Thursday, February 26, 2009

the bhopal disaster: 25 years later

Will the notorious chemical tragedy in India claim a third generation of victims?

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 26, 2009

BHOPAL, Madhya Pradesh, India — In the dim light of her two-room shack opposite the site of one of the world's worst industrial disasters, the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, Leelabai Ahirwar delivers a quiet account of the event that ruined her life.

“I myself am still affected by the gas,” the 45-year-old mother of four says. “I suffer from chest pains, and I often feel like I'm about to die. But my children are worse off. My daughter is anemic and her body swells up mysteriously, and my son, Jagdish, never grew properly, so he looks like he is only 14 years old, even though he is almost 22.”

A few minutes into our discussion, Ahirwar calls Jagdish, her stunted son, in from the other room. His elfin features and tiny stature make him look more like a nine year old than the 14 or 15 his mother claimed. But he produces a birth certificate that proves he's 21. “We took him to the doctor many times,” says Ahirwar. “But they don't listen.”

That's no surprise. Jagdish isn't the only young person in this Bhopal slum to suffer from an unexplained ailment. Though there has been no official study of the longterm effects of the gas leak and lingering environmental damage, anecdotal evidence suggests that the residents who remain trapped in the disaster zone live in serious peril. A 2002 report revealed poisons such as 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane, chloroform, lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women living near the factory. A 2003 survey by the Sambhavan Clinic found that half of the residents of this neighborhood suffer from respiratory problems, anemia, headaches and nausea. The clinic also found a higher than average number of birth defects.
At five minutes past midnight on Dec. 3, 1984, some 30 tons of toxic chemicals spewed into the air from an insecticide factory — then owned by Union Carbide — not a stone's throw from Ahirwar's home. Within minutes, poison gas billowed over this poverty-stricken slum community while residents slept. Ahirwar, then 20 years old, and her husband hid under a blanket, only finding out what had transpired the next morning. Up to 8,000 people died over the next few weeks, and as many as 20,000 more in the subsequent months. And that was only the beginning. Unable to relocate due to poverty, residents have continued to drink contaminated water and breathe acrid-tasting air for two generations — with horrifying consequences.

Subsequent investigations revealed that Union Carbide had not taken adequate safety precautions, and the company cut corners to reduce operation costs. Eventually, in an out-of-court settlement reached in 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million for damages caused in the Bhopal disaster, 15 percent of the original $3 billion claimed in the lawsuit. By the end of October 2003, according to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, compensation had been awarded to 554,895 people for injuries received and 15,310 survivors of those killed. The average amount to families of the dead was $2,200 — a piddling amount that echoed an argument made by a Carbide defense lawyer: "How can one determine the damage inflicted on people who live in shacks?"

And after Union Carbide was sold to Dow Chemical in 2001, the new owners denied they were liable for the site, and have refused to clean up the area or pay additional compensation to the new victims — now in the second and even third generation.
“The contaminated water issue was never part of the settlement, even though Union Carbide knew about it in 1984,” says Rachna Dhingra, a 31-year-old Indian-American activist who works with the Sambhavna Trust. “About 30,000 people living behind the factory are still drinking that water.”

As a visitor, you can't deny that living conditions here are miserable. Union Carbide pumped industrial waste into two solar evaporation ponds just across the street from this overcrowded residential area. Though many years have passed, activists say that the ponds still leak contaminants into the drinking water supply.

And as late as 2005 — 20 years too late — some 340 tons of toxic waste was collected from a locked warehouse on the old factory grounds. I tasted the difference in the air immediately when I stepped out of my taxi from the nicer part of town — where Bhopal surrounds a surprisingly large, clean-looking lake.

Twenty-five years after the gas leak, there may be some hope on the horizon. In November, a New York appeals court reinstated plaintiffs’ claims against Union Carbide Corporation for contaminating water around the Bhopal plant, reversing a lower court’s dismissal of the case. And — pending a new financial settlement — local activists' commitment is paying off. After two marches from Bhopal to Delhi, a distance of some 750 kilometers, the victims of the gas tragedy are seeing some action on items they have been demanding since 1987.

