I had not seen Bhopal. It was my first visit to India. That
spring we all went to see the 'beautiful' Taj Mahal, the many
historical places and the market places of Kolkata. Not particularly
interested in sight-seeing or shopping sprees, I was rather
bored. Always interested more in people and not places associated
with the 'the great and mighty', my minor voice hardly reached
the elders who were always making decisions for me. We came
back in March, and in December, the newspapers, the radios
and even the black and white televisions that we had at that
time, were busy spreading news about a certain gas leak in
some distant town named Bhopal. Where in the world was Bhopal?
with their love-hate relationship with the giant neighbour,
had other pressing needs. With their poverty, their floods,
and the recently established military regime, who was afraid
of disasters anymore? We practically breathed in them. Yet,
what happened in Bhopal was no average crisis and it changed
the perception of those who paid heed and listened. This was
the worst industrial tragedy in the history of mankind.
fateful night of December 3, just after midnight of December,
a poisonous gas MIC (Methyl Iso Cyanate)--200 times more powerful
than the gas Hitler used to kill Jews--coupled with a few
others more or less lethal in nature, leaked from a E-610
tank of the pesticide making factory of Union Carbide Corporation
(UCC) and found its way into the most densely populated areas
of the city, killing thousands and injuring hundreds of thousands.
years later, I accompanied my filmmaker friend to Bhopal.
Apart from the huge amount of literature on the toxic gas
leak, we were also reading the tour guides about Bhopal. Spreading
the maps on our bed, we tried to trace the journey from West
Bengal to Madhya Pradesh. Bhopal, from the guides, seemed
a pretty site! Even the 'LEAK of MIC!' found its way into
the guide. A tourist attraction, maybe! Famous for its talaws(lakes),
mosques and modern architecture, Bhopal was now forever associated
with the most tragic industrial catastrophe.
was Qayamat in Bhopal on that night. Listening to
the victims who still bear the scars of the terrible night,
it was almost the same story repeated by everyone who lived
near the factory:
was as if a handful of mirchi (chilli) was thrown
in our eyes. Water was streaming down our faces. Breathing
became difficult. We felt burning sensations all over our
bodies and pain in the chest. Nothing was risible. It was
dark, all in fumes. Stunned by this sudden crisis we did not
know what to do. Somebody cried out: Gas is leaking from the
factory... Bhago!! And we started to run as fast
as we could. We tried to get away as far away from that god-forsaken
place as possible!"
estimates of the dead were stated to have been stated as only
1760, when in fact 8,000 had died during the first few days.
Approximately five lakh people had been affected by this atrocity.
To this day, the unofficial number of deaths due to the acute
and long term effects of the gas tragedy is nearing 20,000.Thousands
of people visit the hospitals every day - not with the usual
health problems but breathlessness, chest problems, reduced
working capacity, unexplained pain, nightmares and emotional
liabilities that can be linked with the incident.
one cold November night when we reached Bhopal. The train
had passed from the lush green scenery of Bengal through the
increasingly dry, harsh landscape of Bihar, the dense forests
of Chattishgarh and the rocky, scantily vegetated mountains.
We crossed many bridges, waterfronts, large stations, small
isolated stops; derelict rail lines--almost half of the expanse
of this huge country was covered. Drinking all kinds of teas
and snacks, an exclusively vegetarian diet, playing the usual
rail-games with the bored and often unmanageable children
of our compartment, we did enjoy ourselves. Two days and a
night passed and knowingly or unknowingly, we tried to avoid
discussing the topic we had in mind most of the time. Each
tried to grapple with the approaching challenge of this very
disconcerting fact-finding mission of ours. Very soon the
printed words we had devoured earlier were to dig deep into
our souls. The difference between 'printed words' and 'reality'
never seemed greater, after what we encountered in Bhopal.
old Bhopal, it seemed that one could not walk a mile without
having a chance meeting with the Gas-Peedits (gas affected)--about
half a million victims have suffered till today. We had earlier
contacted activist Satinath Sarongi, of the Sambhavna Trust,
involved in providing healthcare, research and documentation
of the ongoing health hazards of the gas victims. We were
discussing the most pertinent question that reverberated during
the aftermath of the disaster -- what caused this catastrophic
loss of lives? Bhopal-India and the rest of the 'sane' world
had gasped in disbelief when UCC published their `sabotage'
theory blaming a faceless 'disgruntled' operator! No name
was ever mentioned and neither was the motive for such sabotage.
