren Anderson become clear only when they are probed within the context of the logic and survival of the larger ‘developmental’ paradigm of the Indian state. The blame for all this, as the corporate media would want us to believe, can not be placed on the usual suspects—corruption, inefficient judiciary, etc. The disaster in Bhopal rather than an ‘unfortunate accident’ or ‘death due to negligence’, as the Bhopal high court and many sections of the establishment would want us to believe, is intrinsically linked with the ‘developmental’ model of the Indian state of which Warren Anderson was just another face and therefore saving him became important. It is an illustrious fall out of Indian state’s reliance on pesticide-fertilizer-high yielding variety as a technological alternative to structural change in agrarian relations to raise agricultural production.

Though it might seem surprising to many, but the central cause to disasters like Bhopal is once again rooted in the question of land. There is an urgent need to understand this specially in the context of massive land grabs by corporations abetted by the various state and the central governments going on in different parts of the country. Unlike the rich industrialized countries, where agricultural revolution preceded the industrial revolution, India has tried imposing the latter without completing the former. Despite all the rhetoric of ‘all land to the tiller’ and ‘Nehruvian socialism’ in the decades of 50’s and 60’s, the land reform programme in India, comprising of abolition of intermediaries, security on tenancy and ceilings on landholding, remains a largely unfinished business (a fact accepted even by the government in its recent report of the Committee On State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms). The failure to break the social power of the landlords on the one hand and to enlist the social support of the rural masses on the other has left the bulk of the farmers with neither the means nor the incentive to produce leading to large scale impoverishment in the countryside. Even the little surplus that has been produced is largely appropriated by the landlords let alone being reinvested in the agrarian sector to further the diversification of agricultural production and give an impetus to agro-based industries. There are glaring evidences to still show that most of these surplus extracted are being utilized for unproductive purposes. Further the industries that have been set up have become more and more parasitic on the surplus generated in the rural scenario. To follow the argument of  Prof. RS Rao “at the economic level the structural change, in addition to increasing agricultural production by utilizing unutilized resources, would have created an expanding market for industrial commodities…Given mass participation the needs of the masses would have directed industry, towards items useful for constructing small houses to live in, clothes to wear and food to eat, etc. which would have generated a different product mix for the society, unlike the conspicuous TV type of consumption.” There is an urgent need to revisit the development policy of the Indian State since 1947 which has been heavily reliant on foreign aid and technology that was imported to meet the needs of various ‘core industrial needs.’

The absence of such a structural change and the reliance on technological alternative has made the sell out to imperialism complete and resulted in the increasing dependence of the state on foreign loans, foreign investment or ‘foreign aid’ from the US to ‘increase productivity’ leading India into a perpetual state of indebtedness. According to the World Debt Tables, the total external debt of India (long term public and publicly guaranteed, short term debt and the use of IMF credit) rose from $ 19,334.1 million in 1980 to $ 31,777.1 million in 1984. It further spiraled up to $ 71,557 million in 1991 (World Debt Tables, World Bank). In this year itself, it recorded an increase of 16.5 per cent over the end-March 2009 level. This massive and mounting external debt has had serious ramifications. On one hand this has resulted in the farmers being trapped into a vicious cycle of dependence on pesticide-fertilizer-high yielding variety and other expensive farm inputs, while on the other hand massive tax exemptions have been given to large corporate houses and best fertile land have been opened up for corporate industrialisation largely for exports. Even on the question of increasing productivity, technological imports, most of which for long have now been considered as obsolete in the industrialized West and an alternative to which can be produced locally, have only further exacerbated dependence on imperialist ‘aid’. The presence of atmospheric vents in the methyl isocynate (MIC) tank (through which the gas escaped), the nonexistence of safety measures like the vent gas scrubber (VGS) used to neutralise toxic release, and flare towers (FT) to burn MIC vapours to mention only few of the key design downgrades in the Bhopal plant is a classic example of how obsolete and under funded technology was dumped in a third world country at an immense risk to its citizens. Not surprisingly, the plant in the US did not suffer from any such defects.