“We got an empowered commission on Bhopal to look into the medical, social and environmental rehabilitation of the area,” says Dhingra. “It will have independent powers and representatives from various service organizations as well as the government.” Dhingra hopes that will mean effective programs instead of feel-good boondoggles. It would be a big change. “Till now, more than 80 crores ($16 million) has been spent on creating jobs, but they've not been able to create even 80 jobs,” says Dhingra.

Today, there's one sign of change that's visible to all: Construction is underway on a network of pipes to provide clean water to the area. “Within three months, the pipeline will be laid,” says Dhingra. “For me, that's a big thing.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

the real slumdogs

According to Indian street kids, charges that "Slumdog Millionaire" is offensive are more hype than substance.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 17, 2009

DELHI — When the cast of the faux-Bollywood hit "Slumdog Millionaire" hits the
red carpet for the Oscars Feb. 22, the film's Indian distributors will have one eye on another contest underway in India, which serves as the movie's backdrop. This one will take place Feb. 25 in Mumbai's Andheri Sessions Court, where Slumdog faces charges that it is offensive.

But try telling that to some of India's real street kids — like 13-year-old Faisal, who lives in a group home for wayward boys near the New Delhi railway station — and you quickly find out that there's more hype than substance to the charges.
"It's a nice film," Faisal told me after I took him and three other "slumdogs" to see the movie. "Some of the things it shows are right, some things are wrong. It's a movie."

As the Andheri court case suggests, Slumdog's optimistic love story has been surprisingly controversial here, where many see it as yet more evidence that the West continues to view India as a land of filth and poverty and incomprehensible religious violence.

But that's not how real street kids see it. At a seedy theater on the outskirts of Old Delhi where director Danny Boyle's Bollywood tribute was showing in Hindi, the four former street kids, now in their teens, laughed with glee when the young Jamal jumped into the open latrine so he wouldn't miss his chance to get an autograph from film star Amitabh Bachchan.

From the grin on his face, it was clear beyond doubt that 17-year-old Sanjay's favorite part of the movie was the sequence shot in and around the Taj Mahal, where Jamal and Salim earn an excellent living as guides, scamming tourists with ludicrous made-up tales about the tomb's historical origins. "There were some funny dialogues," he sheepishly explained later. It was obviously a familiar scenario.

The Andheri case is only one among several that have sought to censor the India-inspired Oscar candidate — which is up for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.
In addition to the case lodged against the film's title in Andheri, a Bihar slum-dwellers' organization has filed a defamation case against composer A.R. Rahman and star Anil Kapoor in Patna.

Meanwhile, a Gujarat-based non-governmental organization has filed for a stay on the film's release due to its title.

"We have raised a question whether we Indians are dogs," said advocate Meena Jagtap, who is a founding member of the organization. Still another group, the right-wing Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, has petitioned the Indian censor board to ban the film because of its depiction of a pogrom against Muslims by followers of the Hindu god Ram.

But for Faisal and Sanjay — along with 19-year-old Brijesh and 17-year-old Iqbal, my other two guests — "Slumdog Millionaire" depicts a fantasy version of a very real chance to escape dead-end lives of petty crime and mind-numbing jobs. Today, Brijesh and Faisal earn pocket money as tour guides for foreign tourists interested in understanding New Delhi's crowded slums. Far from considering "Slumdog Millionaire" an affront, they're pleased with its simultaneously gritty and glamorous depiction of kids like themselves.

It's easy to see why. As Dickensian as it must seem to movie audiences in the West, the hardscrabble existence that "Slumdog Millionaire" depicts is eerily familiar to these kids.

