There are no ghost towns and villages around. No security barricades. No Housing Blocks, Shopping Malls, Playgrounds, Stadiums, Gymnasiums, Schools and Hospitals ….left frozen in time!
On April 26, 1986, more than one year after Bhopal happened, Pripyat, three Pripyat and a few old villages near Chernobyl plant are ghosts now, within the The freshly installed kids’ big Ferris wheel, never took its turn. Rusty long trains Crumbling disarrayed Mannequins strewn around, in abandoned fashion shops, The abandoned main post office of the town is still littered with heaps of faded letters.
UCIL Plant Now
On the contrary, except the shantytowns in the vicinity of the infamous Union Carbide Of course, the rusty, dilapidated Plant at Arif Nagar in the old city area is abandoned
The nature has overgrown, 30 years after the catastrophe. As one passes through the run-down Union Carbide plant, one can hear the birds singing, crickets chirruping in the nearby bushes , weeds have covered the rusting plant machineries, unused pipelines and the rusted towers. Thick Grass has overgrown in the entire area. The memories of the Plant’s terrible history have now swept into oblivion, but it still stands there, like a zombie, reminding the biggest industrial catastrophe in History.
Not too many people come here now. Except very few inquisitive journalists, some researchers, environmentalists and very few Black Tourism enthusiasts. At the main entrance, visibly bored police guards, playing cards to kill time, almost reluctantly examine your papers before allowing you through.
In the rusted Control Room, the signalling panels and the related machinery have now totally been vanished. No history remained to document the moments that once signalled the disaster. No civilised country would have ever forgotten the vital lessons and clues of the blackest industrial disaster, the way we have tried to neglect the vital evidences and forgotten the whole episode!
A big sign attached to a wall speaks about the prime importance of safety, as a cruel joke!
Forgotten And Forlorn
No one remembers the tragedy any more in Bhopal, except only once, during the annual rituals of 3 December. That also not by the general local population…mainly by the NGOs, the activists and the environmentalists!
It’s a fact. The overwhelming population of the city’s new generation anyhow want to forget its inglorious past! The bureaucrats, the citizens in general and the politicians small or big, just want to forget their long unfulfilled duties and responsibilities.
A casual visitor to the city would have little inkling today, of the enormity of the catastrophe that befell the city 30 years ago. The new generation in the city have just the scant memory of that ignoble past.
The capital of Madhya Pradesh in called the geographical centre of India. With a population of about 2.5 million and a population density of 854 inhabitants per square kilometre, Bhopal is a commercially and industrially busy city. Bhopal’s population growth over the last decade 2001-2011 was 28.46%. The people here seemingly too busy getting on with their daily lives. Easily look over their shoulders at the past.
Only in the immediate neighbourhood of the Union Carbide plant in Aarif Nagar, the legacy of devastation is still visibly apparent.
A City By The Lake
No, Bhopal has not earned the sobriquet of a Lake City. But the main Lake is its bigger attraction here.
Apart from the old city area, Bhopal still has the looks of one of India’s cleanest cities, with wide and tree-lined roads, two lakes and picturesque bungalows on hillocks around.
According to legend, the city was built by King Bhoj in the 11th century. Taken over by the Islamic powers, the region was a part of the Mughal Empire till the year 1707. Then a Dost Mohammed of Mughal Army conspired to be the ruler. The Begums of the royal family ruled it for a century, before Nawab Hamidullah, son of Sultan Jahan, the third Begum in succession, , ascended to power in 1926. He acceded Bhopal to India in 1947.
Shyamla Hills, the knoll , in the northern part of the city is one of the elegant main localities in the city. It has some major showpieces of the city, attractions like the Bharat Bhavan, the State Museum, Regional Science Centre, Tribal Habitat Museum, and Van Vihar National Park. The place which offers the most prodigious views of the Upper Lake, houses the grand heritage hotel, ‘Jehan Numa Palace’, spread over 5 acres. Many big range hotels, restaurants, bars. business houses, institutes and the banks are spread across the area.
Arera Colony, at the southern part of the city is one of the posh and sprawling residential areas in Bhopal. Derived its name from Arera Hills which dominate the local landscape, it houses many industrialists, retired big honchos and senior Babus. Arera Club has its tennis court, badminton club, gymnasium, multicusuine restaurant and a well-stocked Bar. Frequented by Senior Bureaucrats and power brokers alike, this is a power hub in the city.
