The country’s two best known struggles are waging a battle for justice under the trees of Jantar Mantar in the capital the Narmada dam oustees and Bhopal gas victims. Both have a 20-year history, albeit emerging from different contexts. Having borne the brunt of state brutality and yet remaining non-violent, they have been documented and recognised by the international community.
The Bhopal gas tragedy killed more than 7,000 people and injured many within two or three days. In the last 21 years, at least another 15,000 have died and more than 1,00,000 suffer from chronic illnesses caused by exposure to gas. Nobody has been held responsible for the leak till date. The plant site has not been cleaned. As a result, toxic wastes continue to pollute the environment and contaminate water that surrounding communities rely on.
In Narmada, the planners considered a geographical area without taking into account the people and environment for making a cascade of dams, starting with Sardar Sarovar at the west end of the river.
A considerably good rehabilitation package was prepared and integrated into the law, but never implemented by the states in letter and spirit. In spite of non-violent protests, the dam continued to go up. Emotions in favour of the dam were flared up, sometimes to absurd levels, by the states.
It put the lives and livelihoods of over 44,000 families (or nearly 2.25 lakh people) at peril in western parts of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, according to official figures. As the World Bank review committee noted, another three lakh people still await the magic wand for being recognised as project-affected.
The role of the judiciary in these two issues has been disappointing. It dragged proceedings for years, its pronouncements on human rights actually yielding little on the ground. Its refusal to hold people responsible for violations of law encouraged more violations, and cemented the state’s conviction that they were not accountable to anyone. Calling Narmada Bachao Andolan Publicity Interest Litigation or Private Inquisitiveness Litigation was totally uncalled for.
Bhopal or Narmada, by not being able to translate into significant vote banks, failed to find a meaningful mention in common minimum programmes of parties or political formations. Till a decade back, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party lent unstinting support to the dam in their election manifestos in Gujarat. In the case of both the struggles, the Centre and state governments kept passing the buck, frustrating the people. Politicians, once out of power, wholeheartedly supported the struggles. When elected to power, they busied themselves with other things and avoided taking action.
In the absence of an active media, these struggles would not have reached out to a large multitude. In the initial days of the struggle, when sting operations were confined to Bollywood movies and TRP ratings did not decide the news, the media had more space and time to report and analyse these issues. It helped generate a debate in civil society about development, human rights and state’s responsibilities.
But now media would rather devote space and time to details of ‘wardrobe malfunction’, and heap scorn on these struggles as the very height of all impediments. Hence, the over one lakh families rendered homeless due to demolitions in Mumbai and Delhi, or the hundreds of farmer suicides in many states, do not come under ‘breaking news’. Two groups of protestors sitting at a distance of a few metres from each other at Jantar Mantar do not invite much media attention. Nor can they pose any political threat to the government, though they are only a couple of kilometres away from Parliament. Their presence in Delhi with demands for a just rehabilitation speaks volumes for India’s human rights record. Unless that record is set straight, talk of 10 per cent growth or the Sensex crossing 11K does not make India developed or, for that matter, even civilised.
(The writer is with Amnesty International. Views expressed are personal.)
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