The Supreme Court, on May 3, asked the Bhopal Municipal Corporation to start supplying clean drinking water to those localities in the city that are reeling under the effects of ground water contamination, that followed the gas leak tragedy, within three months. The order followed a petition by non-profit Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), which claimed that the work was progressing slowly. The corporation had contended that they have installed the pipelines for the 14 localities that were identified by the non-profit and that work to supply tap water to individual houses wouldl take time. Rachna Dhingra of BGIA speaks to Savvy Soumya Misra on what the real situation is. Edited excerpts:
What has been the response of Madhya Pradesh government on questions regarding supply of clean drinking water?
There was a Supreme Court order in 2005 to provide clean water but there was no action in terms of laying the pipeline. So, we started a padyatra from Bhopal to Delhi in February 2006. After walking for 37 days, covering 850 km, and a hunger fast at Jantar Mantar for seven days, the prime minister sanctioned Rs 14.18 crore for the pipeline. Then also nothing happened. We went on a 21-day hunger fast in 2007 in Bhopal. It was only then that the Madhya Pradesh (MP) government agreed to lay the pipeline. The promise was made in writing. Nothing happened again.
We went on a padyatra again in 2008 and it was only after that and a five-month-long dharna (sit in protest) that we could force the government to start work on providing clean drinking water. It is a shame that people of Bhopal have had to walk twice to Delhi, go on hunger fasts and sit on dharnas for endless days in scorching heat just to get the government to start laying the pipeline for clean drinking water. Despite the Supreme Court asking the state government eight years ago to provide clean water, 50 per cent of people living in these affected communities are still drinking contaminated water. Even in the light of recent order there seems to be no urgency shown by the state government to take any immediate action.
What are the discrepancies in the documents presented in the court on behalf of the Madhya Pradesh government on providing clean drinking water?
The government of MP has always tried to fudge the numbers on the status of providing clean drinking water. In fact, they lied to the Supreme Court, claiming that they have provided clean water to all affected communities. Currently, only 50 per cent of the affected population are getting clean drinking water. More than 30 per cent of the affected area has no pipeline and the rest 20 per cent do not get water because the pipeline is damaged.
The Supreme Court has also declared the old committee defunct and has formed a new one to monitor the implementation of the work. How is it going to be different from the earlier Supreme Court Monitoring Committee?
The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee hardly did any monitoring. They had come to Bhopal twice and we constantly wrote to them about the terrible situation of water supply. Later the committee became defunct. The new monitoring committee has members from the government, non-profit organisations and judiciary and all of them are based in Bhopal.
Do you think that things are likely to speed up with the Supreme Court order?
We are hopeful that the ground situation will change with the Supreme Court order, but we are not sure because there was a similar order in the past as well. The erring officials and the department need to be penalised for making 40,000 people drink contaminated water. Who will pay for the damage caused to their health by consumption of contaminated water?