Monday, November 21, 2005

Ghost of The Gas: Bhopal Tragedy

In North India, they love to watch wedding processions pass by in the neighbourhood. In front of the procession march liveried members of a band party playing film songs, followed by the dancing friends and family members of the groom. The groom himself is at the tail-end, sitting nervously either on a caparisoned horse or inside a flower-decorated car.

The night of December 2, 1984 — a Sunday and an auspicious day for weddings — was a night of such processions throughout North India and that included Bhopal, the sprawling, laidback capital of Madhya Pradesh which was by then famous mainly because of Sholay. In the 1975 blockbuster, comedian Jagdeep plays a wood-seller called Soorma Bhopali (the strong man from Bhopal), who is actually a weakling but whose favourite pastime is to tell false stories about how he managed to capture the two notorious thieves, Veeru and Jay (Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan).

So to the night of weddings. Standing at the door of their home near the Bhopal railway station, Lakshmi Srivas, 35, and her six children watched two or three such processions pass by. Her husband, an employee of All India Radio, would join them occasionally. After the last of the processions had gone, the family had dinner and went to sleep. Another day in the life of a middle-class family had passed.

Then came the screams.

“It was about two o’ clock (in the morning). I heard people shouting Bhago! Bhago! (Run! Run!) Nobody said why, they just asked us to run. It was smoky outside and smelt as if somebody was burning chillies. Our eyes were burning and we were finding it difficult to breath,” recalls Lakshmi, now 55. She and her family first thought it was some kind of a terrorist attack — perhaps a retaliation by Sikhs because the anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination (on October 31, 1984) had just ended.

“Everybody was running. Many fell down, but people stepped over them and ran. My husband had just got his salary, so we had money to take a train out of Bhopal. But at the railway station there was chaos. Trains weren’t running and people were all over, coughing and vomiting. So we ran to the bus-stand, but there weren’t any buses. So we ran back to the station and spent the night in a pit next to platform no. 5,” she says. Huddled in the pit with the family, with faces covered in wet cloth, Lakshmi passed out.

She returned home next morning to find her eyes red and swollen. She also learned what the smoke was all about. But those living closer the pesticide-making Union Carbide plant in Bhopal knew almost immediately that it was poisonous gas emanating from the factory. “We were woken up by a burning sensation in the eyes. My uncle worked in the plant and he knew instantly what had happened. By then people were already on the streets, screaming Bhago! Bhago! I grabbed my younger son, who was a year old then, and ran towards the lake. In the panic I forgot about my elder son, who was three. I left him sleeping under the quilt. Next morning, thank God, we found him still sleeping,” says Rehana, 42, wife of a daily-wager.

Unlike Lakshmi and Rehana, some 3000 people of Bhopal never returned home. They were lying dead here and there — in their homes, on the streets, in hospitals, in mortuaries. But that was only the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Bhopal — a chapter that shows no signs of ending even 20 years later.

It all began with the fight against insects that ate up crops. The poor Indian farmer, perennially the human face of sadness, badly needed pesticides. Then one day, Union Carbide, an American multinational, came to his rescue. Heard of Eveready batteries? Well, that’s what it made after it was set up in 1886. It diversified into making gases and chemicals during the First World War and to atomic energy processing during the Second World War. It started operating in India in 1905 as Eveready (India) Company, marketing Eveready batteries that you still use for torches and transistors. In 1959, it became Union Carbide India Limited.

In the 1960’s, Green Revolution was sweeping India and farmers were abandoning traditional growing methods for high-yielding seed varieties that required fertilisers and pesticides. Time was ripe for the multinational to set up a pesticide plant. And Bhopal, a virgin city and centrally located, literally, was its choice. Union Carbide engaged its best engineers to build the plant which was finally installed in 1969. It was to produce a cheap pesticide called Sevin. “Spend one rupee on Sevin and make five,” that was the mantra it preached to the Indian farmer. It was in 1973 that the first batch of methyl-isocyanate — the tongue-twisting name of a poisonous gaseous compound that would be on every Bhopali’s lips 11 years later — was imported to make Sevin.

