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This Happened

This Happened—December 3: Bhopal, Industrial Horror In India

Considered the world’s worst industrial incident in modern times, the Bhopal gas tragedy was a chemical accident at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.

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In The News

Le Weekend ➡️ Long COVID App, UNESCO Baguettes, Word Of The Year

December 3-4

  • Unpacking China’s protests
  • Camel beauty contest
  • Rosetta Stone quarrel
  • … and much more.
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*Saumya Kalia

India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

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Sophie Zhang

How Facebook Knowingly Undermines The World's Largest Democracy

Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang says that the tech giant knowingly facilitates undermining democracy in India. Fair voting cannot be guaranteed if real people's voices are drowned out by armies of fake online commentators.


NEW DELHI — Earlier this month, The Wire published an exposé on Tek Fog, an app allegedly used by India's ruling, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to make social engineering easier. The app is allegedly used by online operatives to hijack social media and amplify right-wing propaganda in the country.

The investigation immediately grabbed the attention of the Indian public. For the first time, everyday Indians were given insight into the inner workings of a major political party's Information Technology Cell (IT cell). Indians were forced to confront the possibility that their everyday reality was shaped not by the Indian public but the whims of shadowy political operatives.

They also discovered that their own ruling party would seek to phish their phones with spyware for the purpose of sending party-line propaganda impersonating them to friends and family. Such serious allegations more closely resemble an authoritarian dictatorship like the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and their hired online commentators, the 50 Cent Army (五毛党), than the world’s largest democracy.

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In The News
Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

U.S. Air Raid In Syria, Argentina Fatal Cocaine, Bezos Yacht v. Dutch Bridge

👋 Dumêlang!*

Welcome to Thursday, where a U.S. air raid in Syria kills civilians, tainted cocaine kills 20 in Argentina, and Jeff Bezos’ superyacht gets special treatment in Rotterdam. Thanks to Persian-language media Kayhan, we also look at the discontent brewing among Iranians vis-à-vis their country’s religious government.

[*Northern Sotho, South Africa]

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Nalini Ravichandran

How India Is Failing Its Most Essential Workers

From salary cuts to protective equipment shortages, frontline workers are having to protest and plead just to get their basic dues.

CHENNAI — During the COVID-19 pandemic, frontline workers are keeping the country running, putting their own health and safety at risk. And yet, despite the sacrifice — and the public recognition they have received for their work – their struggles for fair pay continue.

Grave diggers haven't received the pandemic hazard pay they were promised. Sanitation workers are facing arbitrary pay cuts and unpaid time off to make up for lack of revenue. Doctors haven't received their full salaries. And for farmers, the economic fallout has been staggering.

Nasir Khan, 38, leaves home at 5 a.m. to reach Bhopal's Jhada Kabristan, where he wields his shovel and keeps digging graves until the familiar hearse van of the Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC) can be seen at a distance. At that point, Nasir starts donning a PPE kit. Once the van has arrived, the next two hours are charted out for Nasir, who has been a grave digger since the age of 10. Since the lockdown, Nasir and five other grave diggers have done the final rites of 90 bodies but have been paid for only four.

Earlier, they would receive Rs 1,700 inclusive ($22.70) of the cost of materials required for a funeral from family members of the deceased, and this amount would be divided among them. But with COVID-19, this source of income had been wiped out. Following the first phase of lockdown, the BMC had announced that graveyard workers would be paid Rs 5,000 ($66.80) for every dealing with coronavirus-infected corpses.

Nasir lives walking distance from the cemetery with his parents, wife and four children, but on most nights, the grave digger just sleeps in the burial ground, located in Jahangirabad, a COVID-19 hotspot in the city.

Each day, the workers race against time as every grave takes at least four to five hours to be dug. On May 6, the graveyard received six corpses at a time. Since then, the cemetery workers have kept at least 10 graves ready in advance. As per World Health Organization guidelines, graves for coronavirus victims have to be dug 6 feet deep, at the minimum.

"We don't know the COVID-19 status as the bodies come in airtight double plastic packing. We do the namaz and try to swiftly carry out the final rites and issue a certificate to the BMC worker or the family member of the deceased," says Rehan Ahmad, chairman of the cemetery's management committee.

