Bhopal: 38 years ago, while the world slept, its worst industrial disaster unfolded in the heart of India

Anil Agarwal, founder of Centre for Science and Environment and founder editor of Down To Earth, was in Bhopal immediately after the tragedy. This piece captures the state of affairs 15 days into the tragedy

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Saturday 03 December 2022
Dead bodies of victims in the immediate aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy
Dead bodies of victims in the immediate aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Dead bodies of victims in the immediate aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Akshay Chitre, a filmmaker living in Bhopal’s prestigious Bharat Bhawan, built by the state government to attract artists to this central Indian city, heard a commotion outside his window early in the morning at about 3.

It was a chilly December and all the windows of Chitre’s house were closed. As Chitre and his wife Rohini, seven months pregnant, opened the window, they got a whiff of gas. They immediately felt breathless and their eyes and nose began to stream with a yellow fluid.

Sensing danger, the couple grabbed a bed sheet and ran out of the house. Unknown to them, all the neighbouring bungalows, which had telephones, had already been evacuated.

Their immediate neighbour, state labour minister Shamsunder Patidar had fled. The chief minister, who lived only 300 metres from the Chitres had probably also been informed in time.

Outside their house, the Chitres found chaos. There was gas everywhere and people were running for their lives in every direction, with nobody to tell them the safe way out. Some fell vomiting and died.

The panic was so great that people left their children behind, or did not stop to pick up those overcome by exhaustion or the gas. At one place, the couple saw a family stop running and sit down.

“We will die together”, they said. Another person ran for 15 kilometres (km) in a desperate bid to escape. A passing police van had no clue to the safe direction.

Stepping over bodies, the Chitres ran towards the local polytechnic, half-a-kilometre away, where they stopped and decided not to go further. Two hours later, at about 5 am, a police van arrived announcing that it was safe to go back home. But nobody believed the policemen.

From the polytechnic, the Chitres rang friends on the other side of the town for help. They returned home three days later. Their pomegranate tree had turned yellow and the peepul tree, black.

Three days after that fateful night, Rohini began to experience pain whenever she exercised and Ashay felt his legs buckle. They immediately left for Bombay (Mumbai now) to see a neurologist to ascertain their fate and that of their unborn child.

Mass panic

There were thousands of others that night in Bhopal, for whom, this macabre drama began much earlier and who were a lot less lucky than the Chitres.

Most of them were the city’s poor, living in the sprawling settlements opposite and around the Union Carbide factory. One of them is Ramnarayan Jadav, a driver of the city corporation, who says that he had started sensing the gas around 11.30 pm itself.

But he stayed on for at least another 45 minutes because “this much gas used to leak every eighth day and we used to feel irritation in the chest and in the eyes. But finally everything used to calm down.”

Even if the company had set off its warning siren then, many could have escaped. But nothing happened and many thousands woke up only between 12.30 and 1 am, by which time the gas was spreading in high concentrations.

People woke up coughing violently and with eyes burning as if chilli powder had been flung into them. As the irritation grew and breathing became impossible, they fled, some with their families and many without.

They got on to whatever they could — cycles, bullock carts, buses, cars, autorickshaws, tempos, trucks and mopeds. Scooters had whole families on them. Trucks were full but people hung on outside, some grabbing the legs and hands of those already inside.

Small children, old men and women were pushed in handcarts or carried. By 3 am, the main thoroughfares were jammed with an unending and uncontrollable stream of humanity.

The streets were foul with vomit. Those who fell, were trampled by the crowd. The worst-affected were the children: unable to walk and breathe, they simply suffocated and died.

Thousands fled to towns hundreds of kilometres away: Sehore, Vidisha, Hoshangabad, Raisen, Obaidullaganj, Ashta, Ujjain, Dewas, Indore, Ratlam and even Nagpur, 400 km away.

About 10,000 men, women and children reached Sehore between 2 am and 4 am. Another 10,000 went to Raisen. They flocked to the district hospitals for treatment. Hundreds of people, who dashed to Ujjain and Indore, had to be immediately hospitalised there.

In the midst of this frenzy, there was no dearth of valour. Hundreds of taxi, autorickshaw, tempo and truck operators risked their lives to evacuate thousands of people.

A child affected due to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Photo: Vikas ChoudharyThe gas that spewed out of the hi-tech factory of the multinational Union Carbide spread over some 40 square km and affected people seriously as distant as five km to eight km downwind.