With the subsequent adoption of the so called new economic policy and shift towards more liberalization there is an attempt on the part of the ruling elite, irrespective of the party in power, to privatize almost every sector in pursuit of raw materials, new markets and cheap labour. Such a policy that involves massive cost cutting measures, relegating questions of safety of the workers and the inhabitants to the background and ensures almost no accountability on the part of the corporations will only lead to many more Bhopal like disasters. This was probably what Manmohan Singh implied when he said “Bhopals will happen but the country has to progress.”  Such ‘structural adjustments’ have had certain important consequences- by giving US and other imperialist countries extensive influence over the Indian economy and by compromising on India’s economic independence, a compromise on India’s political independence is the most serious one amongst them- something which is fairly evident in the Indian ruling elite’s inability to take decisions independent of US or for that matter any other imperialist powers on almost every issue.

Bhopal gas disaster is just a manifestation of the necessities of a larger interest of a compromise with feudalism entrapping India further into the imperialist orbit. But certainly not the only one! Ever since the transfer of power in 1947, the ‘developmental’ policies followed by the Indian State be it in the form of big dams, a mining policy largely in favour of corporations and big monopoly houses, continuation of colonial policies leading to a sell out of natural resources, etc. have all contributed to the destruction of millions of livelihoods for super profit for a few. The tragedy that is unfolding in the forests of Central India in the form of an all out war by the Indian State against the tribals in the name of ‘Operation Green hunt’ supposedly to bring ‘law and order’ and ‘development’ is a part of the same social process and just another manifestation of the entrenched feudal and imperialist hold over the Indian economy. It will remain a utopian premise to think that it is possible to fight against all this within the coordinates of the existing social order. What we are witnessing today are the consequences of the present social order. Structural change as a way out of the imperialist orbit, something that would disturb the existing social base of the Indian state, is a historical task confronting all anti-feudal, anti-imperialist forces in the country today. How creative they would prove to this challenge despite great odds against them from both within and outside remains to be seen.

(To be published in Towards a New Dawn)

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Failure of Democracy in India-Say no to use of Army and Air Force against our own people

How many times can a man turn his head,

And pretend that he just doesn’t see

-Bob Dylan

A spectre is haunting the Indian ruling class-the spectre of Maoism. All powers have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: P. Chidambram and Mohan Bhagwat, Manmohan Singh and Raman Singh, Budhhadev Bhattacharya and Tarun Vijay, N. Ram and Arnab Goswami. On various platforms, both national and international, our prime minister and home minister have been telling the world how it is the ‘biggest internal

Police atrocities in Lalgarh

threat’ facing the Indian nation. Corporate backed mainstream media houses have been penning down stories telling us about the trigger happy ways of the Maoists. What is surely left out quite intentionally in these stories is the context, or the socio-economic roots of the movement or even the innumerable atrocities committed by state backed militias in different parts of the country. Hundreds of villages have been evacuated in Chattisgarh alone and the mainstream media (barring a few exceptions) never found time to document it. Women of Chattisgarh are alleging rape by Salwa Judum men, but the courts in India refuse to listen. Only recently in September in Chattisgarh, the state personnel stabbed 19 people to death, raped the women, cut off the breasts of a 70 year old woman, cut off the fingers and tongue of a 2 year old kid. And precisely when the people retaliate on these forces, these mercenaries become national heroes overnight for the government. Police atrocities in Lalgarh crossed all limits, and the Central or the State Governement never found time to even acknowledge it. And the moment people rose up in rebellion, the Central Government wasted no time in cooperating with the state government in West Bengal to crush the movement. And who was it these forces crushing-its very own citizens, in fact the most impoverished ones, fighting against deprivation, destitution and for a life of dignity. However we have been told is that this is a fight against terrorism, and surely when it comes to terrorism it is blasphemous in our country to ask for any more details, it doesn’t matter if poverty is equated with terrorism.

