Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Horrors of Bhopal Gas Tragedy 1984: Biggest industrial disaster in the world--[Part 1]

Shams Ur Rehman Alavi

The Bhopal gas tragedy that had caused 3,000 deaths instantly and nearly 25,000 deaths over the next couple years apart from incurable diseases, physical and mental disorders to over half-a-million people, is nearly a forgotten affair today.

It's India's shame not just because the main culprit, Warren Anderson, could never be arrested or extradited.

It's also a matter of shame that several ministers and bureaucrats played important role in protecting the culprits and suppressing the voice of the victims. After a quarter century, none of the accused could be sentenced or jailed as cases drag on.

The apathy on part of Congress and BJP governments towards the fate of the survivors and whose children also suffer from disorders, is shocking. The pain and suffering is such that one might get insane just by a visit to any of these areas, and it's nearly impossible to write about it in a few pages.

But I must recount the events on the dark night of December 2 and 3, 1984:

Nearly 40 tonnes of lethal Methyl Isocyanate had escaped from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. The pesticide plant was shifted from America because it was 'too risky' for Americans. In third world country, it was 'welcome'. Nearly a 100 safety standards were cut down in Bhopal plant as per directives of the company from its US-based head office.

It was a strange night, which none of the citizens can forget. People woke up at night--coughing, vomiting and running--until they fell and died on the streets. Panic struck the entire city. The railway station was nearby and hundreds lay dead on the platforms as the killer gas spread across the capital city.

Railway officials steadfastly did their duty, doing their best to inform the officials from Mumbai to Jhansi, to stop train traffic and not let any train reach Bhopal.

There were no cell phones and no computerised signalling system. Most trains were stopped outside, except one [and most of the passengers onboard died]. But in the morning, 23 railway employees were found dead.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city hundreds died in sleep. Others lay dead on streets. Throughout the night doctors tried to find ways to treat but there was no medicine for such a deadly chemical. Union Carbide officials said there was no antidote to MIC gas.

Kids were dying in the arms of doctors. Those doctors who tried to resuscitate the children, themselves died as they came in contact with the gas. With the crack of dawn, the City was to come to terms with the gravity of the gas tragedy.

Funeral pyres kept burning for days, Fatwa for mass graves

In hospitals, there was nothing except bodies of men, women and children. The funeral pyres in shamshans kept on burning. Where were the qabristans for the thousands of dead? The special fatwa was issued for mass burials, so that dozens of Muslims could be buried in each qabr. Men and women were identified on the basis of their religions and last rites were performed as everybody volunteered to help.

The Chief Minister Arjun Singh had already left Bhopal. Panic was further aggravated with the news that there is still gas in the tanks. Later there were statements that the remaining gas would be released. This led to greater panic and for weeks and months people kept leaving the city.

Mass exodus, frenzy and fear
Nearly 1,000 big buses were arranged by government to ferry people out. Others left on whatever vehicle they could and most ran on foot. This was one of the biggest mass exodus from a City in modern times, all because of absolute failure of government and administration.

Trains passing through Bhopal wouldn't stop for long in those days. The train passengers would keep the compartments shut from within even though it was a common sight to see families and their children cry, begging them to open the gates. This was a tragedy of such magnitude that had no parallel in modern world.

Then the legal battle began. A compensation was agreed upon. Contrary to perception, it was not at all sufficient. Suddenly dalaals [brokers] appeared. Whatever was the compensation given by Union Carbide, was not properly distributed.

The real victims' money was distributed in parts of City where the gas had little effect, because of political considerations.

Survivors, Victims sans medical care

The super-specialty hospitals built with the money meant for gas victims, are flush with funds, but don't provide treatment and medicines to the survivors.
Instead private patients are entertained. The victims live in extremely polluted slums where toxicity is so high that young ones look middle-aged, thousands of women suffer from gynaec complications and the poor have nobody to turn.