For nearly 200,000 people, a quarter of the city’s population, Bhopal became a gas chamber. If it were not for the two lakes of Bhopal which came in the way of the gas cloud and neutralised it, an even bigger tragedy could have taken place.

The railway station lay close to the factory and smack in the path of the gas cloud. Rehman Patel, the deputy chief power controller, risked his life by staying on. When Patel’s chief came in response to frantic calls, he found him still at work, while his wife and 14-year-old son had already died in the neighbouring railway colony.

The control room which monitors movements of all trains on this vital trunk route was, however, in a mess: vomit and human excreta scattered all around, files and registers in disorder, chairs knocked down.

After midnight, the 116 Up Gorakhpur-Bombay Express rolled in but its passengers miraculously escaped death, presumably because they kept their windows closed because of the cold night, but also because station superintendent H S Bhurvey risked his life to wave the train on to safety.

Bhurvey, who was found dead later, also alerted all the nearby stations to stop trains from coming into Bhopal. For more than seven hours, this major station remained cut off from the rest of the world.

Next morning, hundreds of sick and writhing people were found all around, on platforms, on staircases, in the office rooms and even on the railway tracks. On the roads and footpaths around the station were the bodies of poor beggars and urchins.

To hospital to die

Those who could not flee made their way to the hospitals. At Bhopal’s 1,200-bed Hamidia Hospital, the first patient with eye trouble reported at 1.15 am.

Within five minutes, there were a thousand and by 2.30 am there were 4,000, suffering from not just eye ailments but also from respiratory problems. The hospital staff’s first response was of shock and bewilderment.

Nobody knew what to do and Union Carbide was not volunteering any useful information. Several staff members at Hamidia, about three km from the factory, were soon overwhelmed by the gas themselves. They had to be replaced by a fresh medical team.

Journalists visiting the hospital at 2.30 am saw only one doctor, and he had no medicine to treat patients with. Till early morning, in fact, there were hardly any doctors and medical students from nearby hostels were filling in.

Victims were still being brought in army trucks to the hospitals. In front of hundreds of silent, helpless spectators, people and especially small children were breathing their last.

Even when the treatment began in earnest it was only for token relief: application of an eye ointment or an injection to ease the spasms caused by the constriction of the trachea.

By the time the sun rose, hundreds, some even say thousands, lay dead, many on the roads and many at home under their tattered quilts: corpses with distended bellies were beginning to rot, attracting vultures and dogs.

Another 2,000 lay dying in hospitals and homes. An equally hideous sight was that of the carcasses of hundreds of cattle and animals all over the gas-affected area, swollen up to the size of elephants.

By about 1 am, about 25,000 people were crammed into Hamidia Hospital. The floor was splattered with blood and vomit.

Said a doctor at Hamidia: “I was standing in the paediatric department. There was such a terrible crowd, that there wasn’t even place to keep bodies on the floor. As soon as a patient was declared dead, his relatives would just vanish with the body. I saw at least 50 bodies taken away like this. I would estimate that anything between 500 and 1,000 bodies were taken away before their deaths could be registered.”

It was difficult for survivors to identify their dead. It was difficult even to distinguish between the dead and the half-dead. People at the mortuary were unable to cope and conduct post-mortems.

One father cried: “They have taken away my son. He was only three years old. My father, mother and two children are in a serious condition. May Allah punish those scoundrels.”

Dead administration

While the administration slumbered, the army moved in. The sub-area commander, Brigadier N K Maini, had been called by retired Brigadier M L Garg, general manager of Straw Products, a factory which lay in the path of the gas cloud at about 1.15 am.

Garg, who had been told by workers at his factory that they were suffocating, needed help to evacuate some 176 people. He immediately approached the army and got help: several cars and trucks.

Straw Products workers were evacuated to the military hospitals but not before some were dead and others seriously ill. By 2.45 am, the army had sent a fleet of vehicles and started a systematic search of houses for people trapped within.

Major G S Khanuja of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Centre made repeated trips to the factory area setting up a continuous evacuation channel to the Military Hospital as well as the Hamidia Hospital all through the night.

Khanuja went house to house looking for victims. The city’s Superintendent of Police Swaraj Puri, who joined the army in this search later, told a reporter, “It was awful, knock on any door and all you found were bodies.”

Khanuja was finally hospitalised himself. As Praful Bidwai of The Times of India put it, “If there was a wretchedly undignified, hideously helpless form of mega death after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this is it.”

At the Hindu cremation ground, about 15 pyres were lit at a time, starting at 9 am. The crematoriums soon ran out of firewood and trucks had to be marshaled to bring in more.

