Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bhopal Gas Tragedy - A Witness

I was a resident of Bhopal when the tragedy in the form of leakage of a deadly gas from a factory struck the beautiful city of Bhopal. The tragedy happened , I remember, around the time between midnight of the 2Nd December and the early morning of the 3rd December 1984. I was fast asleep and so perhaps was every one of my neighbours in the posh residential area Arera Colony . Arera Colony is situated some 10kms away from Union Carbide factory where the leakage of gas occurred. When I got up at 6.30 am on the 3rd of December, there was commotion in the street outside. People were looking scared, talking among themselves in small groups in fearful tones. The servant maid just then entered our home and gave us the piece of information. "Gas has leaked and several are dead". Gas? Which gas? LPG? She said, not domestic gas, but some factory gas. Those were not days of round the clock Television. We had to switch on the radio ( which was yet to become a museum object) to learn more about the gas leak. Soon it became clear that some poisonous gas had leaked out and killed thousands of people in the older section of the city.My neighbour suggested that we must drive away to the nearby town of Hoshangabad since there were rumours that the wind was pushing the gas towards our part of the city ( This was later found to be false). The main road was already chocking with cars and scooters and people were trying to get as far away from the affected part of the city as possible.We decided to stay put and wait for the Govt.'s advice. Soon it became clear that the lake, a prominent landmark of Bhopal, had acted as a shield and checkmated the spreading gas, confining it to a smaller area in the older part of the city. Unfortunately, the older part was also the more crowded part. That was why the casualty figures ran into thousands.
Bhopal was stunned into inaction for several days thereafter. There was hardly any one other than the rescue workers venturing into the affected localities. On the third or the fourth day, myself and a colleague of mine drove to the old city . There was eerie silence everywhere. Some dead bodies were still on the street corners. It was not the lovely Bhopal I had come to know in the previous two years since my shift from Bombay . Soon, the profiteers and bad elements took over the scene. Blankets and clothes donated freely to the suffering people started appearing dramatically in the evening market for sale. Social service organisations, some of them genuine but many of them out to make a fast buck out of the tragedy descended on the scene. There was even a cartoon in the Times of India ( by Lakshman) which showed a big-built suited-booted lawyer from the United States bending his huge body to meet the eyes of a roadside beggar and asking him " Hey, would u like to sue the Union Carbide? This is my business card. 50 percent would be my share".
25 years have passed. Who knows how many of those affected still live? Who knows how many of those claiming today to have been affected that day 25 years ago are really those whom the poisonous gas had harmed? The sudden swing into action by the Govt. of India and working out a relief package are laughable. 25 years for the court to deliver a judgement? Can any thing be more cynical than this? Would the world have condoned Union Carbide and Anderson if the disaster had happened in some Western country? Would the compensation amount given by Union Carbide have been so low? Human lives are cheaper here, right?
What has the country learnt from this industrial disaster? Is a disaster-management plan ready? Will it be far less damaging if a second Bhopal were to occur somewhere?

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