War against ‘Terror’

In the last few days, the Indian government has deployed 100,000 troops in parts of central India, including Chattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand. Forces are being withdrawn from Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast to join battalions of CRPF commandos, the ITBP, the CoBRA and the BSF. There is also talk of bringing in the Rashtriya Rifles – a battalion created specially for counter-insurgency work – and the purchase of bomb trucks, bomb blankets, bomb baskets, and sophisticated new weaponry. The Air Force has already been deployed and a full scale air operation is in the offing. There are reports that the operation in Jharkand has already started. There are also reports that the police and paramilitary forces have tortured people in Hardali village in Girdih district and Fatehpur village in Ranchi district. Indiscriminate arrests have also taken place. In short the Indian state has declared war against its most oppressed population. It is not a mere coincidence that the same region of Central India is highly rich in minerals, which can be sold to the highest bidders once the region is evacuated in the name of fighting the Maoists. Hundred of MoU’s have already been signed. All that stands between the politicians and this wealth are the tribals.

India was the one of the first countries to extend its hand of friendship to Sri Lanka in its recent genocidal war against Tamils. It also supported the rejection of a UN intervention by the Sri Lankan government this war. Home Minister P. Chidambram (former lawyer for Enron-the corporate involved in the biggest scam in the country and member of the board of directors of Vedanta, the multinational that is devastating the Niyamgari hills in Orissa) told us this was the perfect model to be adopted in India to fight the ‘Red menace’.  The reasons now seem pretty clear. The 5th the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution grants tribals complete rights over their traditional land and forests and prohibits private companies from mining on their land. Once the area is evacuated, like the Sri Lankan model, which by the way Salwa Judum has already been doing for the past few years in Chattisgarh, the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution will not apply, and the land can easily be handed over to the multi-nationals. And we were told only the Maoists didn’t respect the Indian constitution!

The NEP and its Consequences

Under Manmohan Singh as the finance minister in the year 1991, India opened up its markets to corporate globalization under the guise of making the economy more ‘efficient’. The consequences have been disastrous to say the least. Foreign capital, collaborating with and dominating over Indian capital, has acquired a strategic role hold over the economy. More Indians are below the poverty line than ever before. Malnutrition around the country is worse than at the time of Independence. The Arjun Sengupta report revealed that 77% of the population lives under Rs. 20 a day. The new economic policy has attacked whatever little access the poor had to forests, lands, water resources, etc.  Lakhs of farmers have committed suicide, over a lakh in the small district of Vidarbha alone.

Farmer suicides in Andhra-Around 25 farmers committed suicide within a period of 50 days around August 2009

The state is pulling out of its responsibilities even in sectors like education, health care, etc. The country’s healthcare sector is one of the most privatized ones in the world, even worse than that of the US. The problem of displacement has intensified to a great level in this era of privatization and free market. However, at the same time through the non-payment of taxes, through a variety of subsidies and transfers, and through lucrative state support, corporate fortunes have been built up. This period has also seen the rise of a burgeoning middle class, more indifferent and insensitive than ever and aesthetically, culturally, socially, politically at an all time low, making the situation even more depressing. What we are witnessing in our country, to quote Arundhati Roy is the ‘most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in independent India — the secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country.’ It is not a big surprise that our films, books and news channels also no longer speak about such issues. The priorities seem to have changed. In fact most of these purveyors of public opinion are funded by the same corporates who have brought the country to the brink of a civil war.

The apologists of the ruling class who point to the 9% growth rate as an indicator of the benefits of the 1991 ‘reforms’ should realize that the only meaningful criteria of economic progress is whether increased national incomes are available to the people. When the efforts of the working people produce wealth for a non-working minority, when the working people are deprived of their rightful share in the increased national income, what takes place is not progress but more exploitation and deterioration of the people’s living conditions. In fact, absorption into the imperialist sector does not mean that there will be no growth or development, only that it would be highly exclusionary and uneven and would mean intensified exploitation and greater misery for the vast majority. Therefore the way forward is not continued development, but a revolutionary break with the entire capitalist system. As imperialism always consists of unequal and uneven development, revolution is not only a possibility but a must.

