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20 years after: Anger and denial on the streets of Bhopal

By Suroopa Mukherjee

Twenty years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, the city of Bhopal is divided by fact and fiction, true and false claims, and an endless blame game between the survivors, struggling to keep the issue alive, and the decision--makers and bureaucrats, who are trying desperately to forget the gas tragedy

 On the night of December 2/3, 1984, almost 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) spewed out of a storage tank at the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) factory in Bhopal .

Who were the real victims of this disaster? Newspaper clippings tell us they belonged to the lowest economic strata, people living on the fringes of society. Was this accidental? No, for the line of separation between the two parts of the city is marked by the Upper lake. Its shimmering waters absorbed the gas and prevented MIC from spreading to New Bhopal, where the rich and more privileged members of society reside.

Those who lived in Old Bhopal breathed in the deadly concoction of gases that caused multi-systemic injuries. Today their lungs, eyes, reproductive systems, immunological levels and mental health are severely impaired.

How did the gas affect the rest of the city? A relative with whom I stayed, in Aerara Colony, the first time I visited Bhopal described the night quite grimly. “At first, we were not even aware of the event. But then a doctor friend rang up. We took our car and went some distance and saw people straggling along in groups and trying to run. We heard people shouting and crying. The magnitude of what happened became clear in the morning when we heard the news. It must have been very bad. We have heard the extent of suffering from friends who worked for the victims. But Bhopal has also become a media story. It is so difficult to separate fact from fiction.”

How, indeed, does one separate the fact from the fiction? One way is to explore the attitudes of those who were not directly affected, but whose opinions determine how Bhopal is popularly perceived. This includes the decision-makers of New Bhopal: people in government, whose point of view feeds into the policies made and implemented by the State. Like the Director of the Bhopal Cell, Ministry of Gas Relief and Rehabilitation, who said rather bitterly, “Our office is being asked to look after these people for the rest of their lives and now the next generation as well. When will it all stop? Where is the money and the resources? How long will Bhopal pay the price for a single event that was essentially an accident?”

What makes the Hiroshima of chemical disasters a continuous tragedy is the way in which it has been written off as a ‘one-time event’ whose aftermath was contained by a monetary settlement.

In Bhopal itself, everyone is trying to forget the world’s worst industrial disaster. But they are compelled to remember. This is where the conflict is. This is perhaps why there is so much anger and denial everywhere in Bhopal . Doctors, bureaucrats, intellectuals, students, traders, ordinary citizens respond with hostility to any questions pertaining to the disaster. To hear them speak is to understand the invisible line that distinguishes fact from fiction. Denial is as much a mental affliction, and the violence and suffering it unleashes is evident on the streets of Bhopal , even after 20 years.

In management parlance, the best way to classify an event is to identify the stakeholders and see their response. The pattern that emerges is fairly typical, and it helps to arrive at neat and conclusive definitions. But Bhopal has a strange way of evading definition. We begin with doctors and bureaucrats who were called upon to take ‘charge’ of the disaster hours after it occurred. Why should the truth be elusive in their case?

Dr N P Mishra, who was dean of Gandhi Medical College in 1984, describes the night as overwhelming and unprecedented. “The first problem was that of numbers. My team treated 170,000 patients in one day. The second problem was lack of information. UCC continuously informed us that the gas was not toxic and that we should not apprehend long-term effects of the gas. They insisted that most of the casualties were a result of panic and people running. But I took it in my hands to organise bulk supplies of medicine. I rang up colleagues and civil surgeon friends in neighbouring towns like Indore , Hoshangabad and Vidisha and asked them to send supplies of medicine and necessary staff like nurses and wardboys. I called up local chemists and asked them to pool in their stocks. Payment, I said, would be made later. Subsequently, I was accused of taking steps without prior government permission. I find this kind of attitude unfortunate. Seventeen thousand nine hundred patients were admitted and treated in an 850-bed hospital. Tell me honestly, can the role of doctors be underplayed in the Bhopal gas tragedy?”

Dr Mishra is far more hesitant when I ask him what kind of research was initiated to study the impact of MIC on the human body. “I am afraid research had to take a back seat because we were too busy managing patients. Four-five days later, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) stepped in and 27 projects were set in motion. The then-DG told us that money was not a constraint. I realise now that this was a research opportunity of an unprecedented kind. But there was bureaucratic intervention at every step. There was a ban on the publication of data, and we had to take permission from the central government to attend seminars, speak at any public forum or to the media. And then, just as suddenly, in 1994 the projects were terminated so that many of the findings remained inconclusive. I was appalled to read a press statement made by the present DG that most of the research done here in Bhopal was sketchy. I vehemently deny it. It was excellent work but the findings were suppressed.”

I am sitting in Dr Mishra’s room and I can see the walls are decorated with awards, citations and pictures taken with dignitaries. Outside is his OPD, and patients are waiting in large numbers. He tells me that even today he sees gas patients, and though he cannot treat them free and much of his diagnosis is symptomatic, in the absence of significant findings, he works very hard to bring relief to them. When I ask him whether patients continue to suffer the after-effects of the gas, that UCC was proved wrong, his answer is evasive and echoes what most other doctors say: “Do not be taken in by the big rush at gas rahat (relief) hospitals. There is no way of knowing the true from the false cases. You see, each one of them is given a card that entitles them to free treatment. So families flock to the hospitals and hordes of relatives jump onto the bandwagon.”

