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)