P.Chidambram who insists upon only a military solution to the entire ‘problem’, recently came up with a wider developmental plan. According to him, once the entire Maoist presence is ‘wiped/flushed’ out, he will go ahead with his ‘developmental’ plan which, he says, will bring employment to the area. However, the fact of the matter is that the entire fight is against such a development model-one that is undertaken by multinationals, is exclusionary and displaces ten times more people than it employs. What he is offering is not the solution, but the problem itself.

Mode of Struggle

A lot of intellectuals, activists opposed to concept of armed struggle have pointed out that such a strategy has no place in a democracy. However there is an important need to question how democratic is ‘Indian democracy’? More than 90% of all independent candidates lost the current Lok Sabha elections, only underlining the fact that it is impossible to win an election without party support (which once again is funded by certain corporates). A democracy survives on certain institutions. However in the case of Indian society, in this era of free market, all these institutions, be it the press, judiciary, administration or even the civil society have been reduced to commodities to be sold to highest bidders. The class bias of Indian judiciary has also been quite well documented. The courts remain virtually inaccessible to a vast majority of is citizens. Even when they have been approached, the poor have got an unfavorable response, while at the same time powerful corporates have got highly favorable verdicts.  To cite a recent example in a case regarding urban slum dwellers the courts have gone to the extent of passing judgments which say “rewarding an encroacher on public land with a free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket.” At the same time a recent Supreme Court judgement, allowing the Vasant Kunj Mall to resume construction though it didn’t have the requisite clearances, said that the questions of corporations indulging in malpractice does not arise! According to Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan part of the reason for this “lies in the class structure of the Indian judiciary. The higher judiciary in India comes from the elite section of the society and has become a self appointing and self perpetuating oligarchy.” The state has also ignored virtually all non-violent resistance movements in the past be it in Bhopal or the ‘Narmada Bachao’ movement. The movement launched by the PCPA in Lalgarh against police atrocities, asking police forces to apologize for molesting women, was ruthlessly crushed. Various human rights activists who have spoken out against such policies have also been time and again targeted by the state. The case of Binayak Sen is well known who spent almost 2 years in prison only because the state felt it important to silence him for sometime to go ahead with its genocidal policies. Extra-judicial killings of political workers in some of these struggles are also a known phenomenon. The West Bengal government only last month arrested political activists who had been vocal in their ciriticism of the government. As economist Paul Sweezy points out ‘Third World countries that ally with the advanced capitalist countries are characterized by military or police state of one kind or another.’ India, under the garb of being the ‘world’s largest democracy’ is a police state in large parts of the country and is fast turning more authoritarian state with every passing day. The government uses draconian laws like AFSPA, UAPA, MCOCA, Official Secrets Act, Chattisgarh Public Security Act to silence all voices of dissent and to suppress people’s movements. It is impossible for the dominant classes to maintain high rates of exploitation without such coercion. At such a moment if people decide to pick up arms just because every other option has ended in despair, it is important on our part to realize the conditions that has led to such a situation. To sit in urban citadels and discredit the entire movement as a ‘terrorist movement’ will not just be wrong but also unethical. It will not only amount to supporting the status quo but will also legitimize the violence that is entrenched in the very structure of our so called ‘democracy’.

What we are witnessing is a failure of democracy. A democracy is known by how it treats its most vulnerable sections. If the most vulnerable sections of the country look up to the Maoists and not the Indian state for help, does it not mean that the Maoists are democratic in their outlook and worldview than the Indian state. It is important to realize that the Maoist movement has certain socio-economic roots and has highlighted certain genuine people’s issues. The current counter-insurgency strategy planned by the Indian state will only lead to death of thousands. This war is being fought in our name and against our own people. It is important to resist this and to let the Manmohan-Chidambram-Budhhadev fascist clique know that this war might satisfy the interests of their corporate lobbies, bit is certainly not in the national interest.

(This article was  published in Radiance Viewsweekly dated 14 November 2009 and Towards a New Dawn– November-December 2009)