To save time, money, energy and human power, five to 10 persons were cremated on each pyre. In accordance with Hindu rites, the children and infants were buried at breakneck speed by a group of gravediggers. Few parents were seen around.

At the Muslim burial ground, too, there was not enough space to bury the bodies coming in. Rescue workers dug graves each holding 11 bodies. When there was no more space left, old tombs were opened and 100-year-old bones displaced to make room.

The head priest of the Muslim clergy in Bhopal had to issue a fatwa to allow the digging up of old graves. Packs of dogs prowled around and if they found a grave not deep enough, they would haul out bodies and devour them.

Death drama

A child affected due to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Photo: Vikas ChoudharyThe death drama continued for days. Thousands continued to pour into the hospitals of Bhopal, as some 500 doctors and supporting staff rushed in from other cities of Madhya Pradesh.

This is how a foreign correspondent, who reached the city 30 hours after the leak, described the state of gas-affected Bhopal: “At the factory, dead bodies were still on the ground, being picked up and loaded aboard a waiting truck. Everywhere one turned, people were retching, racked by violent coughing. All the shops in the city were closed, and on every street people were lying in the gutters. They were dead, dumped in agonised frozen postures, like birds shot from the sky.

“In their midst were real birds — vultures. When the vultures swooped away, the dogs would charge in and tear off pieces of flesh. Rescuing the dead from the predators were rifle-toting soldiers of the Indian army, joined by volunteer vigilantes carrying long staves. Little children with haunted, running, swollen eyes told of scampering through the night, with no particular destination. They asked the soldiers where they could find their parents. The soldiers replied, “Wait here. A truck will be along and take you to the hospitals. Everyone will be there.”

The frightened children waited. When the truck came, it took the children to Hamidia Hospital. The army was there too, keeping the human traffic flowing without the usual pushing and shoving.

The troops had set up 60 tents, which became instant wards for 20 people each. Some distance away, the army had set up a morgue to which the patrols in the city brought the dead to be identified.

“I thought I had seen everything,” said Subedar A B Bhosale, “but this is worse than war!” The third day saw another 400 deaths at the city’s hospitals, which said that 75,000 people had been treated by then.

Fresh cases of MIC (methyl isocynate) poisoning continued to arrive, raising fears of after-effects. Some victims showed signs of paralysis, 500 developed corneal ulcers and doctors said that they could go blind.

At the burial ground, people helping to dig graves were exhausted. “We are sick of burying the bodies. There is no space,” they said.

On the sixth day there was yet another scare. Some 51 patients who had earlier been sent home after being treated for minor eye ailments had to be rushed to the hospitals in serious conditions.

Doctors believed that these people may have been affected by the fish eaten from Bhopal Lake. The main fish market of the city was immediately sealed off by the authorities as a precautionary measure.

The next day the government announced that slaughter houses were being closed down so that the meat of gas-affected animals could not be sold, but there was no ban on the sale of fish.

The neutralisation drama

Even as hospital admissions and deaths began to show a steady downward trend, the seventh day after the disaster brought a new source of panic to the city: there was still 15 tonnes of the deadly gas left in the factory, which had to be disposed of before Bhopal could really feel safe.

The government entrusted the task of deciding the disposal process to a team of senior scientists headed by S Varadarajan, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Varadarajan set up his office in the Central government’s Regional Research Laboratory at Bhopal and shrouded himself in complete secrecy, nerve-wracking for the rest of the city.

Journalists were told that there were four ways of disposing of the gas: neutralise it with a chemical—like caustic soda (as is expected to happen in the factory’s vent scrubber), incinerate it (as is expected to happen in the factory’s flare tower), pack it into drums and ship it off to the parent Union Carbide in the US or elsewhere, or simply start up the factory and turn it into the factory’s final product, the pesticide carbaryl.

It was obvious that the company was pushing hard for the last option. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) of the US had immediately recommended to its units across the world: use up the remaining MIC to produce carbaryl before governments move in to stop those plants.

The local Union Carbide management had reportedly tried to reopen the plant on December 7 itself, just four days after the tragedy, to dispose of the remaining gas. But the staff which reported for duty was turned back by the district administration in control of the plant.

Starting the plant again would mean that the chief minister, Arjun Singh, who had piously declared on the fourth day of the disaster that the plant would never be allowed to open again, would have to eat his words.

The Times of India pointed out angrily this would amount to a “form of capitulation to the company responsible for the death of over 1,300 persons…It would tantamount to granting Union Carbide some sort of safety approval or certificate and to letting its management, with its all-too-visible safety record, run the plant as it likes.”

