Wednesday, 19 November 2014 – 5:00am IST Updated: Tuesday, 18 November 2014 – 8:19pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
The elaborate cover-up of the 1984 gas tragedy involved a gamut of our countrymen

Bhopal: 30 years after the world’s worst industrial disaster which has become synonymous with a city, what’s left? Memory, always an uncertain mentor, has faded. Fading fast from public recollection are those grainy black and white images of countless bodies with whitened eyes laid out in interminable lines, those hundreds of gunny bags full of skulls, those long shots of mass burials and cremations, those interminable lines in hospitals made up of helpless people with bandaged eyes, that portrait of a dead child, half buried in mud, looking wide-eyed at a world that has betrayed him.

At a time when the Sensex has assumed historic heights, and the malls are packed with goodies, nobody is really in the mood for Bhopal. India has moved on and we want nothing more than to keep all those skeletons of the past in the cupboard. Bhopal, God knows, has hundreds of skeletons – dodgy deals and secret understandings between governments of the day and Union Carbide Corporation and the company that took it over in 2001, Dow ChemicalCompany; legal chicanery; prevarications by the highest court; wink-and-nod medical personnel; scientists who have allowed their research to reach a point no-conclusion; administrators who bend zoning laws. And, of course, let’s not forget all those agents and brokers, mediators and surrogates, go-betweens and legal eagles attempting to squeeze money out of human misery.

Bhopal’s skeletons, by and large, have been locked away in the cupboard of national amnesia. Once in a way – say every five or ten years, a major anniversary comes along – that cupboard door is kept ajar for a fleeting moment, affording us a hurried glimpse of those unseemly rattlers and a brief sense of that horror, before the cupboard door is slammed shut once again to everyone’s relief. Everyone, that is, but those marked by the disaster. Men and women with names like Vishnu, Shezadi, Mohammed, Ramlal, Rehana, Kamla, who cannot pretend it didn’t happen because the stench of that unfamiliar smoke that poured into their homes on the night of December 2-3, 1984 can never be forgotten. It tasted more bitter than neem, stung the eyes like burning chillies, its foul odour, its badhbu, recalled putrefying matter, it caused the throat to feel stripped of its skin and filled people with such dread that their one instinct was to pick up their children and flee into the night.

Just accounting for the number of people who died, have died, and who are now facing slow deaths as a result of that gas leak is an impossible task. From the very first days the effort was to play down the possible impacts, starting with Union Carbide issuing its famous instruction to all those exposed to the deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) to place wet towels over their eyes and wait until they felt better.  A month after the gas leak there was this cheery missive from Warren Anderson – then Union Carbide chairperson who recently died at the ripe age of 92 without facing punitive action – to an irate group of Japanese protestors: “We sponsored visits by leading medical authorities here in the United States to visit Bhopal…We are pleased that their experience in Bhopal and the news report from there corroborate the beliefs of our own medical people, that those injured by methyl isocyanate are rapidly recovering and display little lasting effects.”

Yet MIC’s “lasting effects” in actual human terms, we now know, will never be fully fathomed. It is estimated that over 22,000 lives have been over these 30 years, but today no comprehensive study on consequences of MIC exposure exists. In 1985, the country’s premier Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) did begin a major study with a cohort of 80,021 people directly exposed to MIC and a control group of 15,931 who were not. ICMR has now reported that by 2010, only 16,860 of those exposed and 5,741 from control areas were actually available. As Dinesh C. Sharma, writing in a recent issue of Lancet, pointed out this translated to a cohort loss of 79 per cent in affected, and 64 per cent in control areas over the 25-year period, ending any prospect of studying the long-term effects of MIC toxicity in human beings. This is yet another instance of the callousness, incompetence and lack of due process that has marked the response to the Bhopal disaster by the country’s stewards.

That they could get away with this is also because the majority of those worst hit were also people who inhabited the lowest rung. It is the poorest who are most exposed to toxic living environments and, unsurprisingly, the most likely to be overlooked should calamity strike. Yet it is these same people who, along with committed social activists, have been able to summon the agency and resilience to keep going, over all these years. In the face of government apathy and corporate impunity – Dow Chemicals has been repeatedly disclaimed any responsibility and had refused to respond to court summons – it is they who have kept the idea, and hope, of justice alive.

When the Government of India recently agreed to increase compensation and expand the list of those recognised as having been affected by the gas leak, it was responding to this pressure from below. When 10,000 people living in neighbourhoods, dependent for their everyday needs on water that turned toxic because the poisons stored in the abandoned Union Carbide factory leached into ground water aquifers, finally got potable piped water this August this year after a delay of ten years it was once again because of their collective and insistent voices.

To go back to the question we began with: 30 years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, what’s left? What’s left is the extraordinary struggle of ordinary people, many of them women with little formal literacy. Their struggle was not just about the Bhopal gas survivors themselves. India today has over 70,000 chemical manufacturing units; the sector is one of the fastest growing in the country and accounts for around 7 per cent of India’s GDP. Bhopal-like situations are likely to erupt at any point especially in the present industry-friendly climate where safety precautions are being constantly downgraded in the interests of faster economic growth.
By continuing to tell and re-tell the story of the night of the poisoned cloud, these faceless men and women are linking the story of Bhopal to the story of India, and marking red lines for the rest of us.

The writer, a senior journalist, is currently researching the impact of social media in India