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     Volume 4 Issue 24 | December 10, 2004 |

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Bhopal Revisited

Justice Denied, Killing

Nasima Selim Aulic

In 1984, 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?

Bangladeshis, 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.

On the 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.

Twenty 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.

There 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:

"It 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!"

Official 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.

It was 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.

In 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 UCC's back.

As reports 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'.

After 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.

The unholy 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.

Though 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 name.

In 2001, 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 criminals.

We managed 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.

The 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.

We 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.

It was 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?

The author is a freelance writer.


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