When I ask doctors why there is so much anxiety about ‘true’ or ‘false’ cases, and why it is used as a parameter to define a gas victim when no such distinction can be part of any treatment protocol, they reply defensively. At the same time, this criterion becomes the basis for arriving at conclusions with far-reaching implications. Dr Rachna Pandey, who was then a post-graduate student at Hamidia Hospital and was working on the clinical medicine project, is categorical when she says that no research is possible in Bhopal today. She admits that if the “projects had continued, path-breaking facts would have emerged. But now all one can have are speculations and postulations. Real and fake facts have got so mixed up that no retrieval of original data is possible. Too much time has been lost. Maybe that is the real tragedy”.

As I listen to her I realise what is happening in Bhopal today. Attempts are being made to put together parts of a jigsaw puzzle, but the picture that emerges is so smudged that it cannot appear real from any angle. There is large-scale generalising. I am repeatedly told: “Slums in any part of India are no different from the gas-affected bastis. Who drinks clean water in India ? Are not most women in India anaemic? Are we not dealing with large-scale poverty and destitution and beggary? There are toxins in everything we eat. If you say that there are more cancer cases in Bhopal then maybe Bhopalis smoke more. Given the statistics for TB, cancer or any other disease, how different is it from the rest of India ?”

The biggest bugbear in this disaster is the compensation money that was paid to survivors. How does it matter that it is a pittance? Or that it will be used only to pay hefty medical bills, or debts? Post-1984, the widespread ailment that grips Bhopal can indeed be termed ‘compensation neurosis’. But it is something that has affected everybody. Almost everyone I spoke to blamed the government for not working out a parameter to separate the deserving from the undeserving. Doctors and bureaucrats, for all their mutual suspicion, agreed that money had corrupted the Bhopal survivors. Collectively they said: “A large section of this population has become lazy and greedy. We cannot get domestic help in Bhopal because that section of society lives on the dole. NGOs and activists back them. They take to the streets and voice their complaints. Every gas victim in Bhopal is a politician who takes advantage of a corrupt system.”

The bureaucrats I meet are vociferous in the blame game. Iqbal Ahmed, principal secretary in the ministry of relief and rehabilitation, is candid when he says that the state is up against the Centre. “My coffers are empty. It is easy for the Supreme Court to give orders to supply water through pipelines and tankers. But where are the funds? No, you are wrong to say that we have asked for money from the Rs 1,500 crore surplus lying with the Reserve Bank. We have simply said give us the money from wherever you want. We do not want the victims to pay, but then who pays? What about the mammoth task of cleaning up the contaminated site? Do we have the money and the technology? It is easy for people to make noise in the press. I am glad that now the US court has said that Union Carbide will have to do the cleanup. We have asked an Indian agency to look into the modalities. We are working day and night but the task is not easy. I cannot answer your question about why Madhya Pradesh took back the land. Then you go back to the beginning and ask why the Supreme Court made a settlement. What was the government at the Centre doing then? The questions are endless and I do not have the answers.”

The director of the Bhopal cell, Bhupal Singh, is more ready with his answers. “What is the point of giving these people more money? They will spend it on buying consumer durables like colour televisions and what not. Soon Bhopal will be flush with surplus money and this will lead to inflation. So all we said was let the money be kept in a central kitty, and let it be used for long-term treatment. Please understand: the tragedy has been a disaster for some and a boon for others.” I am reminded of what the former chief secretary to the government of Madhya Pradesh said to me at an earlier meeting: “The problem with the Bhopal survivors is that they want the government to hold their hand forever. I agree that earning capacity has gone down with physical disabilities and that lighter options should be provided, but you have to be rational. Grants and loans are well within the capacity of the government and they are available. Look, even if bureaucrats are willing, politicians do not listen. Vested interests and corruption are rampant at every level, and where is the system for accountability?”

It is surprising that almost all the official stakeholders are reluctant to say that a national commission on Bhopal , comprising eminent people from different walks of life, should be set up to constantly monitor the situation. Some react angrily: “Is it not bad enough that the Supreme Court is monitoring us all the time? And orders are simply passed to do this or that without going into the ground realities. Besides, any national commission will soon become bureaucratic and be mired in red tape. Mark my words, everybody passes the buck in this country.” The former chief secretary is more amenable: “OK, a scientific body, maybe.”