Bittan Market is one of the largest shopping complexes in the area. Savoy Complex, Aura Mall, Akriti Business Centre (ABC) have come out with scores of minor markets, hotels, eateries and pubs, in the recent years.
The recent growth of TT Nagar and MP Nagar in the vicinity has also been impressive. Big Shopping Complexes, Multiplex, Hotels, Classy Restaurants, Fashion outlets, Bars, Cafes have come out in the areas making the business community and well-connected builders more visible and eloquent in showing off their acquired fortune.
Despite the notoriety of Union Carbide Plant, Bhopal is mainly the BHEL township. A major area of the city including Saket Nagar, Alkapuri, Govindpura, Shakti Nagar, Piplani, is occupied by the Plants of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, their staff colonies, township areas, and utilities.
Bhopal city and its peripheries have now grown into the major industrial hub of Central India. Apart from Govindpura, Bagroda Industrial area and Peelukhedi are also queing up to accommodate the growing industrial trend of the region, in the realms of food processing, mineral processing, pharmaceuticals, engineering, electronics and information technology.
The city of Bhopal has now grown so much in width and breadth, that once a sleepy village in Raisen district, adjoining Bhopal, Mandideep, which started on an area of 560-acre (2.3 km2), is now sprawled across 2,000-acre (8.1 km2), housing about 500industrial units belonging to well-known companies like Procters & Gamble, Crompton Greaves, LUPIN Laboratories, TAFE Tractors, IFB, Parle Agro and Godrej Foods among others. In the seventies and early eighties, the area had just a weekly market to boast about.Hindustan Electro Graphite (HEG) was the first industrial unit to usher in industrialisation in Mandideep.
Mandideep, historically in the proximity to Bhojpur’s Shiva temple was surrounded by a huge lake. In the 15th century, Sultan Hussein Shah of Malwa attacked the Bhojpur Shiva temple and severely damaged the Bhojpur dam, which kept freeing water for quarter a century and Mandideep village came into existence when the land dried up. Today this sprawling industrial township employs around 50,000 workers. It has 45 kms of metalled roads and a 42 km-long water supply system. Have three sub-stations of 250 MW each to supply its power needs.
Views from Discotheque‘Jhanker’ is one of the popular Night Clubs of Bhopal, at M. P. Nagar.within a Hotel premises. ‘10 Downing Street’, a popular eatery , on the third floor of DB Mall, in the posh Arera Hils, hosts DJ sessions and Dance Parties on Saturday nights for the couples. Then there is ‘After Dark’ at New Market area.
Though nothing comparable to big metro Night Clubs and Discotheques, the nouveau riche, the spoiled brats, the rich Romeos, political contact wallahs and What’s Up types …all flock these Dine and Dance parlours with much gusto.
This generation has no experience of the catastrophe, not the sufferings and the after effects of the people. Union Carbide mishap is a dark chapter in the life of the city which they want to forget. Success bears no darker side….so they simply don’t want to attach the stigma of Bhopal mishap, with their profile.
The new Movie, ‘Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain’, has undoubtedly evoked the memory of the yore, but it’s just a movie, hardly attached to the daily lives of these many.
A Killer Still
On the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, the Union Carbide Pesticide plant leaked about 42 tons of deadly Methyl Isocyanate gas into the air, killing about 4,000 people instantly. Though the unofficial estimate counts it more. The Municipality workers of Bhopal, who picked up the dead bodies and loaded them on trucks for burial in mass graves or for burning in mass pyres, said that there were at least 15,000 bodies!
Enduring effects of the poisonous gas pushed the death toll to about another 15,000 over the next few years, according to the conservative government estimates.
The lack of proper hospital facilities in Bhopal, at that time or sheer inability to deal with such a huge disaster . Also the doctors were not adequately trained for handling such emergency and immediate treatment. These all factors led to more deaths and lifelong ailments.
Over 500,000 people were permanently affected. Every family at the vicinity of the plant, went through the hellish and diabolical experience. No family remained intact.
Not even a single of the six safety systems at the plant were functional at that night, . even Union Carbide’s own documents prove the company designed the plant with “unproven” and “untested” technology, and cut corners on safety and maintenance in order to save money.