Word spread on December 10 that the factory had started again, with one district official claiming that the work to “neutralise the gas had begun” by converting the deadly gas into finished products, but this was immediately denied in a press statement by Varadarajan.

The city, meanwhile, waited tensely. The next day, amid reports that Varadarajan’s team had restarted the plant for a test run, Arjun Singh appealed to the people: “There is no cause for panic and I repeat there is no reason to evacuate the city.”

But even as the chief minister was saying that, he and his government were acting differently. Government vehicles went around the city announcing to a surprised public that all schools and colleges were being immediately closed for 12 days from the next day.

The Madhya Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation admitted to journalists that a large number of buses had been summoned to Bhopal from other parts of the state but clarified that this had been done only to cater to the extraordinary rush of people “returning to Bhopal”!

The Times of India could not even get official confirmation of the decision to get buses. The people obviously saw in all this a government plan for emergency evacuation while the chief minister gave them false assurances.

The government got police vans to go around the city to assure people that there was no danger. A similar assurance was broadcast over the local station of All India Radio. But all this had very little effect.

Zero-risk method

By the next day, the suspense was over. The government had decided to give in to the company. The chief minister announced that the government team had concluded that starting the factory was the “most practical and safe way” among all options for disposal of the gas.

This was the “zero-risk” method that he had earlier talked about. He said that the factory would start again from December 16 for four to five days to convert the remaining gas into carbaryl but all safety measures would be adopted and the “neutralisation” process would pose no threat of any kind. He also proclaimed that he would be personally present in the plant throughout the neutralisation process.

But to the people, already in a state of panic, all this meant little. Their worst fears were confirmed when they saw the government’s two minds’ policy continue.

The chief minister in the same breath announced that his government was ready to evacuate up to 125,000 people from 13 vulnerable localities to refugee camps, if they wanted to leave, and additional buses would be available for those who wanted to go to friends and relatives in neighbouring towns.

 A separate camp would also be set up for people’s animals. The people displayed little faith in government pronouncements and decided to vote with their feet. The trickle which began on the day of the chief minister’s announcement became a flood the next day.

By the evening of December 13, over 100,000 people had left the city in an unprecedented peacetime exodus. The bus terminus was crowded the whole night and the authorities called up hundreds of extra buses. People travelled on rooftops of crowded buses and trains leaving Bhopal.

Many transported their animals to neighbouring villages. Asked why they were leaving the town when the chief minister had declared that there was no danger, almost everyone said, “We do not want to die.”

Said a Press Trust of India (PTI) report: “The only people left behind (in the 13 localities identified by the chief minister as the sensitive areas) are either those with their own vehicles or those too poor to afford even a ride to safety. The spontaneous migration is unbelievable but true, defying logic or reason. It’s like being driven by the fear of the unknown, a fever spreading like contagion. When told chief minister Arjun Singh himself would be present at the pesticide plant during the operation, they quipped, ‘Men like him can fly away. How about us?’”

The next day was no different and the exodus continued. The panic gripped the populace to such an extent that a large number of even those receiving medical treatment at several hospitals left their beds.

By the evening of December 14, nearly a quarter of the city’s population had fled. Even the government’s camps did not generate much confidence. Only a measly number—4,800 people—reached them.

But here too they were as terrified as they were in the slums. Indore daily Nai Duniya reported: “If they had money, families, friends and relatives, they too would have gone far away from this ill-fated city. It is mostly beggars who have taken refuge in these camps.” The authorities had to close down two empty camps.

Safety systems

Regardless of what people thought, the government team began preparations for ensuring extra safety during the disposal process. Experts finally came up with, as they described it to eager newspaper reporters, a six-step safety system.

The first step was, in fact, no safety system: it was simply the process by which the pesticide carbaryl is produced by reacting the deadly gas with alphanaphthol. The second was the standard vent scrubber in the factory that had earlier failed to work.

The only addition to this system was a set of fire hoses kept on two sides of the scrubber to keep it cool, in case too much gas came into the scrubber and the reaction with caustic soda increased its temperature.

The third safety system was again the standard flare tower. The three new systems that were devised by the experts were based on the high propensity of MIC to react with water, but their flimsiness and simplicity drew much comment.

The first of these consisted of a tarpaulin shamiana that covered the chimney through which the MIC escapes. This shamiana was to be kept constantly wet, so that any escaping gas, which did not get burned by the flare tower, would react with water and get converted to harmless dimethyl urea.

