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The unending tragedy of Bhopal

Soutik Biswas | 13:40 UK time, Thursday, 3 December 2009

A boy disabled by the Bhopal gas leak playing cricketTwenty five years and several thousand dead and disabled men, women and children later, answers to most of the thorny questions about the world's most horrific industrial tragedy are still blowing in the wind in Bhopal.

Why has the compensation to the victims been so paltry? Why is there a thick fog over the extent of contamination of groundwater in the Union Carbide factory neighbourhood? Caught between NGOs and a secretive Big Government, nobody is quite sure what is happening.

And above all, many ask why those responsible have been allowed to go free? After all, they say, money - whatever the amount - cannot compensate for a crime of such magnitude, whether committed because of negligence or sabotage. If this happened in the West, campaigners say, the company would have been held to account, perhaps driven to bankruptcy by compensation claims. But since this is India and the poor are dispensable, justice in Bhopal has been a travesty.

Also what about the blot to Bhopal's image and its inglorious reputation as a 'gassed' dystopia? Locals say the city lost its innocence after the tragedy. "Life in Bhopal had been laid back and gentle. But the gas tragedy changed all that. Nowadays everybody whinges, that's all that they do," says Raj Kumar Keswani, the city's best-known journalist. "Also, the tragedy divided the people. In a strange way, people who got compensation are often reviled by people who didn't."

Mr Keswani should know. He has lived all of his 59 years in Bhopal and was the only journalist who cried himself hoarse for two years before the tragedy, saying the Union Carbide plant had lax safety procedures and that the city was "sitting on a volcano". He had written a series of articles on the doomed plant, petitioned the courts and worked the politicians. Nobody listened to him. The shut Union Carbide factory in Bhopal

After the tragedy he challenged the government, accusing it of a sell-out to Union Carbide - the Indian government sued the company for $3bn but settled for 15% of the amount - and Mr Keswani became a mythic hero of sorts: Dominique Lapierre, for example, mentioned him in great detail without once talking to him while writing another best-seller. "He wrote that I used to go around in a car with a bagful of CDs because I was a music lover. Those days, as a struggling journalist, I had an old scooter and CDs hadn't even come to India," Mr Keswani laughs. This is one of my favourite Bhopal stories - it tells you how fact and fiction blur in the chaos of India.

The gas tragedy, in a perverse way, actually ended up oiling parts of the grassroots economy of Bhopal. As thousands of dollars of still inadequate compensation money poured in, this sleepy city was transformed, say its residents. Bhopal never had an economy of its own to speak of apart from one state-owned behemoth; the city of Indore to its west was always the commercial hub. Also, Bhopal belongs to one of India's most backward states - Madhya Pradesh - with human development indicators comparable to sub-Saharan Africa.

Twenty-five years later, Bhopal is a mini boom town, largely a result of India opening up its economy and partly because of the money that flowed in after the tragedy. It got some decent new hospitals, property grew and the city became the headquarters of a powerful vernacular media group which also publishes Harry Potter in Hindi. New malls are coming up and dozens of new private colleges - most of which are now suffering from lack of students - have opened up. Finally, Bhopal appears to giving its bustling cousin Indore a run for its money

Today, a street-smart, English-speaking social activist and darling of the international media and a street-fighting, hardboiled activist help the victims, in their own way, to live and fight for compensation. Maimed by gas, Bhopal's lost generation struggles to survive and to make sense of what is happening around them - pictures of children whose futures have been snuffed out by the gas make one's blood boil and leave a feeling of numbness and helplessness.

An anniversary like Bhopal's should be a solemn time to remember the dead and pledge to help the living dead, not become circuses of the kind they have become today. 1984 was India's annus horribilis - the army stormed the Golden Temple, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, Sikhs were massacred in revenge - but, in hindsight, Bhopal must count as the greatest tragedy of them all.

The story of Bhopal, as Mr Keswani says, is a story of a proud city and its people cheated and betrayed by a country and the world. For India, it is a collective shame and a disturbing reminder that its poor don't matter. Most of the time anyway.

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