Brijesh, for example, ran away from his aunt's house when he was just 9 years old. "They used me like a slave," he says. He hopped a passenger train without knowing where it was headed, slept all night seated on the toilet with the bathroom door locked because he didn't have a ticket, and finally jumped off again in the grim industrial town of Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh. "I was crying under a railway bridge because I was hungry, and this boy came along and asked me if I had run away."
A fellow runaway, the boy taught Brijesh how to earn a living by collecting empty water bottles, refilling them from the railway station's bathroom tap and selling them on the platform for half the price of genuine purified water.

"After one year, I was sniffing glue and smoking cigarettes, and I'd been sent to prison," he says — referring to a juvenile detention center. "The first time, I was locked up for 14 days. The next time, it was 42 days." In India, this meant spending all day locked in a small room with 25 other boys.

Today Brijesh and company aren't exactly millionaires.

But in a sense, they have hit the jackpot — perhaps ironically — due to another film about Indian street kids, called "Salaam Bombay," that also drew criticism when it was released. All four boys were "rescued" from Delhi's streets by a non-governmental organization called the Salaam Balak Trust, which was started by director Mira Nair after she made "Salaam Bombay." The former street kids got counseling, protection and a place to live. And a chance at a better life. Brijesh, for instance, has finished high school and is now studying for a college degree in tourism. And Faisal has already acted in a feature film — a fact that became screamingly obvious when I asked him how "Slumdog" differed from a Bollywood movie.

"An Indian director would only use two or three cameras, at most," he says authoritatively. "Danny Boyle used at least four or five."

Friday, February 13, 2009

india: a million romeos, a million juliets

What happens when love is stronger than caste?

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 13, 2009

NEW DELHI — Not long ago in the south Indian city of Hyderabad, television viewers
were treated to a real-life soap opera as newscasters interrupted the regular TV programming to broadcast the elopement of 19-year-old Sreeja Konidela and 23-year-old Shirish Bharadwaj — just one of the millions of Romeo-and-Juliet couples who are hammering cracks into the foundation of Indian society.

Because the youngsters came from different sub-castes and different economic backgrounds, Sreeja's father — a hugely popular South Indian film star named Chiranjeevi — had forbidden them from dating and kept Sreeja under virtual house arrest for more than a year.

But Chiranjeevi's untold wealth, police connections and implicit authority as a superstar were nothing compared with the power of love.

They didn't catch a glimpse of one another for all that time, but Shirish and Sreeja kept the flame burning by exchanging notes, passed once a month through a friend. Then Shirish popped the question. After Sreeja's father forced her to drop out of college, there was no longer any reason to wait.

"When she was coming to college, we never thought we could marry for another three or four years," Shirish recalls. "But once she was house arrested, we knew if something had to be done now. Through the letters, she communicated that she was getting marriage proposals [for arranged marriages]."

It wouldn't be easy. In India, the fundamentalist thugs who terrorize young couples every Valentine's Day aren't the only forces aligned against romance. With the traditional institution of the arranged marriage under pressure — threatening to break down the boundaries of caste and creed — teachers, neighbors, the police and even sometimes the courts conspire to make sure young people follow their parents' wishes.

Though intercaste and intercommunity marriages have been legal since 1872 — almost 100 years before interracial marriages were legalized in all 50 U.S. states — over time the law designed to facilitate these civil unions, known as the Special Marriage Act, has come to be used to prevent self-arranged marriages. Thanks to a 1954 amendment, the couple must announce their impending nuptials, provide the names and addresses of their parents, and wait 30 days while the police verify with their families that neither person is already married. The delay helps parents locate runaway couples and retrieve them by filing false kidnapping and abduction cases (which have grown 30 percent faster than other crimes against women since 2002).

The police track the couple down, throw the groom in jail and return the bride to her parents. The courts, too, are often complicit, as judges reject the girl's own testimony as proof of consent and reject the usual legal documents as proof that she is of marriageable age. Among communities that place a high premium on their izzat, or honor, like the Jat caste of rural Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the reaction is stronger still. "If a lower-caste man is involved with a higher-caste woman, he is invariably killed. And the girl, whether belonging to the higher caste or the lower, is also almost certainly eliminated," says Prem Chowdhry, author of "Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India."