The second system consisted of jute matting hung up on the perimeter wall of the factory on the side of the worst-hit colony on December 3, Jayaprakash Nagar. These too were to be kept wet so that any escaping gas could react with water.

The sixth safety system consisted of Indian Air Force helicopters hovering over the plant which could spray water on the escaping gas if needed. If despite all this, immediate evacuation became necessary, people would be warned through sirens and army units, kept on five minutes notice, would move in to help.

A person whose skin was damaged due to exposure to methyl isocyanate. Photo: Vikas ChoudharyThe jute matting in particular attracted much derisive comment. Said Praful Bidwai: “There is a length of flimsy jute sacking fastened just over a short stretch of the boundary wall, which is grandiosely termed ‘Safety System Five’. The sacking, ruffling in the wind, does not reach beyond 12 feet or 15 feet from the ground level, a rather low altitude for trapping the gas in case there is an accidental release. In fact, the leaking gas, the authorities have presumed without any basis, will also move in a very definite direction and it is not necessary (or as Varadarajan says ‘possible’) to mount the sacking along the entire perimeter wall of the factory.”

Apart from these safety systems, newspapers also commented on who was really in charge of the entire operation.

Said The Times of India: “In spite of the presence of the Indian experts led by S Varadarajan of CSIR, there is very little doubt as to who is really in charge. The team of Indian experts does not yet seem to be in full and direct nuts-and-bolts-level command. The details of the job have been left to the Union Carbide management. As Dr Varadarajan says, ‘We didn’t really know the plant all that well.’ Even more significant, the involvement of the managers of Union Carbide Corporation, USA, in the present operation is visible’.”

The very officials of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), who were arrested on the first day of the tragedy, were released on bail on December 16, on the condition that they would help in the neutralisation of the gas left in the plant.

And the neutralisation experts included the same W Woomer from the US who was earlier denied entry into the plant for fear that he would destroy evidence.

Matter of faith

Even more ironically, at the end of all this sophisticated technology and expertise, it was still a matter of faith. The chief minister announced on the evening of December 15:

“The scene is set for the operation to neutralise the poisonous gas in the Union Carbide plant. Even though the actual handling is to be done by the Union Carbide people taking full responsibility, the go-ahead has to be given by us — that is me. It is no doubt one of the most crucial and agonising decisions I have been called upon to make. In such moments of supreme loneliness, nothing impels us more than one’s faith in our creator. Even though faith springs eternal in the human heart, at this moment of time it stands rudely shaken by the horrendous events of last few days. That faith has to be restored. This operation shall, therefore, be called Operation Faith. Let us pray for its success.”

Overnight the preparations for the operation began. Water tankers and fire brigade vans drenched every street with water, though nobody knew how this would prevent the gas from affecting people.

The policemen on duty prepared for their own safety by keeping ready buckets filled with water and small towels. At the factory itself, fire tenders drenched the jute screens on the perimeter.

Other fire tenders sent jets of water soaring into the screens covering the MIC section of the plant. Once every five to 10 minutes, a helicopter would hover over the plant spraying water, and occasionally even over neighbouring colonies. Hundreds of oxygen masks were rushed in for plant personnel to use as a safety measure.

At 8.30 am on December 16, the operation started with the much publicised presence of the chief minister, who even took time off to argue with journalists that only 85,000 people had left the city.

The governor, K M Chandy, who had earlier refused to drink any water in Bhopal, also visited the plant twice. Outside the factory’s gate, Bharatiya Janata Party president Atal Behari Vajpayee argued with policemen who first denied him permission to enter the plant and then allowed him in.

By the end of the first day, four tonnes out of the 15 tonnes estimated to be in storage tank no. 619 and 1.2 tonnes in stainless steel drums, were converted into pesticides. The next morning, the same routine of fire tenders and helicopters was repeated.

In front of the gate, to instil confidence in the people, stood two army officers, Brigadier N K Maini and Major G S Khanuja, who had risked their lives on the morning of December 2 to evacuate some 10,000 people. By the end of that day, another four tonnes had been used up.

By the end of the third day, 12 tonnes had been disposed of, leaving just about four more tonnes to be converted. But by that day, the government team also realised that there was a lot more gas in the tank than the factory’s records had earlier indicated.

The operation which was expected to end in four or five days finally ended on Saturday — seven days after it began — and nearly 24 tonnes of the gas had to be converted, over 50 per cent more than earlier estimated. Union Carbide did not even know how much gas it had in store.