Hospital Doctors involved in treatment on that very night, hysterically called Union Carbide officials, seeking a treatment protocol. No one has any idea of what the immediate effect of the released poisonous gas was. Reportedly, when they finally got in touch with UCIL, they were casually told that the released gas was “nothing more than a potent tear gas” and that victims merely needed to “wash their eyes with water!”
As the dead bodies started piling up in Bhopal, Union Carbide sent some so called “top medical experts” to Bhopal. They also followed the UCIL official line of erroneous assurance.
No report was made available by Union Carbide-sponsored doctors to Indian Government. The released Gasses were not distinctly identified initially, due to “Trade secret”! As a result, from the very beginning, proper and effective long-term medical treatment has been virtually hamstrung.
The real effects of the released gases on the coming generations of the affected people remained mostly unclear even as the malignant effects manifested themselves with regularity among the children of the gas-exposed parents. Since the mishap, the city has witnessed an epidemic of cancers, mental retardation, cyclical and hormonal disorders of the women and multiplicity of what doctors described as “monstrous births!”
Forget about Union Carbide, which later sold its Indian liabilities to Dow Chemical, even India Government has done very little for the affected people and their progenies.
Dr N.R. Bhandari, who was the Medical Superintendent of the State-owned Hamidia Hospital and Professor and Head of the Paediatrics Department, wrote in his book “25 Years of Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Inside Story and Untold Truths” that : Just as the victims were showing improvement, the State Government ordered doctors to stop administering Sodium Thiosulphate, because that was what Union Carbide advised , at that time!
According to Dr. Bhandari, Carbide’s line was followed in the State bureaucracy and the then State Health Services sent a circular to all Doctors carrying that instruction and warning them that they would be held responsible for any untoward consequence. “This effectively stopped any further administration of thiosulphate.”
Dr Max Daunderer a known German specialist on the subject and Bhopal’s renowned forensic specialist, Dr Heeresh Chandra, both had affirmed that Sodium Thiosulphate, when administered intravenously, improved the condition of patients.
The Clinical Tests conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research from 1985 to 1987 also confirmed the efficiency of this particular drug.
A US court had earlier censured Dr. Hans Weil for unethical conduct by for fudging medical data in a case related to Johns-Manville Corporation.
Abdul Jabbar, a gas victim himself and the Convenor of ‘Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan ‘(BGPMUS) had also said that a known former Professor of medicine at Bhopal’s Gandhi Medical College, was active with his pro-UCC activities after the mishap,’
Jabbar said: “The pro-UCC lobby, led by him successfully influenced the Central and State Governments to stop the antidote by falsely denying the possibility of cyanide poisoning.”
Thirty Years Later
Thirty years later, even today children are being born with vital mental and physical abnormalities, severe brain damage, missing palates, obtruded eyes, and twisted limbs due to their poor parents’ exposure to the lethal gas or water contaminated by it, later.
The 30 year old disaster is still killing in Bhopal. The chemicals that Carbide abandoned in and around their Bhopal factory have contaminated the drinking water of the area. The Dow says, the clearing duties lie with the Indian Government. The Government wrests it.
A 24 years old study in 1990 by the Bhopal Group for Information and Action had found di-and trichlorobenzenes in water samples taken from wells being used by communities living near the factory, and phthalates, chlorinated benzenes and aromatic hydrocarbons in the soil samples taken.
In 1996, the Madhya Pradesh State Research Laboratory had conducted tests on water and concluded that the chemical contamination found is “due to chemicals used in the Union Carbide factory that have proven to be extremely harmful for health. Therefore the use of this water for drinking must be stopped immediately.”
A study as back as 2002 by the Fact Finding Mission on Bhopal, found that many of Union Carbide’s most dangerous toxins can be found in the breast milk of mothers living around the factory.
But very little has been done to check it.
Laxity, Laws And The Lapses
In the past years, shocking revelations have emerged about arrested Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson’s release, bringing former Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi and former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Arjun Singh at the centre of controversy.
Questions were also raised about the role played by the Former Madhya Pradesh top Bureaucrats like the then Chief Secretary Brahma Swaroop, the then Bhopal Collector Moti Singh, and the then Bhopal SP Swaraj Puri.