Sarongi informed us that UCC had hired a seasoned campaigner,
Arthur D. Little, whose company was known for the ability
to invent stories for corporations--any story, however incredible,
would suffice as long as it could clear off the blame from
revealed, UCC had been contemplating to sell off its Bhopal
factory and was already cutting down the costs to cover its
losses. They were already using untested technology and despite
being warned by their own internal inspections, they went
on with their much below-average safety standards. The then
CEO of UCC, Warren Anderson was aware that an accident could
take place any moment. The Indian court charged him not with
'negligence' but 'culpable homicide'.
causing an enormous loss of life and livelihood, the mighty
Union Carbide paid a meager 500 US dollars per victim amounting
to US $470 m-- just one year's profit of the billion dollar
company, and they got away with it. Warren Anderson, a fugitive
from law, is still at large.
alliance of corrupt governments and cunning multi-national
corporations(MNCs) that made it possible for them to evade
responsibility for industrial crimes and claim such farcical
compensation, is nothing new in this part of the world.
the damage was not as extensive, something similar did happen
to Bangladesh after the Magurchhara Gas Blowout in recent
times (1997). Occidental, an oil Company, blew out 245 Bcft
of natural gas--the entire reserve of Magurchhara gas field
near the Sylhet-Dhaka highway and destroyed many lives, damaged
50 acres of cultivating land of the khasi people,
rendering an environmental disaster for 40-50 years to come.
Occidental has been persistently denying responsibility, making
ludicrous remarks that they were 'ignorant of the law' or
that the incident was due to 'human error'. In 1999 they transferred
company shares to Unocal to shift the focus from their tainted
UCC did the same thing, by merging with the infamous 'Dow
Chemical', the company got involved in the production of Napalm
Bomb and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Whether this
merger was to avoid responsibility or not is besides the point.
The fact remains that, changing names or share transfers provide
the legal loophole--a common escape route for the industrial
to get a two-hour long visiting permit for entering the UCC
factory site, from the Bhopal Collector's office. Walking
to the top of an almost five-storied high dilapidated iron
structure overlooking the city in the afternoon sun, I had
an eerie feeling. The fact that where we were standing was
a heinous crime scene, made us very uncomfortable. Perhaps
feel guilty! We did not stay long.
guards at the gate informed us that UCC had abandoned their
Bhopal site 10 years ago. But the company never cleared up
the dangerous garbage they had left behind. The chemicals
dumped in and around the site have managed to seep into the
ground water for years. This is now one of the chief health
and environmental concerns of the people living in 15 colonies
around the factory site. They are suffering from the toxic
effects of the poisonous water they have no choice but to
drink every day. Children are born with birth defects and
adults are suffering from chronic ill-health to this day.
were coming back from the site, still recovering from the
experience, when this old woman, apparently very distressed,
cried out to us: "Photo khicho! photo khicho! Bimari
bahut hai, dekhke jao. Delhi-me bolo."("Take
our photos! Take our photos! We are so sick. Take a look.
Inform Delhi.") Standing before the only memorial built
for the gas victims of Bhopal, we were tongue-tied. There
was nothing much to offer her as solace. My companion took
her picture and I jotted down her outcry in my small notebook.
time to go and leave Bhopal behind!
Having learned and experienced what we did in Bhopal, after
20 years of the world famous tragedy and an infamous crime,
shall we ever be able to leave the city and the Gas-Peedits/Paani-Peedits
Bhopal behind? Or, more importantly, should we?
author is a freelance writer.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004