Why is it that the scientific approach with its emphasis on objectivity is a failure in Bhopal , I ask myself. But then, how can denial and objectivity go hand in hand? The virulence that one faces in response to questions can best be summed up by a statement made by the chief medical officer in the presence of the director and almost all the superintendents of gas hospitals. “The truth of the matter is that there is no way of knowing scientifically whether people are still suffering the after-effects of the gas. In other words, 95% of people in Bhopal are notgas victims.” Heads nod in unison and a superintendent butts in: “The fact is that if we had been honest in defining the number of ‘real’ gas victims the number would not have crossed 30,000. But we said: ‘Let it be, these are poor people, if by identifying them as gas victims they will get benefits, what harm?’. We have been more charitable than negligent.” To my volley of questions about why have a gas relief and rehabilitation ministry if that be the case; and on whom is the allocated budget being spent if the percentile is only 5%; and why is the state government refusing to come out with a white paper on expenditure, the replies are angry, with counter-accusations of unwarranted and unethical questions. Denial and brutality go hand in hand, and I realise that I am as angry and frustrated at the end of the day. Imperceptibly, the gas has begun to affect all our lives.

The other two stakeholders are the political activists and the survivors. The activists are wide-ranging. Some claim to be gas-affected Bhopalis with distinct political affiliations, others are middle class and academic -- people who stayed behind in Bhopal and who believe in combining information and action. Some are women and youth leaders. The groups are fractured and not always in agreement about ideological positions and modes of operation. In a sense they too are sucked into the wilderness of vested interests, and the corridors of power. There is much talk in Bhopal about NGOs making money. As one official put it: “People claim to be working for the downtrodden but they are full of themselves, seeking media attention and credit for what is done. How much work do they really do? Yes, there are some who work but they are unsung and unknown.”

Meeting individual leaders is to encounter a closed exterior that reveals nothing of the inner turmoil. They nourish their own constituencies and work for the benefit of their own groups. Many of them have loyal followers and I am taken to meet them.

The gas survivor is perhaps the most ambivalent of stakeholders. The physical and mental scars are palpable, so is the anger and frustration with the system. They do not know whom to blame. They view me with a mixture of suspicion and trust. The fact that I have come with a group of students who represent the youth and future of the country makes them curious. The fact that we are from Delhi , the seat of power, makes our role crucial. They flock to us and ask for details to be conveyed to the sarkar, as they describe the government at the Centre. Their demands are chillingly simple: clean water, proper medication and means of livelihood. But what they are really asking for is far more complex: “Give us justice not money, give us back our lives and, please, listen to us,” is what they say repeatedly.

When I take the students to Neelam Park where a survivor group has been holding meetings every Thursday and Sunday for the last 20 years, we meet a group of widows. Once the initial introductions are over, and the hesitancy dispelled, they hold our hands and cry. Many recount their stories with the usual compulsion that marks narration in Bhopal . How does one distil fact from fiction? I watch the rows and rows of faces, gnarled, wasted, sick, full of despair and hope. When one of the students asks them why they come here every week, a woman who identifies herself as a group leader of sorts says: “We will continue to fight for justice till the day we die. We lost everything on that night, we have nothing else to lose, so we have no fear.” I realise that activism in Bhopal has percolated down from the leaders to the nameless faces, and individual constituencies nurtured by different political groups cannot bury the similarities and the differences. I see that many of the women are burkha-clad, their ages ranging from the very young (second-generation, born to gas-affected parents) to the very old. They carry papers and documents as proof of their identity, and when that fails they reveal the scars on their bodies. They are not hesitant to face the camera or to talk to us.

In New Bhopal the faces turn away from the camera and people refuse to comment. To them Bhopal is no longer a part of their living reality. They are too busy making their own careers and earning their living. As one young woman retorted: “I am a student of architecture. I have no time for social work.” To others, our motive as a group is suspect. What are we doing here -- research, investigation or social activism? “People like you come and go but nothing happens,” they say bitterly.

Every night we have our group meetings where each of us recounts the day’s happenings. Our own narratives have become repetitive and strangely inconclusive, but our energy levels have not dissipated. Bhopal makes us speak out and protest. We are largely students of literature (and from most counts fiction is our area of interest), but here we are grappling with a different discourse, language and meaning. For many of us this is our first experience of fieldwork that takes us outside the closed academic circle. As we exchange notes we comment that we find management’s use of the stakeholder model inadequate. What we are talking about is a man-made disaster that affected lives in different ways. Twenty years have passed and the scars remain on the psyche, hidden or palpable. Any kind of classification only creates artificial distinctions between true and false, and separates the beneficiaries from the losers. In the process, the pressing issues of justice, liability and responsibility get blurred. As one student succinctly puts it: “I have learnt more about systems of oppression in these few days than I have from all my readings. What is staring us in the face is class and gender discrimination, based on how power operates. Bhopal is a modern-day tragedy that had to happen one way or the other.”

What we intend to do with our ‘fact-finding’ is to write a report accompanied by a video presentation. We then plan to take it to all the officials who hold positions of power in Delhi . We want to tell them why and how Bhopal continues to matter even today. We also want the collective strength of youth, that We for Bhopal as a group represents, to be felt in the right quarters. If in the process we are able to counter the denial that is part of the popular perception of Bhopal then we would have made a small but significant beginning.

(Suroopa Mukherjee is staff advisor of We for Bhopal, a students group based at Delhi University and committed to the fight for justice for survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The aim is to create awareness about the pressing issues of environmental pollution, violations of human rights and corporate crime)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004