But till date , no probe has been initiated on the blatant lapses.
Former Union Minister, late Vasant Sathe had said to a question that there was nothing wrong or illegal in giving safe passage to then Union Carbide Chief Warren Anderson and the Congress should not feel embarrassed about it.
“I think Congress is making a mistake…I don’t know why Congress is not accepting, there is nothing shameful about the whole affair.”
Sathe was the Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers in 1984, the year Bhopal accident happened.
Nani Palkhivala, the counsel for the Union Carbide, filed an affidavit in a New York court certifying that the Indian judicial system could ‘fairly and satisfactorily’ handle the Bhopal litigation (which means gas victim lost right to sue Anderson in the US courts). Anderson died unpunished, after enjoying a lushly retirement, in the US, last September.
Sadly, the Central and the State Governments have not reacted in a sympathetic and pro-active manner at any stage, and showed years of callous inertness and indecision.
They not only facilitated Anderson’s hasty exit after he was granted bail , they were inactive when in 1996 Justice Ahmadi Bench of the Apex court diluted charges against Indian accused (from culpable homicide to deaths caused by negligence).
The outcome is now evident.
According to experts, either a curative petition could have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging dilution of charges against the Indian culprits or, Government should have brought in an Act in the Parliament to alter the Apex court’s 1996 decision.
strong>What has been done, so far?
Pittance For Compensation
And about compensation, both the US and Indian Governments just paid some $480 million , that is, just $500 (nearly Rs 30,000. (Rs. 12,000 at the time of granting it) per life -for the death of 15,000 people and malefic effects for generations to come!
Surprisingly, the US Government fixed economic losses of $1 billion , caused by Exxon Oil Spillage off the coast of Alaska in 1989,which damaged the marine life and contaminated shoreline. It took no human casualty but caused deaths of seabirds, sea otters, Alaskan bald eagles, and unknown number of fishes including salmon and herring.
Exxon spent an estimated $2 billion cleaning up the spill and a further, the mentioned $1 billion to settle related civil and criminal charges.
After more appeals, and oral arguments heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on January 27, 2006, the final damages award was fixed to $2.5 billion on December 22, 2006. It could have been more, but the court while fixing the amount, cited the US Supreme Court rulings relative to limits on punitive damages.
And immediately after the spill, the United States Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA).
It clearly shows that for the US, its environmental damage and losses of marine lives are more precious than the loss of thousands of human lives in India!
Last But Not The Least
Obvious, Union Carbide followed a different safety standard in India and played with precious human lives.
Rajkumar Keswani, the then Bhopal correspondent of Hindi daily ‘Jansatta’, wrote a series of investigative stories in 1984, on the sheer negligence in safety procedures by the UCIL management. He said that he had investigated on the matter, between 1982 and 1984.
Two vital reports based on a private safety audit report were published in the newspaper, on 16 June, 1984, and thereafter subsequently vital portions of it in the columns of the newspaper on 9 December, 1984. The Government paid no heed to the reports.
Union Carbide evaded strict punishment for letting the accident happen, but it is also surprising that the India Government also escaped its culpability, despite being 25% shareholder in the company, at the time of the accident.
Union Carbide came to India in 1934 and became a household name as the manufacturer of ‘Eveready Battery’.
Post-independence, in the year 1956, following the Companies Act enacted that year, Union Carbide Corporation was forced to sell off 40% of its holding in its Indian subsidiary, of which most was bought by Indian Government through Public Sector Banks and Companies and the Company became Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL).
While UCC at least paid Rs 750 crores to the victims in an out-of-court settlement, the Indian Government however avoided possible moral and financial responsibilities!
In the year 1957, Union Carbide Corporation (US), after years of research marketed the pesticide Sevin (brand name of Carbaryl). DDT, the most popular pesticide of that time had by then became known harmful to human lives.
Under the controversial US Public Law- 480, the US , through the Red Cross, donated 870 metric tonnes of Sevin to help India’s foreign assisted ‘Green Revolution’. India started imputing Savin thereafter. But it needed a lot of US Dollars for severely Dollarcrunched Indian exchequer.
By chance, the compensation issue was an out-of-court settlement. Otherwise, via this disclaimer , UCC would have escaped legally without paying any compensation!