The women widowed by the tragedy, live in the locality ironically named Vidhwa Colony, many of them barely getting barely a pension of Rs 150. Water is so toxic that none of us can imagine.

Life remains the same for lakhs living in clusters like JP Nagar, Qainchi Chhola, Oriya Basti, Qazi Camp and numerous other slums-localities in the area around Union Carbide.


The compensation had to be distributed among around 1.5 lakh people who were gas affected in 1984-85. Them and their children together numbered nearly 2-3 lakh by the next decade.

However, to gain political mileage--the compensation that was meant only for the victims, was distributed in New City also, ahead of elections. Not many got compensation over Rs 1 lakh.

As a result the real victims got much less of what they would have otherwise got. Compensation was distributed among 5 lakh people. Though it was a pittance--just Rs 25,000. Had the 25,000-each given to 4 lakh-odd non-victims, kept for the gas victims, the real victims could have benefited.

But even this colossal human tragedy was communalised. In the aftermath of Babri Masjid-Ram Temple dispute, a campaign to get compensation to New Bhopal residents was launched. The hidden message was that it was the Muslim-majority Old Bhopal that had got money. Ironically, this was also untrue.

Though Walled City in Bhopal has a clear Muslim majority, the areas that were affected had a predominant Hindu population. Among the gas victims, over 62% were Hindus, who were migrant labourers and poor workers. But this ploy did work.

The Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemicals. There was a large quantity of poisonous waste in factory, which remains to this day. The factory had to be cleaned up, as the waste is polluting groundwater in the entire area, causing deadly diseases and producing generations that are frail and always ailing.

Bureaucrats made money, then lost interest

Bureaucrats including many senior IAS officers were interested in Gas Relief ministry and its projects as long as funding was there. When hospitals were being built, they were happy as contracts were awarded for everything from construction to buying of equipments, and they got 'cut'. There was money in everything: even in calling companies to remove toxic waste remaining in factory.

When the hospitals were established, they lost interest--so what if doctors were not appointed and machines remained unused, even patients turned away, emergency and OPD kept shut at night--after all, there was no money for them now.

A strategy was devised to hush up each and every issue. Everytime a high-flying minister from Delhi would come, he would say that there was no waste, no pollutant and nothing needed. After all, the victims were mostly--poor, unable to fight cases, not like us--and could be ignored.

It was long back that governments had stopped medical studies. Those who died due to after-effects of the gas tragedy, were not counted after 1990. The true figure of deaths could be anything from 50,000-1 lakh and even more.

The reports that indicated governments and highlighted the presence of extremely toxic substances, were not 'accepted'. Bribe was paid, Carbide was let off and leave the country. The ugly corporate-bureaucrat-minister nexus worked wonderfully for the killers.

18,000 Metric Tonnes of Waste Vs 360 tonnes: Even Commission in Clean-up

They shouted from the rooftop that there was just 360 tonnes of toxic waste left. For decades carbide had functioned in Bhopal. The reality is that the premises--67 acres has nearly 8,000 Metric Tonnes of the most poisonous chemicals' concoction in the world, buried in the ground, that is killing the poor in the adjoining areas.

And a further, 10,000 Metric Tonnes, is buried in the nearby open land where the effluent was dumped for years. And nobody would talk about it. After all, the poor can be allowed to drink this poison. Who cares? They don't get treatment. Who cares? They die. Who cares? Of course, a few do. Next part tomorrow.

[This is the first part of the series on Gas Tragedy. As a child I was witness to the horrors of the gas tragedy and as a journalist covered it to some extent. The aim is to provide a true account of the tragedy and its aftermath, which many weren't aware outside Bhopal because it was not a satellite-TV/internet era back in 1984. Read the second part 'Injustice with victims, Indifference towards Survivors'. ]

Shams Ur Rehman Alavi is a senior journalist. He lives in Bhopal
Photographs: Black and White photographs courtesy eminent photo journalist Mr Prakash Hatvalne