And in 1977, the maiden production of Sevin took place: 321 tonnes of the pesticide were produced. Everything seemed to go on fine till December 6, 1982, when the American engineer Warren Woomer, who was the chief architect of the plant, left India. He had worked on the principle: “Always keep only a strict minimum of dangerous materials on site.” He also left with the hope that the three huge tanks at the plant, E610, E611 and E619, which could stock up to 120 tons of methyl-isocyanate, would never be filled. Woomer believed that a small quantity of the deadly gas was enough to meet the demand for Sevin, which had been dwindling swiftly because of failing monsoons. No rain, no crop — so where was the need for pesticides? Union Carbide India Limited was now running into losses and the new bosses who took over from him were heavily into cost-cutting. As a result, safety measures went out of the window. And then.

Safety is everybody’s business — read the notice board in the control room of the Union Carbide plant. (The board, ironically, remains intact till date). But that night on December 2, the staff which had taken over from the previous shift, had no idea that safety itself was at risk. Till it was too late. The pressure in tank E610 had mounted from two to 55 pounds per square inch and soon it began to smell of boiled cabbage — a definite sign that tank 610 was spewing methyl-isocyanate!

The time was five minutes past midnight — something that inspired the title of Dominique Lapierre’s book on the tragedy, It Was Five Past Midnight In Bhopal. It is alleged that one of the workers on duty that night, Mohan Lal Verma, who was sore with the management over his promotion, had deliberately induced water into tank 610. The allegation, however, could never be proved and today Verma, according to Lapierre’s book, lives 60 miles from Bhopal and works for the industries department of Madhya Pradesh.

Call it accident or negligence, the fog of methyl-isocyanate that settled on sleeping Bhopalis that night changed their lives forever. Over 3000 died that night itself, and nearly 12,000 died in the following years because of diseases induced by the poisoning. And thousands and thousands of others — nearly six lakh people according to some estimates — are dying a thousand deaths everyday. Their lives are now all about trips to the doctor.

Like in the case of Lakshmi, who that night was watching the wedding processions. To begin with, Lakshmi’s menstrual cycle went haywire soon after the gas leak. And that is now also the problem faced by her four grown-up daughters. And almost all members of her family suffer from weak eyesight and recurring chest pains. And one of her daughters has been repeatedly operated for cysts in her reproductive organs. About her husband, who is due to retire from All India Radio next year, she says shyly and hesitatingly: “I can’t even tell you what he is suffering from.”

Says Satinath Sarangi alias Sathyu, who has been rallying the gas victims for demanding adequate compensation: “Breathlessness, poor eyesight, loss of appetite, pain in the joints, anxiety, irregular menstrual cycle – these are common problems faced by the gas victims. They are only being treated for the symptoms, for which they have spent thousands of rupees so far, but neither the Centre nor the state government has bothered to go into the core of the problem. Alternative therapies like ayurveda and yoga help, but the government is doing nothing.”

Sathyu, an engineer by profession, has set up Sambhavna, a trust that seeks to rehabilitate gas victims through such alternative therapies. Sambhavna also has a gynaecological clinic set up with the help of the royalties received by author Lapierre. Another crusader in the town, Abdul Jabbar, has also done his bit to rehabilitate the victims by setting up Swabhimaan Kendra (Self-Respect Centre) where poor women make stuffed toys, paper bags and, above all, flags and badges for political parties.

“We hope to get a lot of work for the Bihar elections,” says Jabbar, in his forties, as he directs an effigy-maker to make a monstrous effigy of the people responsible for the miserable life of the Bhopalis which is to be burnt on December 3, the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy. “I want one body with three heads — one of an angrez (a Westerner to represent multinationals), one of the Indian government, and one of Warren Anderson (the man who was the Union Carbide chairman when the disaster happened),” he directs. “For the multinational, make any white man, and to represent the Indian government, make any Indian man. And as for Anderson, do you know how he looks like?” The poor effigy-maker has no clue how Anderson looks like, so he points to a picture in the room which shows former President R Venkatraman shaking hands with Jabbar. “Is that him?” asks the effigy-maker innocently. Jabbar rebukes him: “Idiot! Anderson is a white man!” The effigy-maker smiles sheepishly. Jabbar then asks an assistant to show the effigy-maker a picture of Anderson.