Shirish and Sreeja knew all about the obstacles they would face. But they also knew that sometimes, love does conquer all. Through their secret communiques, the couple made plans to elope. Sreeja would tell her parents that she was going to her aunt's house, but instead she'd meet Shirish on a nearby street corner, abandon her car, and go directly to the temple to get married. That wasn't all, though.

Because parents often use false abduction cases against grooms to recapture runaway brides, the couple used Chiranjeevi's fame against him and called the news media to their wedding ceremony. The live broadcast made the marriage indisputable. But it also alerted Chiranjeevi and his passionate fans to what was going on. "We actually wanted to go to the registrar's office after we were married at [the temple]," says Shirish. "But there were lots of people and police waiting there." Frightened, the couple kept driving — first across the country to Goa and then all the way north to Delhi, where they sought court protection from "the illegal and malafide actions" of the girl's father.

Slowly, public opinion began to shift in their favor. Progressive editorials in local and national newspapers argued that the youngsters were both adults and had married by mutual consent, so any actions to stop them violated their rights. The Delhi high court — following the lead of a 2006 Supreme Court judgment in favor of protecting love marriages — also expressed its support. Eventually, the young couple were able to return to their lives in Hyderabad, where today they live with Shirish's family.

But it's not entirely "happily ever after." Many months after the elopement story had died down, one of Sreeja's close relatives passed away. Word came that her father had decided that she could attend the funeral, but Shirish would have to wait outside. As more than an hour passed, he grew more and more worried that — like many families — his in-laws had decided to keep Sreeja prisoner until she agreed to an annulment.

Finally, though, she reappeared, looking flustered and upset, at the entrance of the wedding hall. Shirish gave a sigh of relief. She'd been forced to endure an hour and a half of browbeating. But she'd stood up for herself. "They kept saying, 'We don't think it's right. It's time to realize for yourself. If at all you realize, we'll always welcome you back — alone," Sreeja recalls. "They just tried brainwashing. So I got out of the situation."

With or without the sanction of the film star and his family, Sreeja and Shirish say nothing will drive them apart. "All these obstacles have made us even closer," Sreeja says.

Friday, February 06, 2009

gandhi the whipping boy

One of India's most revered figures is losing some of his posthumous influence.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
January 29, 2009

NEW DELHI — Jan. 30 is the 61st anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi. As that date approaches, the reputation of the Mahatma, or “great soul”, has seen better days.

Sure, when a British magazine publishes a cartoon of the emaciated and bespectacled figure getting pummeled by a muscle man India erupts in outrage. And when a Bollywood hero embraces nonviolent resistance in a slapstick masala movie the youth are suddenly fired with enthusiasm for candlelit marches. But in the sphere of politics, the man known as the father of the nation has in recent years become its whipping boy.

Though Gandhi worked to eliminate the practice of untouchability, the leaders of caste-based parties castigate him for his stalwart defense of Hinduism and for blocking India's oppressed castes demand for special voting rights. And despite Gandhi's efforts to prevent a rift between Jawaharlal Nehru's Indian National Congress and Mohammad Ali Jinnah's Muslim League in the leadup to India's independence in 1947, ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum today blame Gandhi for the bloody partitioning of India that killed as many as a million people and laid the foundations for 60 years of bitter strife between India and Pakistan.

“Because Indian politics today is about competing sectarian identities — on language, on region, on religion, on caste — you have people attacking Gandhi and blaming him for all kinds of errors, real and imagined,” says historian Ram Guha, author of India After Gandhi. “In the first ten years of independence, he may have been a holy cow. But now there's open season.”

Consider the condemnation offered by a former chief of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS). "While Gandhi succeeded in creating and leading a people's movement, he committed two mistakes: supporting the Khilafat movement and making Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the prime minister. The end result was that two enemies, Pakistan and Bangladesh, were created forever."