Government’s response

The government’s response was uncertain and tardy — it was to become even so in days to come. The Central government, at the request of the state government, flew in a team of doctors, followed by a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team.

The district magistrate ordered closure of the factory on December 3 itself and arrested five officers of the company in Bhopal. A judicial inquiry into the tragedy was announced.

The next day two teams of chemical industry and environmental experts were flown in from Delhi. The new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, broke his election campaign to fly to Bhopal.

But apart from these routine bureaucratic responses, the state or the Central government did precious little during the first two days. Except for the army, there was no help coming to the 100,000-odd people who fled from their homes that morning.

Bhopal’s superintendent of police claimed that police used whatever vans and trucks were available and took people out of Bhopal. But he argued that as the administration had no clue of the nature of the gas leak, there was little it could do.

The government’s centralisation and lack of initiative, so visible on ordinary days, caused it to literally collapse under stress. Individuals in the administration worked themselves to the wall but there was no overall planning.

In those first few hours, there was complete confusion. Once the leak had been confirmed, the government apparently decided to evacuate the city. But no one announced this decision to the public at large.

The only people who got informed through the government grapevine were the elite: the ministers and those who lived in the colonies far from the plant, and even among those, it was mainly people who had telephones. The rest of the people were left to fend for themselves.

The first coordination meeting of secretaries and heads of departments was called only on the night of December 4, more than 40 hours later. Fortunately, there was a stock of medicines available in the town because of the national programme to combat blindness.

For two days, some 2,000 animal carcasses still littered streets and houses and posed a real danger of a cholera outbreak. Finally, cranes and dumpers were obtained from the army and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. The coil of one crane actually broke when lifting a dead buffalo.

The walls of 32 houses had to be broken down because the buffalo corpses had bloated so much they couldn’t be taken out of the narrow doors of the slum houses. Finally, the dead animals were carried five km away from the city and dumped in 3-metre-deep trenches, dug by bulldozers and lined with four trucks of salt, two trucks of bleaching powder, 10 trucks of lime and half a truck of caustic soda.

Epidemic fears

Three weeks later, there were again fears of outbreaks of epidemics as millions of green flies, attracted by improperly disposed of carcasses invaded the city.

The army had initially helped in the removal and disposal of animal carcasses but the authorities admitted that all the animals could not be buried because of a shortage of sanitary workers and scavengers. Most of the municipal staff had been affected by the gas and sanitary workers had to be summoned from other towns.

Equally disorganised and callous was the administration’s response to people’s queries. The government began broadcasting news bulletins over All India Radio on the second day itself that the situation was fast returning to normal and that everything was safe, which, journalists told the chief minister, sounded much like the pronouncements of Union Carbide officials.

The people were suspicious of the air they breathed, the water they drank, and the meat, flour, fish and vegetables they ate. The wanted to know whether the dead animals would lead to an epidemic, whether any gas remained in the factory and whether it could leak out again.

Instead of taking the people into full confidence, there was a volley of confused and contradictory statements. A newspaper report pointed out that on December 4, on his visit to Bhopal, Rajiv Gandhi had declared that the water had been tested and that no toxic substances had been found in it.

But Varadarajan later revealed that testing started only on December 5. Not surprisingly, when it came to neutralisation of the remaining gas, the people simply fled the city in unprecedented numbers.

The CBI team, which arrived on December 3 itself, immediately began interrogation of officials and the supervisory staff of the plant, warned Carbide officials not to leave Bhopal without permission, and seized all log books and relevant papers pertaining to the storage and release of MIC.

When a team of US technical experts of UCC, headed by former works manager W Woomer turned up in Bhopal three days after the disaster, the government refused them entry into the plant as they could destroy evidence.

Arrest fiasco

But the manner in which the government handled the arrest of Warren Anderson, the UCC chairperson, was ridiculous.

As Anderson landed in Bhopal with UCIL chairperson Keshub Mahindra and managing director V P Gokhale, all three were taken into custody, whisked away in a car with a heavy police escort to the company’s guest house, and lodged in separate rooms from which telephone lines had already been disconnected.

They were charged with a series of offences, several of which are non-bailable and punishable with life imprisonment or terms ranging from five to 10 years. A government official said that the arrests were made for “constructive criminal liability for the events that led to the great tragedy”.

The chief minister himself boldly declared: “This government cannot remain a helpless spectator to the tragedy and knows its duty towards thousands of innocent citizens”, and charged that lives of citizens had been “so rudely and traumatically affected by the cruel and wanton negligence on the part of the management of Union Carbide”.

