By Joe Athialy
11 April, 2006
Times of India
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
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
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.)