On June 12, Nasir buried Gaffar Bhai, a fellow grave digger, who had gone home the previous night, developed chest pain and died on the way to the hospital. "To dig a grave for one among us had been gut wrenching," Nasir says. "We will never know whether he had coronavirus, but his family didn't receive any help from the government."

As the divisional commissioner and administrator of the BMC, Kavindra Kiyawat, explains: "Releasing the pending payment for the disposal of COVID-19 victims' bodies is a long-drawn process, as we have to verify the cases with the nodal centers involved. We have as of now paid Rs 80,000 ($1,068) to the grave diggers for the burial of 16 COVID-19 victims from the city."

The central government had announced Rs 50 lakh (roughly $66,800) insurance cover for frontline health workers under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan package in March.

"Unfortunately, the workforce of gravediggers, which is unorganized and not on any official payroll, has been left out," says Amulya Nidhi from Jan Swasthya Abhiyan. "In fact, they had not been trained on how to handle coronavirus cases initially and were provided with PPE only when the pandemic had peaked."

Arbitrary pay cuts

On July 2, four young men lost their lives due to asphyxiation while cleaning a septic tank in Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi district.

When I approached the officials, they said I always had the option to leave this work.

In Chennai, 38-year-old Simon moved from manual scavenging to being a sanitation worker only after the lockdown. Simon, who used to clean septic tanks privately, found no work when the pandemic set in. On May 4, he joined the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) as a contractual worker.

Frontline workers are putting their own health and safety at risk — Photo: Ashish Vaishnav/SOPA Images/ZUMA

He starts his day at 6 a.m. and goes about disinfecting coronavirus containment zones till 2 p.m., for which he is paid Rs 225 ($3.40) per day, and on days when his work continues till 5 p.m., he is paid an additional Rs 100 ($1.34). "I had worked without taking a single day's leave, yet 10 days' salary was deducted," Simon explains. "When I approached the officials, they said I always had the option to leave this work. This happens to all workers, but no one will speak up."

Officials of the Greater Chennai Corporation were unavailable for comment.

Across the country, sanitation workers are facing a tough time. Vicky Delikar is a sanitation worker at Satranjipura, one of the most affected COVID-19 zones managed by Bharath Vikas Group (BVG) India, an agency appointed by the Nagpur Municipal Corporation to lift door-to-door garbage. The 35-year-old has to prep his own PPE before he leaves for work as he can no longer use the two disposable masks provided by the company, to be used for three months. His handkerchief and a bar of soap are his saviors.

Work starts at 7 a.m. with pushing the garbage trolley, which is filled halfway to the top as he goes through the narrow lanes of the city's slums. By 1 p.m., the half-hour lunch slot begins, but considerable time is spent finding a place to eat, away from the dump yard and after washing hands. A few minutes into his lunch, Vicky is busy attending to complaint calls from his supervisor. Most days, lunch goes unfinished.

The workload for Vicky and his colleagues has increased manifold during the pandemic, as the workforce has been reduced. Each sanitation worker is handling four areas, as opposed to one, previously. They are also being roped in for miscellaneous work such as lifting construction debris and dead animals. The company asked them to not come to work on some days, and cut their pay citing a lack of funds. The workers received their salary for April on June 8, and the May dues are awaited.

Vicky and his 68-year-old father, also a sanitation worker, have been struggling through the lockdown, along with Vicky's mother, wife and three children. "If we raise concerns, we are threatened that we will be sacked," says Vicky, who has been doing this work for more than 17 years.

When contacted, additional municipal commissioner Ram Joshi remarked that sanitation workers might not be using the masks provided to them and they should be penalized for the same. He further said that he will look into the salary issues.

Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karamchari Aandolan, noted that sanitation workers across the country have been facing arbitrary pay cuts from their measly salaries.

No money for medicos

The Karnataka government announced a salary hike for 507 doctors on a contract basis on July 2, giving in to their longstanding demand.

Meanwhile, final year postgraduate medical students at St. John's Medical College Hospital, affiliated with the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences, a designated center for COVID-19 treatment in Bengaluru, have been left in the lurch. Their stipends for May remain unpaid.