An early release of an Indian news agency even declared that the officials of the multinational UCC “can be sentenced to death”. But this bravado, which even brought protests from the White House, ended almost as soon as it began.

Within six hours of his arrest Anderson was whisked away from Bhopal in full secrecy, without being produced before a magistrate, as normally required under law, with a paltry bail sum of Rs 20,000, put on a government plane and flown to New Delhi.

The embarrassed chief minister who tried to make the best of the situation, said: “What has been done is within the four corners of the law…we wanted him to go in the overall public interest. Not that I feared violence but it could have happened.”

But few were impressed by this feat. The worst record of the government was in the manner it took up relief work. On December 9, the government announced an immediate relief of Rs 100 for ordinary injuries and Rs 2,000 for seriously injured persons.

This immediately became an excuse for political favours. At Hamidia Hospital, a Congress (I) municipal councilor insisted that doctors re-admit a patient while doctors alleged that the patient wanted to take the relief money of Rs 2,000 by being admitted to the hospital for five days at a stretch, even though he was fit to be discharged.

The doctors resented this political interference and went on a strike. They relented only when the corporator apologised. Said a strike placard: “Congress musclemanship is deadlier than MIC.”

Newspapers also reported considerable resentment over the distribution of relief money. One gas-affected woman whose eyes had been badly affected wanted to return the paltry relief money of Rs 200 that she had been given.

Financial assistance was handed over in crossed cheques. To cash these cheques, the victims had to first get them identified and open an account in the banks after depositing Rs 20. The banks had to seek special permission to open accounts for those poor families who did not even have the initial deposit of Rs 20.

Resentment and relief

People expressed their growing resentment in various ways. Youths in various gas-affected localities began to gherao medical teams. Less than 10 days after the disaster, an Economic Times reporter was taken to houses by angry youths to assess the situation for himself.

“Almost every house gave the appearance of a hospital ward,” he said in his report. “Almost everybody was coughing constantly, having pain and irritation in the chest. Nobody had turned up to provide these people with medicines or to examine them for the last two to three days. Many of the sick people were not in a position even to get up from their bed. Most of them are daily-wage earners. They were not getting anything to eat. They had no resources to purchase foodgrains. Even if they purchased foodgrains, the women were not physically fit to cook their meals. The moment they sat near the fire, their coughing increased. These people generally belong to an economic class which suffers from malnutrition. If they are denied meals in such a shattered physical condition, they would have no resistance left.”

On December 9, there was even a demonstration in front of the chief minister’s residence. Most of the affected people were poor, manual, daily-wage workers and they found themselves suffering from the effects of MIC even weeks after the exposure, the chief one being persistent breathlessness.

Manual labour became impossible: they felt dizzy even walking one km in the sun. And out of work and money, they found themselves even more diseased, weak and hungry, virtually on the verge of starvation.

The entire episode left the survivors, their health and their economy totally shattered. Describing a typical situation, 30-year-old handcart puller Sabir Ahmed said that he had ventured out to work nearly three weeks after the gas leak. But this bread earner of a five-member family had to return home soon feeling ill.

Porter Bilal Ahmed was in a similar situation: he had received treatment on December 3 at Hamidia Hospital, but nothing after that. And he was still experiencing irritation in the eyes, chest pain and nausea, and was finding it impossible to work.

Shravan Singh, 34, a lathe operator, now found his earlier occupation which used to fetch him some Rs 25 a day so tiring that he had to turn to selling roasted gram as a pavement hawker, earning less than Rs 10 a day to feed his family of four.

Women often found themselves worse off. They continued to be plagued by blinding headaches and dizziness and could not focus on anything for long. Cooking before the fire brought about exposure to wood smoke and increased the irritation in their eyes, making it impossible to cook more than two chappatis at a time.

Bringing water from the nearby well or tap tired them out for the whole day. Many women had lost their sons and husbands and now it was impossible for them to survive, especially as they could not work in their diseased condition.

Many of the women living in J P Nagar opposite Union Carbide, were bidi workers. Said one bidi worker: “We cannot see the bidi thread after a while; our eyes burn. Unless you make a sizeable number of bidis and sell them each day, there is no profit.”

Some bidi workers found that the person who used to purchase bidis from them was dead and, therefore, there was nobody to sell bidis to even if they could make them. The mass death of animals like buffaloes also meant hardship for many who had lost their sole occupation.

Long wait

In a desperate bid to get themselves cured, people sat in long queues before mobile clinics, dispensaries and polyclinics set up by the government, and a dozen other dispensaries set up by voluntary agencies.

