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Whither `greenwashing'?

Rasheeda Bhagat

G. Ananthapadmanabhan, Executive Director, Greenpeace (India).

CHENNAI, Oct. 24

SIXTEEN years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, Greenpeace is knocking at people's conscience through a powerful photo essay done by Raghu Rai. The exhibition, titled `Exposure — Portrait of a Corporate Crime', is now on at Chennai's Amethyst Gallery.

Rai, who had captured some powerful images of the Bhopal tragedy in 1984, was commissioned by the NGO to revisit Bhopal and capture the trauma of the survivors, who continue to struggle with a host of health problems.

"We wanted to bring a new audience to the issue of polluting industries because we believe that while Bhopal was a huge single disaster, there are many Bhopals waiting to happen. We found that most people had forgotten Bhopal and those who remembered were either the survivors or the NGOs," says G. Ananthapadmanabhan, Executive Director of Greenpeace in India.

Charging corporates of "greenwashing " when it comes to enforcing pollution control laws, with international companies turning to developing countries with "dirty and polluting technologies", Ananthapadmanabhan says most of the time when corporations claim "we're doing this or that on pollution, the bulk of it is just a PR exercise. Like a cola maker persuading people that it is a good and healthy drink! Our endeavour is to press for an international legal instrument on corporate responsibility. Corporates exploit regional laws and get away with murder. Human health is equally important and corporations should look at safer ways of making their products."

Ananthapadmanabhan points out that the number of safety features that were either malfunctioning or switched off on that fateful day in Bhopal "to save as little as $100 a month is shocking. Bhopal is not so much a tragedy as a corporate crime".

On the abandoned Bhopal factory continuing to pollute the environment and why this could not be stopped even after 18 years, he says, "Cleaning up the site is no easy job as the sub-soil water has been contaminated. We've sent a notice to the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board saying this factory continues to pollute and it must stop or else we will take legal action."

Though Union Carbide, later taken over by Dow Chemicals, abandoned the factory and has no assets left, having transferred the land lease back to the Government, the biggest tragedy is that the residue left behind in the factory continues to leak and pollute the sub-soil. "In a few days we hope to meet the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and discuss what needs to be done to clean up... Of course the Government does not have to wait for them (Dow Chemicals) to come here physically and clean up the place. The Environment Protection Law permits the Government to clean up and collect the money from the original pollutants. In the US, the only ground on which the case still stands is that the original settlement did not cover the environmental damage, while giving a paltry $500 to each victim."

Ananthapadmanabhan says that after the Bhopal disaster the Indian Factories Act was amended to say the communities living around any factory have the right to know what are the main or intermediary chemicals which are being manufactured, what processes they use and the emergency plan in case anything goes wrong. But despite this, all over India several industries continue to pollute, be it at Eloor industrial estate north of Kochi, the Ambur belt in Tamil Nadu, or the pulp and paper mills in Mysore, and so on. "We have progressive legislation but it is very poorly implemented. One can say with some degree of confidence that most pollution control boards are there only in name. They are toothless organisations, having no enforcement machinery. If we take a look at Eloor, where a whole bunch of chemical industries are located, in case there is an accident, people will be trapped between the factory and the Periyar river."

To raise awareness on the issue, Greenpeace is organising a bus yatra to 25 such trouble spots in India this November, along with a couple of Bhopal survivors. So what do the Bhopal survivors get out of the whole campaign? "First, they require urgent medical attention. They also need economic rehabilitation and the place to be cleaned up. Above all, they need justice. I was quite surprised at the level of strong feeling about Warren Anderson (then Union Carbide chief). He is not forgotten. There is also a very strong feeling that they are yet to get justice. This is what we hope to campaign for by documenting corporate crimes with hard evidence."

As for help with the legal battle in the US, he says the Bhopal victims already have a network of friends in US, which includes NRIs. In Switzerland, Dow Chemicals' European headquarters, earlier this week there was a sit-in led by Greenpeace. And the CEO did meet the survivors, who are going around Europe to raise awareness on the issue.

Apart from other Indian cities, the exhibition will be held in Europe and US too. Chennai-based Tulika Publishers is also bringing out a children's book on Bhopal and its aftermath. "The book is for children aged 14 and above, so that the tragedy of Bhopal is never forgotten. We hope schools will buy this book. If children of today are aware of the mistakes of the past, then our future is safe," says Radhika Menon, Tulika's Managing Editor.

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