Plating seedlings at a paddy field on the outskirts of Agartala — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

Medical students (or "medicos'), who in a non-pandemic scenario would have written their exams, received their no-due certificates and been on the verge of securing a job, have no idea what to do know.

"Charity begins at home but the management turned the medicos away and asked us "to find our own resources to manage." How can we look for a job now, without a degree?" says one of the junior residents, on the condition of anonymity. "We are struggling to manage our families, rented houses and other expenses and the following months look bleak. We deserve our dues in these tough circumstances."

There are around 200 junior residents awaiting their stipend, even as those from the department of medicine are on the front lines of COVID-19 care.

On April 22, as per the direction of the Department of Medical Education and the Government of Karnataka, the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences issued a stern warning in a circular directing all its medical colleges to not stop salary of its faculty and medicos amid the coronavirus lockdown.

The St. John's Medical College authorities refused to speak on the issue and a mail sent to them went unanswered.

In New Delhi, doctors from the two hospitals under the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) — Hindu Rao Hospital and Kasturba Hospital — threatened to resign en masse on June 14 because of the non-payment of salaries. Following a Delhi high court order on the same, the NDMC on June 20 stated that the salaries of doctors due for March and April had been released.

The doctors, who are well-acquainted with the perennial delays in wage payment, are now anxious about their dues for May. "We don't deserve to plead and protest for our basic, well-deserved salaries and want to concentrate on just our work," says Dr. Sunil Kumar, anesthetist and president of the Resident Doctor's Association, Kasturba Hospital. "My wife has taken leave from work to take care of our children as I have been working non-stop. With the stigma towards doctors, babysitters shun our homes and we cannot afford to house right now."

Another physician, Abhimanyu Sardana, an orthopedic specialist at Hindu Rao Hospital, says that doctors don't want to be stuck in this vicious cycle of non-payment.

We don't deserve to plead and protest for our basic, well-deserved salaries and want to concentrate on just our work.

Speaking to The Wire, North Delhi Mayor Jai Prakash said that the salary for the month of May will be disbursed soon for all doctors.

Plowed over pumpkins

In April, 65-year-old Ramachandra Chachariya, from Khedi village in Khalwa district, Madhya Pradesh, lived through a farmer's worst nightmare. He had to undo and destroy the fruits of his own labor, by plowing back to the soil a large portion of his 50 tonnes of ripe pumpkin.

"With borders sealed and hardly any availability of labor, storage, transport facilities and a market to sell crops, the supply chain was broken," laments Chachariya, who has a Rs 7 lakh ($9,300) loan to repay to the Bank of India. "We gave away pumpkins for free to almost everyone around but there is only so much that could be saved."

In north and east India, mint species are grown on almost 150,000 hectares and the oil that comes from these is widely used in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products. India accounts for 80% of the world's mint supply. "It is cultivated in January and is ready to be reaped by May. This year, lockdown coupled with rains resulted in heavy losses for mint farmers," says Rajesh Kumar from the United India, a farmers' NGO.

With major consumers of dairy products like fast food chains, sweat shops and schools being shut, the loss has been massive. Floriculture farmers have been impacted too, with marriage functions taking a hit, says Kedar Sirohi, a farmers' leader.

Shivam Baghel, a 26-year-old from Paraspani village, Seoni district in Madhya Pradesh who had spearheaded the "online sathyagrah" move for fixing the Minimum Support Price for corn, said that corn farmers were forced to sell their produce at half its fixed price. On the other hand, corn is being imported and the 60% import duty has been reduced to 45%. On average, a farmer with an acre of land suffered Rs 15,000 ($200) loss at least," he said.

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Joan Tilouine

Black Gold's Shadow, How Oil Poisoned The Niger Delta

OGONI REGION — Stanley, 40, once considered becoming a fighter. He says he already has a small stash of Kalashnikov assault rifles hidden somewhere. He's not boasting. That's just how things are in the creeks of the Niger Delta. The youth have easier access to weapons than to schools and jobs. But instead of becoming a fighter, Stanley chose a more lucrative industry: oil.

"This oil doesn't belong to foreign multinationals. It's ours. So I became an oil producer," he says as he drives his motorbike by night on a dirt road in the Ogoni region, a 1,000-square-kilometer territory in southern Nigeria's oil-rich Rivers state.

