Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bhopal, Dec 3rd .......

Rachel Spring wrote her epic book called “Silent Spring” in 1962. The book exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity’s faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement. It is reckoned that Silent Spring was to the environmental movement, what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery or “To Kill a Mockingbird” was to racial discrimination.

In rural communities where household food security is always an issue, increasing the productivity of the land has always been an issue. The Green revolution of the late sixties and seventies ushered in an era where India became able to feed its own people after centuries of famine and deprivation. In the immediate post independence era, India depended so heavily on PL 480 food imports from the United States that it was often termed a “ship to mouth “ existence as food grains were freighted out barely after the ships had docked. The Green Revolution changed all that … for a time.

In the West, where food security hasn’t been an issue in large measure since the Irish potato famines of the 19th century, the emergence of the environmental lobby did not create any immediate difficulties; perhaps was even welcome. But in india, barely having overcome food shortages a decade ago and still living off he Public Distribution System – (ill the early nineties, the ration card was the unique identity document of Indians – not the PAN card or the voter ID), an inevitable clash of paradigms resulted.

The agronomists (not unjustifiably) were focussed on consolidating the gains of the green revolution and busy spreading the message of hybrid seeds and the increased use of pesticides and fertilizer, coupled with lesser dependence on monsoon irrigation and increased dependence on dams and canals for irrigation. The fledgling environmental movement was saying what could be construed to be just the opposite – talking of soil degradation, the menace of pesticides, the many dangers of big dams and the human as well as the economic and environmental causes involved.

Then Bhopal happened – on Dec 3rd 1984, when leaks from a pesticide plant in Bhopal killed many thousands …. 3000 immediately according to Wikipedia followed by many more in the months and years to come. Shortly thereafter in 1986, the Chernobyl, nuclear plant disaster happened and environmental concerns became big ticket.

Bhopal was a seminal event not just because it signalled the beginning of the time when environmental concerns began to be taken seriously but also because it was with the agitation to demand compensation from the owners of the pesticide plant –Union Carbide, that militant NGO activism became known. Hitherto, NGO activism did happen, but it was more of the peaceable, some what docile Gandhian variety. It was the many activists who came together around Bhopal who provided NGO work, till now part volunteerism and philanthropic and part academic, an edge that was if not quite violent, certainly very confrontational with the State. It would be many of these very same groups, that would later form the core of the anti globalization movement.

Many of the issues associated with the Bhopal gas leakage tragedy have never been resolved, and never will be. India has had many more tragedies; questionably more complex, if not bigger. Even many of the doctrinal issues will remain unresolved. Have the agricultural scientists with their obsession with high yields and more crops won? Or have the environmentalists with their own fad for all things organic – suicidal fad agronomists will say; for India is now a billion plus and with land under agricultural yielding place to airports, houses and malls, increasing productivity is about the only way out. These issues will continue to debate in the foreseeable future till one or the other lobby decisively wins; and that is unlikely to be any time soon. And till that happens, Bhopal will continue to be invoked. In that sense, Bhopal is yesterday’s story. It is also tomorrow’s.

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