Bhopal Gas Tragedy at 39: From chaos to injustice, to lingering shadows
In the dark hours of December 2, 1984, the city of Bhopal, nestled in the heart of India, experienced a catastrophe that would go down in history as one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
Death was brewing in Tank Number 610 of Plant Number C at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, a symbol of industrial progress.
As per official records, methyl isocyanate got mixed with water used for cooling the plant. An overwhelming volume of gases was created, and the tank cover gave way to building gaseous pressure, releasing an estimated 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, along with other chemicals, into the air.
MIC is highly lethal; when its concentration in the air reaches 21ppm (parts per million), death can occur within minutes of inhalation. In Bhopal, the concentration exceeded this threshold multiple times over.
As the brisk morning breeze gained momentum, it carried the toxic gas seeping from the Union Carbide plant, affecting the entire city.
According to official records, approximately 3,787 individuals succumbed to the poisonous gas within hours of the incident, many in their sleep.
The gas wreaked havoc on the residents, inducing agonising issues such as burning eyes, blindness, respiratory problems, and cognitive impairments.
Beyond the immediate impact, the aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy endured for survivors and future generations. Estimated long-term casualties ranged from 15,000 to 20,000.
In a 2006 affidavit, the government acknowledged that the Bhopal gas leak resulted in 5,58,125 injuries, including approximately 3,900 severe and permanently disabling injuries.
In 1984, Bhopal, with a population of around 8,50,000, witnessed over half of its residents experiencing coughing, eye and skin irritation, and respiratory issues. The gas led to a cascade of medical issues, from eye problems and respiratory disorders to motor skill impairment and psychological trauma, with the villages and slums near the factory bearing the brunt of the impact.
The tragedy even cast a shadow on the next generations, manifesting in genetic disorders and reproductive challenges.
The Bhopal gas tragedy left a haunting legacy, never really leaving the mass consciousness of the Indian population.
NIGHT OF DESPAIR: UNRAVELING THE BHOPAL GAS TRAGEDY
The gas leak became official knowledge just after 1:00 am, triggering a series of events that would expose the unpreparedness and chaos within the government and the plant itself.
Just after 1:00 am, town inspector Chahat Ram Singh, on patrol near the factory, sent a wireless message to the police room about the gas leak. The subsequent response, however, revealed a staggering lack of preparedness and communication breakdowns.
Swaraj Puri, the city superintendent of police, reached the control room at 1:30 am, only to face a dire situation where no one precisely knew what had happened.
Bhopal Commissioner Ranjeet Singh, in a 1984 interview with India Today Magazine, vividly recalled the surreal scenes that unfolded. The city plunged into Kafkaesque turmoil, with people running in disarray, shattered glass and shoes strewn across the roads.
The urgency of the situation prompted calls to alert hospitals, and the army swung into action, led by Major GS Khanuja, who, despite personal risk, orchestrated continuous evacuations to military and Hamidia hospitals.
The failure wasn’t confined to the plant; it extended to Union Carbide’s response. Works Manager J Mukund learned of the accident not from company employees but from the city’s additional district magistrate.
Shockingly, it took 45 minutes for him to be informed after the gas leak was confirmed at 1:00 am Mysteries surrounded the lack of communication tools, including walkie-talkies, which could have informed higher management of the emergency.
As the night wore on, the inadequacy of administrative machinery became apparent. Over 100,000 people fled their homes in the vicinity of the factory, overwhelming the limited public transport.
Heroic tales emerged, from the army’s swift response to the selfless efforts of individuals like Brigadier Garg of Straw Products.
On the medical front, doctors found themselves ill-equipped to handle the unknown effects of MIC on human beings. Shortages of oxygen, hospital beds, and medical staff exacerbated the crisis.
The long-term implications on the health of survivors remained uncertain, adding another layer of complexity to the unfolding tragedy.
Almost half a century later, the Bhopal gas tragedy keeps raising its head even today, making old wounds itch and burn with the gross injustice of a preventable disaster that took thousands of lives.
A 40-YEAR BATTLE FOR JUSTICE
In August 2022, the disaster forcefully returned to public consciousness, spurred by a ‘curative petition’ in the Supreme Court against Dow Chemicals (which now owns Union Carbide) addressing gaps in the 1989 Bhopal gas tragedy settlement and seeking additional compensation for the victims.
Back in 1984, as the city grappled with the immediate aftermath of the disaster, a legal storm engulfed it. American lawyers sought damages, questioning Union Carbide’s accountability. Legal complexities, jurisdiction issues, and ethical concerns loomed over compensation battles.
The absence of specific Indian laws complicated recompense for victims. The Bhopal Gas Leak Act, passed three months later in 1985, made the government the sole representative of the victims in legal proceedings both within and outside India.