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Aletta Andre

Bhopal Gas Tragedy Still Burns 30 Years Later

Considered history's worst industrial accident, having killed thousands in a Dec. 3, 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in India, the health effects in Bhopal can still be felt today.

J.P. NAGAR — In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, a gas leak from the American-owned Union Carbide factory opposite the slums in India's J.P. Nagar killed thousands of people. The effects of the gas cloud traveled beyond the immediate area, and there are at least 100,000 people living with gas-related illnesses today because of the disaster.

A criminal case against the company has been ongoing for years, but Union Carbide insists the matter was settled years ago. As the 30th anniversary of the gas disaster approaches — Dec. 3 in Bhopal will be commemorated with rallies, music, meetings and silent candlelight marches — people are gearing up for protests.

Here in J.P. Nagar, right next to the old, abandoned Union Carbide factory, several dozen people are getting ready to drive to New Delhi. They will join around 1,000 survivors in the capital to march on the parliament.

Firdouz and her mother Semida are among the group. "We are going for the gas tragedy rally, for compensation," Firdouz says. "We expect to get what we deserve. We are going to claim our rights. It's been more than 30 years, but nothing happened. We are sick and worried. They have not done anything about it. They should give us what we deserve. We're fighting for the rights of the whole of Bhopal."

More than 500,000 victims have received on average around $400 each. But many victims such as Firdouz and Semida claim they were denied the money, because as slum dwellers they couldn't prove their address.

The Indian government says higher amounts were given to severely ill and disabled people, and others are treated for free at specially built government hospitals. But the Delhi-bound protesters are demanding an extra $1,600 for each surviving gas victim, more than 500,000 in total.

Just around the corner from the old Union Carbide factory, in the middle of one of the gas-affected slum areas, is a health clinic run by Sambhavna Trust with nearly 30,000 registered patients. Shahnaz Ansari, who works here, explains the common problems and how they treat them.

"Respiratory problems, ocular problems, diabetes," she says, cataloging the issues. "Cardiac problems are more common, hypertension is more common among the gas exposed population."

Neverending health issues

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Qian Yingyi*

Why The Chinese Are So Good, But Rarely Great

A surprising take on China's approach to education, and what it means for the country's future.

BEIJING — I have no formal pedagogic training, but I am an education practitioner with international experience. I have taught at Stanford University, University of Maryland, and UC Berkley, before becoming the dean at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management. I also consider myself to be a keen and intuitive observer of how education functions.

It's impossible to simply write off the performance of Chinese education, especially given the fact that China's economy has achieved such spectacular growth over the last 35 years. Still, we must also be clear that Chinese students' excellence in getting high scores in exams is ultimately no real proof of their talents.

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Shuriah Niazi

In India, A Female Police Unit's Aggressive Anti-Rape Patrols

After the nation and world's attention turned to the plague of Indian gang rapes, a women-only police unit was founded in Bhopal with one central objective. Some say they go too far.

BHOPAL – This city in northern India recently launched the Nirbhaya Patrolling Mobile Service. This female patrol was named for the physiotherapy student who was gang-raped in New Delhi in 2012, Nirbhaya meaning fearless one. The squad consists of 6 female police officers and they patrol the city in a van from early in the morning until late in the evening.

According to India’s Crime Records Bureau, the state of Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of rape cases in 2011. “India is not a safe place for half of the population,” says Inspector General SK Jha adding that the patrol aims to lower that number.

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Jenni Roth

Twenty-Eight Years On, History's Worst Industrial Disaster Still Kills The Babies Of Bhopal

In December 1984, this Indian city suffered what is considered the world's worst industrial accident ever.

BHOPAL - Abdul Jabbar, 75, sits in his office in the central Indian city of Bhopal. Jabbar is a full-time activist. His life’s work is the fight for the victims of the chemical disaster that took place in this capital city of the state of Madhya Pradesh 28 years ago – the worst industrial disaster in history.

He shows copies of the letters he sent to politicians and government officials – there must be a thousand letters in the thick file. His opponent is powerful – Dow Chemical, the second largest chemical company in the world. The American firm has owned Union Carbide Corporation – the company responsible for the deadly chemical leak in December 1984 – for 11 years, and has inherited its legal responsibility.

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