Students from MIT, Harvard take up a cause unresolved for 29 years: Bhopal gas disaster

Relay hunger fast for compensation for victims.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: To show their support for the surviving victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, which occurred 29 years ago this month, students at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have organized a hunger strike with the goal of shedding light on the debilitating conditions in the surrounding area of the disaster that have not improved in the nearly three decades since the accident occurred.

The Bhopal gas tragedy occurred during the night of December 2-3, 1984. A gas leak at the Union Carbide plant released 40 tons of highly toxic gas into the surrounding city and villages. While exact figures vary, an Indian Supreme Court verdict five years after the disaster said that roughly 3,000 died from the leak, with a further 100,000 having been at least partially disabled by it. The settlement between the Indian government called for restitution of Rs. 713 crore ($470 million in US dollars at that time) to be paid to the families of the victims.

The only problem is that the government low-balled the actual magnitude of the leak’s devastation. Current estimates, including a government affidavit issued in 2006, put the death toll at between 20,000 and 40,000 people, with those suffering disabilities at around 500,000 individuals. Those families not covered by the 1989 verdict have lobbied the government tirelessly over the past 24 years, seeking damages for their losses, but to little avail.

Now, Harvard and MIT students are rallying to the cause by fasting for 365 days. According to The Times of India, Shashank Shukla — a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former Indian Supreme Court commissioner — is the head organizer behind a relay hunger strike, and explains that it will consist of sets of four or five students from both universities fasting every day for a year.

On the day or days they fast, students will take a picture of themselves and post it on the hunger strike’s official Facebook page, with a caption saying “I fasted today for Bhopal.”

Shukla says that he and the students regard the Bhopal disaster as a mass murder that needs to be addressed and properly paid for, otherwise it will never be resolved and will continue to plague both the government and future generations in the Bhopal area. It will also set a precedent by which the Indian government — and the governments of other countries — can absolve themselves of responsibility with regards to such accidents in the future.

The Bhopal tragedy is considered the worst industrial accident in the world from the standpoint of its death toll; second place is the Chinese Benxihu Colliery explosion of 1941, which claimed over 1,500 lives, and this year’s collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh is third with just over 1,100 casualties. Located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradhesh, Bhopal’s population (as of 2011) is nearly 1.8 million.

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