Next week we mark the 37th anniversary of one of the world’s worst industrial gas tragedies that killed thousands of people in the central Indian city of Bhopal. Let me share with readers the tale of those nightmarish days of my stay in the city as a journalist to cover the ghastly disaster.
A swarm of both national and international journalists descended on the city to tell the world about the death toll and accident. But let me be frank, I did not realise the intensity of the disaster initially when I expressed my enthusiasm to go to Bhopal. My interest mainly was to meet scribes of international repute and learn from their experience.
When we reached, bloated bodies were lying everywhere and people were still being carried to hospital. There was death all around. People were still being rescued from affected areas. Animal carcasses filled the roads. No municipal workers removed the filth. The city started stinking. The feeling was that of a war-torn city albeit all buildings and properties remained intact.
Cremation grounds were stacked with bodies with no space for individual choices. It was a mass cremation. For Muslims, the graves were almost like a three-tier kind; putting a body, then some sand, again a body...
The Bhopal gas tragedy saw over 30 tonnes of highly toxic methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide factory on the night of December 2-3, 1984.
The reaction produced poisonous clouds of deadly gases that were carried over the sleeping city by a gentle wind. No alarm was sounded. Over a period of several hours, the clouds spread out over some 40 square kilometres, poisoning over half a million people. Thousands escaped death but with prolonged illness, pain, cancer, stillbirths and heart disease.
Unofficial estimates place the number of deaths between 15,000 and 25,000. The effects are felt even by the second and third generations in Bhopal, whose ancestors were exposed to the gas.
Those who did not initially perish in the gas leak live with a toxic sword of Damocles over their heads. Justice has indeed remained elusive for the victims. Each anniversary brings some attention to Bhopal, but the tragedy remains the same.
I revisited Bhopal city in 2018. The biggest change I found along with modernisation of the city was the presence of a museum at the New Housing Board Colony near the now-defunct Union Carbide plant, reminding us of the horror and also the trail of destruction in the disaster.
Why I wrote this column is because I cannot forget Bhopal because it is not an isolated incident. The tragedy reminds me of the fact that small, silent disasters are still unfolding in thousands of communities all over the world, especially in the Third World where minimal safety and environmental regulations attract polluting industries.
The tragedy in Bhopal or other disasters — small or big — represent a much deeper problem. Chemicals pervade every aspect of our lives, and all of us carry residues of toxic chemicals in our bodies.
I know we are helpless except knowing that human suffering is complex. But we can act. Our nations can limit the use of chemicals. What is required is the commitment to pursue the pledges and their implementation.