Apologists from the Hindu right have long sought to justify the assassination of Gandhi — who was killed by a Hindu nationalist and former RSS member named Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948 — by arguing that the Mahatma had betrayed his country by supporting the proposal for an independent Pakistan and encouraging a policy of Muslim “appeasement.” Every year on the anniversary of Godse's execution his relatives still gather to celebrate his grim achievement. But this year the stakes grew much higher, as an organization run by the assassin's niece — allegedly the country's first Hindu nationalist terrorist cell — was linked to a series of bombings of Muslim sites.

The partition of India itself remains at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan. More than the territorial dispute over Kashmir, partition instilled deep fear and distrust — even hatred. Some 18 million people were forced to migrate to areas where they would be in the religious majority. As many as a million, from both sides, were butchered en route. And the arbitrary dividing line, which granted India 90 percent of the subcontinent's industrial capacity and its three most important cities, encouraged an inferiority complex in Pakistan that has had disastrous consequences.

However, Gandhi's actual role in the division of India is ambiguous. On the one hand, despite his propagation of an early form of multiculturalism, Gandhi's religious idealism bordered on the obsessive, and probably encouraged doubts among the Muslim League about their role in an independent but united India. But on the other, according to Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly, “the real actors were Jinnah, [Viceroy Louis] Mountbatten, [Congress leader Vallabhbhai] Patel and Nehru.” And no one was more upset than Gandhi by the religious divide that eventually tore India in two. Says Ganguly: “Remember that he wrote, 'On this day of independence and partition, my heart is divided; let others rejoice, leave me alone to shed my tears.'”

“Of all the major leaders of the time, he's certainly the least culpable,” says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. And the question of how to share power among Hindus and Muslims was an impossible quandary. “One historian once said Partition was a non-solution to an insoluble problem,” says Bhanu Mehta. But that hasn't shielded Gandhi from blame, partly because the partition had such tragic and long-lasting consequences, and partly because Gandhi is the only one of his contemporaries who still holds enough relevance to justify an attack.

The simmering conflict in Kashmir, the disturbing emergence of a Hindu nationalist terrorist cell, and the devastating attacks in Mumbai on November 26 drive home the need for Gandhi's idealism. “Worldwide you see a rise of competitive religious fundamentalisms,” says Guha. “What Gandhi does is he provides a way out of this.”

the man who killed gandhi

The mysteries, complexities and surprising ideas behind of one of India's darkest moments.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
February 5, 2009

NEW DELHI — On Jan. 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, a young, clean-cut Indian newspaper editor, left the waiting room at the Delhi railway station to attend the daily prayer meeting held by Mohandas K. Gandhi. As the meeting began, the young man bowed reverently before the emaciated leader known universally as the Mahatma, or great soul, and known in India as the father of the nation. Then Godse rose, produced a Beretta semi-automatic pistol, and shot Gandhi three times in the chest.

Today, as then, the ruthless assassination of a leader so firmly committed to nonviolence is so abhorrent, so repulsive, that it is tempting to dismiss its perpetrator as a deranged lunatic. But the truth, as Indian political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, is far more complicated. And over the past six months, a series of unsettling revelations have suggested that while Gandhi's ideology of nonviolence and tolerance may be fading, the ideology of violent Hindu nationalism that motivated Godse — though it goes by many names — remains as powerful as ever.

“You can disagree with Godse very deeply and find what he did reprehensible,” says Bhanu Mehta. “But I think as even some of the Gandhians have argued — like Ashis Nandy — there was a kind of internal integrity to what he was doing. If you read his speech at his trial, it's hard not to be in some senses fascinated by the internal integrity of the argument.”

Godse remains a better foil for the Mahatma than his perennial adversaries like the low-caste leader B.R. Ambedkar or Pakistan-founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Far from being an insane fanatic, Godse perceived that Gandhi's fast unto death — the ultimate expression of passive resistance — was not nonviolence, but violence turned inward against the self. Ambedkar and Jinnah had recognized this, too.