Anderson. That’s a hated name in Bhopal. His company had the blessings of the Congress party — the ruling party at the Centre as well as Madhya Pradesh during the disaster. That gave him enough courage to come down to Bhopal immediately after the gas leak and he was arrested — but only briefly. Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, and Arjun Singh, the then chief minister, ensured that Anderson flew out of India safely.

Today, Anderson is missing from his given address in the US fearing possible arrest as the awareness against the Bhopal gas tragedy grows worldwide. “If Chilean dictator Pinochet can face trial at the age of 88 for his misdeeds, why can’t Anderson, who is only 82,” asks Ward Morehouse, who has been running the Bhopal Action Resource Centre in the US since 1985. “Twenty years is too long a time. Time has come when Union Carbide, and its present owners Dow Chemicals, are made accountable,” he says. He makes sense. No one has been held accountable so far in the world’s worst-ever factory accident. Union Carbide did pay compensation, which was Rs 715 crore in February 1989. That time a dollar amounted to Rs 15.

Lengthy procedures followed to ascertain the identity of gas victims and finally, after three years of the tragedy, every survivor was paid Rs 25,000 — at first Rs 200 a month and then a settlement of the remaining amount in the mid-1990’s. But today one dollar is equal to Rs 45 and the remaining compensation money has accrued up to almost Rs 1,500 crore. The amount is now supposedly being disbursed among gas victims following a Supreme Court order in July this year.

It is not just money that Dr Divya Kishor Satpathy wants for the victims. He wants a research into the mutations that might have taken place after the gas leak. Dr Satpathy, who divides his time between roses and dead bodies, should know better. Today, at 55, he is the director of the medico-legal department of Bhopal’s Gandhi Medical college, but that night, it was his job to do post-mortem of the gas victims.

“We spent five days at the mortuary without going home. Every half an hour one of us used to cry. There were small kids. What was their fault? They didn’t have any shares in Union Carbide, they didn’t profit from the sales of Sevin. Many of them where clutching to their mothers,” says Dr Satpathy, wiping a tear. He has been conducting autopsies for the last three decades and that should harden him, but he still cries at the thought of that night. “We got a thousand bodies on the first day, 725 on the next, and 55 the day after. We ran out of shrouds, but the cloth merchants threw their shops open and let us take bundles of cloths. The red cloth was for Hindus and the white for Muslims,” says Satpathy, whose pastime is to grow roses. He has nearly 30 varieties of roses growing at his home as well the terrace garden of the hospital. He also has about 30 pigeons under his care.

“I love people who can’t speak, like pigeons and roses. You see, living beings always tell lies. It is the dead who speak the truth,” says the doctor. Is anyone listening?

December 2004


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ghosh,
If you the one who actually wtote it, then God mst bless u. I am glad to find ppl who are not even remotelt attached to the city are so mch aware and concerned.

Keep up the good work.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Kasturi said...

What a write-up Ghosh! Fantastic! It is so informative again. And you have presented it so well.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Deepika Munot said...

I was in Indore on that fateful day and have several maternal relatives there. I remember the nightmare we went through till the time we could not get in touch. All phone lines to Bhopal seemed dead or were not being answered. The Anti Sikh riots, the Gas tragedy, the Bombay bombings and riots, 26/11, and more in the same league, leave me thinking if we humans are worth saving?!?!

3:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written.. its high time our govt needs to wake up!!

5:07 AM  
Anonymous janani sampath said...

26 years and 2 years....our judicial system has a unique sense of justice... but why blame just that...? when our government plotted Anderson's escape... how can we blame the US for double-standards?

Rajiv Gandhi is gone, too. Arjun Singh is in oblivion.. so who will take the onus?.. Another dark chapter in Indian history they would say...How convenient it is to close things with that tag...

The ghost of the gas doesn't seem to haunt the politicians who sold their souls, but hapless people whose cries seem to echo in vain....

I won't be surprised if Anderson is dead and gone before justice is finally delivered. that is if at all it happens...

6:06 AM  

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