At these centres, they got the same treatment, antibiotics and a few other drugs, which after a while began to create more side-effects than benefits. Those unable to bear their health problems tried to seek the assistance of the big hospitals but from there they were invariably turned back.

Others simply lay at home in bed. But with the government and the medical community in Bhopal arguing in less than a fortnight that the worst was over — that most of the problems people were now complaining about were mainly the result of common diseases like anaemia and TB rampant in these slums — the people found themselves caught between a callous multinational and a highly inefficient and equally callous government.

Voluntary agencies working in the affected settlements reported innumerable health problems. Filmmakers Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mulay, who organised the Nagrik Rahat aur Punarwas Samiti, said: “Our women volunteers have found that almost every woman exposed to MIC is suffering from severe disorders of the reproductive system in addition to respiratory and gastric complications. They complain of up to five menstrual discharges during the last six weeks. Most women are complaining of abdominal pain, and highly acidic vaginal secretions which cause burning and pregnant women are facing even greater problems.”

The government did not pay any heed to the committee’s suggestion that five properly equipped diagnostic and therapeutic centres be set up in the affected areas. The government itself did not attempt any serious documentation of the extent of injury and new symptoms emerging.

No effort was made to take X-ray, collect and analyse blood, sputum or urine samples and keep people under observation. Even worse, the entire affair was shrouded in total secrecy. Even as people complained of various ailments, the government tried to suppress all information.

According to one report, the dean of the Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal even called a meeting of representatives of private medical practitioners in mid-January to demand that they disclose no facts pertaining to MIC poisoning to anyone but the state government.

Public protest

By early January, the mood turned angry and resentful. On January 1, Nagrik Rahat aur Punarwas Samiti organised a chakkajam (stop the wheels) programme by squatting on the main thoroughfare of the city.

On January 3, the Zahareeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha, a forum organised by scientists, social activists and trade union workers, observed a Dhikkar Diwas (day of condemnation) and a dharna (protest) in front of the chief minister’s house.

The day-long dharna turned into a 10-day-long affair and finally got converted into a rail roko (stop the trains) programme. But many members of the dharna were picked up by the police even before they could march to the station and kept behind bars for days.

A few days later, the chief minister organised his own much-trumpeted Dhanyavad Diwas (Day of Thanks).

The single biggest ground for resentment was the delayed distribution of ex gratia payments by the government, which had announced that Rs 10,000 would be given to the heir of every dead person, Rs 2,000 to those seriously affected and Rs 100 to Rs 1,000 to those slightly affected.

In its initial panic, the government had rushed payments and Rs 36.67 lakh was paid in cash to 5,724 victims. But on December 7, the government suspended the disbursement and announced that it would be resumed later — and payment would be by cheque — only after a quick house-to-house survey of the affected localities.

But payments remained suspended well into January. No government department wanted to shoulder the responsibility of sorting the needy from the avaricious, who also wanted to cash in on the tragedy.

There were other difficult questions. Who was an “affected” person? Which was the “seriously affected area”? For those who wanted to claim relief in the name of dead relatives, the procedures were frighteningly labyrinthine.

The deputy collectors appointed for this work demanded documents. When hospitals were approached, doctors were rude. They considered everyone asking for a death certificate a scoundrel out to make money.

Hard-working, proud people who had lost their nearest kin, felt hurt and angry. Even worse, they were made to run around. Looking through thousands of names needed time and hospitals made people come again and again.

Those who were too shocked to ask for documents when their nearest were dying, now had to go to their local municipal councillors who had been authorised to countersign compensation claim forms and send them to the police for further investigations.

Equally disorganised and lackadaisical was the government’s handling of free distribution of milk and rations. Apart from the 1,000 litres of free milk being given out daily, the government had announced in December that all families in the affected areas of the city would be given three kg of wheat and rice per unit, on their ration card, for December. 

After the protests in the city, the benefit was extended to January, increased to 12 kg a unit for all slum dwellers of the city because of the severe dislocation in city life over the previous month. But the government did nothing to ensure proper logistics.

Nearly 21,000 temporary ration cards had to be made almost overnight for residents who had none. No extra staff was appointed for making ration cards and the existing ration shops were expected to distribute these extra rations.

The chaos that resulted is obvious. The Bhopal tragedy has amply shown that it would be futile to expect the government to deal with such emergencies with any measure of efficiency. And yet high-risk industrialisation has made this an imperative.

This is excerpted from Bhopal Gas Tragedy: After 30 years, published by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, in 2015, to mark 30 years of the disaster

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