Subsequent legislations, including the Environment Protection Act of 1986 and the Public Liability Act of 1991, aimed to regulate industries handling hazardous chemicals.
A demand was made for USD 3.3 billion, settling for USD 470 million, which was finally deposited in February, 1989.
But this was simply not enough. Despite legal battles, the UCC’s evasion of responsibility and the lingering impact on victims highlight the ongoing struggle for justice.
While the original settlement in 1989 compensated victims, the recent legal battle concerning the ‘curative petition’ delved into overlooked criminal liabilities and demanded a re-evaluation in light of medical advancements and insights into the long-term effects of methyl isocyanate exposure.
In its curative plea, the Centre wanted another Rs 7,844 crore (USD 8.1 billion) over and above the USD 470 million (Rs 715 crore in 1989) already paid in a settlement in 1989 by Union Carbide, citing underestimated casualties during the original settlement.
The Government of India had earlier proposed USD 1-1.2 billion in compensation. However, Bhopal survivors challenged the government to consider its own published data, requiring a settlement of USD 8.1 billion, as per the Indian Council of Medical Research’s 2004 epidemiological report for the dead and injured.
The curative petition was filed on the 26th anniversary of the disaster in 2010, but the hearing was postponed in 2014, 2016, 2019, and 2020, and was finally carried out in August 2022.
The court, led by Justice SK Kaul, stated the settlement could only be set aside on grounds of fraud, which the government didn’t allege. The bench expressed dissatisfaction with the Union of India for raising the issue after two decades, asserting the plea for “top-up compensation” lacked a legal basis.
In March 2023, the Supreme Court dismissed the Centre’s plea for additional compensation from Union Carbide Corporation in the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy.
Barely eight months later, the scabs of the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors would be picked at again…
THE RAILWAY MEN: REVISITING A NATION’S WORST INDUSTRIAL DISASTER
Netflix’s miniseries, ‘The Railway Men’, produced by Yash Raj Films and released on November 18, 2023, took viewers 39 years in to the past with its portrayal of the heart-wrenching events surrounding the Bhopal gas tragedy.
This true story, though presented as a work of fiction inspired by real events, sheds light on the heroic efforts of railway workers who raced against time to save others, even at the risk of their own lives, in the face of one of the worst industrial disasters in history.
The series laid bare the harrowing conditions at Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) and its systemic failures that culminated in the catastrophic gas leak.
Malfunctioning safety systems, deteriorating valves, and neglected equipment related to highly toxic methyl isocyanate exposed a dangerous cocktail waiting to erupt.
The narrative underlined the negligence of the plant management, compounded by the local government’s reluctance to address safety concerns, contributing to the preventable tragedy.
THE UNSEEN BATTLE: A HERO KEPT IN THE SHADOWS
While the miniseries unfolded the heroics of Bhopal’s unsung saviours, few know the real name of one of these main heroes from the night of the disaster.
The family of Ghulam Dastgir, the deputy superintendent at Bhopal railway station, had felt a pang of dismay when they realised how the series had kept GD Babu’s name in the shadows.
Dastgir, instrumental in averting a potential catastrophe during the 1984 gas tragedy, was purportedly the inspiration behind the character named ‘Iftikhar Siddiqui’, portrayed by Kay Kay Menon.
Ghulam Dastgir’s strategic decision to greenlight the Mumbai-Gorakhpur Express on that fateful night averted potential calamity, preventing countless casualties.
The hero paid a heavy price for his valour. Exposed to methyl isocyanate during the gas leak, he battled throat cancer and succumbed in 2003.
Shadab Dastgir, Ghulam’s son, questioned the narrative choice to change the name of the lead character, saying that the true story should have carried the real names of those involved.
The family had in fact signed a contract with Small Box Films to bring their father’s story to the screen, along with financial support for victims of the tragedy through a charity initiative. They were taken aback by Yash Raj Films’ unannounced foray into the narrative.
Legal notices exchanged in 2021 remain unresolved, with Yash Raj Films maintaining that the series drew from publicly available information and wasn’t a biographical account.
LESSONS LEARNED, QUESTIONS UNANSWERED
Bhopal’s tragedy left indelible marks on the collective conscience of its population. The questions lingered – why Bhopal? The disaster underscored fundamental human concerns for safety, standards, and common sense in industrial practices.
The failures in urban policy, regulatory oversight, and emergency response mechanisms were starkly exposed.
As the survivors grappled with the aftermath, the city found itself at a crossroads. The lessons from Bhopal resonated beyond its boundaries, serving as a stark reminder of the potential consequences when industrial progress outpaces safety measures and regulatory frameworks.
In the end, the Bhopal gas tragedy stands as a chilling testament to the devastating intersection of industrial negligence, systemic failures, and human suffering.
It persists as an enduring symbol of the pursuit of justice, leaving an indelible mark on India’s collective memory, haunted by the ghosts of that fateful night.
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