But Godse stands apart because he was able to respond in kind. “Many people thought that [Gandhi's] politics were irrational,” Godse said before his execution. “But they had either to withdraw from the Congress or place their intelligence at his feet to do with as he liked.”

No politician could afford to let Gandhi kill himself, but Godse understood that by murdering him he would martyr himself as well — achieving his own ends as ruthlessly and inexorably as the Mahatma. “I thought to myself and foresaw I shall be totally ruined, and the only thing I could expect from the people would be nothing but hatred ... if I were to kill Gandhiji,” he observed. “But at the same time I felt that the Indian politics in the absence of Gandhiji would surely be proved practical, able to retaliate, and would be powerful with armed forces.” It is not a flattering mirror.

Godse's assassination of Gandhi, which was traced back to Hindu nationalist groups including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — though the ties of evidence were not strong enough for criminal charges — sequestered these groups on the fringe of Indian politics for almost 30 years.

Eventually, though, the nationalist ideology that motivated Gandhi's killer managed to work its way back into the mainstream. In 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party even ventured to put a portrait of Veer Savarkar — who had been accused with Godse but never convicted of conspiracy — on display directly opposite Gandhi's in the hall of parliament, implying that the two are equal in status.

“In [Gandhi's] lifetime, the Hindus had moved away from Savarkar toward Gandhi,” explains historian Ramachandra Guha, author of "India After Gandhi." “But posthumously many Hindus, such as those in the BJP and RSS, see merit in Savarkar's more aggressive Hindutva.”

Then perhaps India should not have been surprised when — shortly before the terrorist attacks on Mumbai — a bizarre Hindu terrorist cell emerged that was fascinated by Godse's repugnant logic. Following leads developed over two years, the elite police unit swept down on a previously unknown group of Hindu nationalist fanatics for allegedly planning and executing a series of terrorist strikes in Muslim neighborhoods throughout the country — which had previously been attributed to internecine rivalries among the faithful. Among the accused were a retired army colonel, a Hindu nun and several self-styled gurus who'd hardly ventured outside the bastions of the lunatic nationalist fringe.

But the head of the organization that united them — a woman named Hemani Savarkar who was not charged in the police case — had a very well-known name indeed. She was the daughter of Godse's brother and was married to the nephew of Veer Savarkar — the Hindu nationalist who developed the fascism-inspired ideology of Hindutva, or Hinduness.

Even though Indian journalists have long been aware that Godse's descendants gather each year in Pune on the anniversary of the assassin's execution to commemorate his “achievement,” it was always believed that they were too absurd to matter. Now the evidence suggests — though the court case is still pending — that they were very serious indeed. According to the ATS (Maharastra Anti-Terrorism Squad), they planted at least one bomb in Malegaon that killed six and injured 70 people in 2006. They may also have been involved in other terrorist attacks, the ATS says, such as the 2007 bombing of the Samjhauta Express “friendship train” linking India and Pakistan, which killed 68 people.

“They're all offshoots of the thing that Gandhi predicted, that deification of the nation state would have the consequence of communalism,” says Bhanu Mehta.

Like any group of cloistered fanatics, the isolation of Godse's descendants has given them the freakishness of the hopelessly inbred. Consider the wisdom that Hemani Savarkar offered India's Outlook magazine: “Why can’t we have a blast for a blast? (The alleged Hindu nationalist terrorists) are patriots who love their country. But the government is now trying to declare them guilty to weaken the Hindus,” she said. “We must declare ourselves a Hindu (nation) where everyone is a Hindu. Anyone who isn’t should be declared a second-class citizen and denied voting rights. Those who have problems with this should leave and settle in other countries.”

Those are exactly the sentiments that Gandhi was killed for opposing. But from the moment that his murderer was executed — despite Gandhi's deep abhorrence for the death penalty — it was clear that his dream of nonviolence and religious tolerance would not come true.