By LB THAPA, lately in Bhopal, FOR ONTOTHEROAD.COM
This piece of write-up is not an academic analysis of an expert. It is a survivor’s tale. The infamous Bhopal gas tragedy has made its place in the book of history as one of the worst industrial disasters ever registered in the annals of the world history.
The killer gas had silently spread and showed no mercy upon any one and within an hour killed hoards of people. Among the victims were mostly children, women, elderly and sick people. Unfortunately, I was one of the victims who witnessed the holocaust. And this write-up is simply my tale of horror that I had experienced.
I was born and brought up in Bhopal, from where I obtained my Masters degree in Economics in 1990. In 1984 the year when the disaster happened, I was an 11th grader at Mahatma Gandhi Higher Secondary School, Bhopal.
My father had joined the Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL) in 1961. The BHEL was then recruiting new workers in large number. Being a Gurkha my father had been recruited as a security man. The factory was built in 1957 and it was inaugurated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India.
After the retirement from the BHEL, my father chose to settle down in Bhopal. Now he is an active member of Shree Pashupatinath Nepali Samaj (SPNS) in Bhopal. My only Mama [maternal uncle] Prem Bahadur Thapa, a retired soldier of the Gorkha Rifles of the Indian Army, was a security in charge at the ill-fated Union Carbide Company. He lived alone in his official quarters, leaving his family back in Nepal.
The night of December 3, 1984 was an ordinary night like other nights in the month of December. The moon was shining and its beams flooded everywhere. At 11.30 pm I switched off my study lamp and went to sleep. But I woke up at 12.30am at night. After then I kept tossing and turning in bed all night. I felt the air was heavy and difficult to breathing.
My throat was parched and eyes burning. About that time, my father arrived home after his nightshift duty. He told us to cover our faces with a wet piece of cloth. It was 5 o’clock in the morning. I realized that many neighbors had come out of their houses, and begun asking about such an unexpected change in the air.
My father called us inside and shut the doors and windows. He said something about a gas leak, but from where he knew not. Meanwhile, we heard blazing sirens in the distance. It got louder with every passing moment.
And soon, we understood what they were saying on the loudspeakers. They warned us not to come out of our houses, because the air was laced with a poisonous gas. Meanwhile, my younger brother, a science student, now Lt. Colonel Sudhir Thapa in the Indian Army, thought of a possible chemical missile attack by Pakistan. We ignored his wild speculations.
By 7 o’clock, we felt a bit easier in breathing, but our eyes still burning. By this time many people had started packing their luggage to move to safe places. They said that more underground cylinders might explode at any moment in the Union Carbide Company. The BHEL area where we lived is located at the lower part of the town. Hence, the gas leaked out from the company did not affect us that much seriously.
Meanwhile, no sooner had my mother knew about an accident in the Union Carbide Company, she wailed miserably. She asked my father to find her brother, who was stationed at the factory as a security officer.
I understood the gravity of the situation and asked my father to stay at home and I decided to go to the Union Carbide with my younger brother. We collected some members of the Shree Pashupatinath Nepali Samaj (SPNS) to go to the ill-fated factory. On the way we met more Nepali people who had someone living nearby the factory.
Let me allow writing a few words about the Nepali Samaj in Bhopal. The Samaj was founded in 1978 by some Nepalis living in Bhopal. In 1984, its chairman was Professor Dr. Indrajeet Rai. He was a professor at the Maulana Azad College of Technology (MACT) in Bhopal.
He was later invited to Nepal by the then king Birendra, and presently, Prof. Rai lives in Kathmandu and teaches military science.
The seven of us scooted fast to the Union Carbide. When we crossed Bogdapul, near Jahangirabad, we saw scores of dead buffalos scattered on the open space of a slaughterhouse. This was the first scene of death we encountered on the way to the Union Carbide.
This scene sent shivers down our spines and made us more apprehensive. The air around the area was extremely unbearable.
Three of my friends had masks on. We covered our faces with handkerchiefs. We rode past without wasting much time. As we drove ahead, more horrors unfolded. Dead bodies lay almost everywhere. Many people were running crazily, looking for their family members, and in tears.
The stomachs of dead bodies were swollen out of proportion, and streaks of dried marks of thick frost were visible around their mouths. Their eyes were red and wide open. The whole situation was agonizing and messy.
With great difficulty, we reached the Union Carbide. The police standing at the gate allowed us to visit the employees’ quarters, where lay 12 dead bodies. One policeman asked me to confirm the bodies. With a heavy heart, I lifted up the shrouds of all the corpses, but my mama was not among them. We rushed to the Hamidia Hospital, hoping to find him there.
The hospital was packed with hundreds of thousands of people. All were victims of the gas leaked from Union Carbide. They had difficulty in breathing, and their eyes were red and swollen. The hospital was not prepared to meet a disaster of this magnitude. Meanwhile, one of the hospital workers asked us to help take away dead to the morgue. The room was already stacked with dead bodies; there was no space for any more. Among the dead were children and elderly people.
I tried to locate my lost uncle among the dead. It was impossible to find him in the heaps. I saw doctors administering the patients with eye drops. It was estimated that about 10,000 people immediately died, and another 25,000 were to perish in the next few days.
Mass funerals were organized while hundreds of bodies were reportedly thrown into the Narbada River. Over 5,000 dead animals were collected and buried.
Most of the trees shed their leaves. The state government declared a total of 36 wards as affected by the gas leak. The exact number of deaths would never be known. Different reports made different claims, which contradicted each other.
But the truth is that more people died afterward than it was anticipated. Later it was known that the gas, which leaked from the tankers of Union Carbide Factory was Methyl Isocyanides (MIC), which was used to make pesticides.
During the days of panic, many mothers gave birth to stillborn babies, and those who survived died in the next few days. The poison of the gas was so severe and lingering that many affected people could never be treated permanently.
A huge number of survivors did develop lungs and eyes related problems. I developed respiratory disorder and asthma, which I am still suffering. Even after years of medication, I couldn’t get rid of the complications.
After about a week, we received a call from Hamidia Hospital. And to our pleasant surprise, the caller was none other than my Mama. By then we had presumed him to be among the dead. We brought him home, some 10 kilometers away from the Union Carbide Company. His health improved. He told us the inside story of the Union Carbide Company.
He said: “At about midnight, the security sirens began to blazing out. I informed the engineer on duty, who turned off the siren without delay. But after about half an hour, it started to blow again. Before the engineers on duty could understand anything, the first underground tanker had a deep crack from which the lethal gas began spreading rapidly.
The situation quickly turned out of control. Being an ex soldier, I knew what I should do at such a moment. I wrapped my face with a wet piece of cloth and wanted to go to a higher elevation. I told others to do the same. But many began collecting their valuables before leaving their apartments. This delay actually cost them their lives.
Many breathed their last before they could make an escape with their goods. I ran as fast as I could. But after half an hour, I fainted and lost my consciousness. I didn’t know how I was brought to hospital.”
My Mama, being a security officer at the plant, knew more about its security-related matters than anybody else. Many times he had made complaints with the engineers about the leaking of the tankers, but they took the matter for granted.
All of the tankers had contained tons of toxic chemicals. Most unfortunately, the main maintenance supervisor was also absent on the night of the incident.
Moreover, the company did not have a good safety track record as there had already been many small accidents in the past. For instance, in 1981, a worker died when he inhaled a leaked phosgene gas. In January 1982, the same gas leaked and injured 24 workers, including two Nepalis, one was my mama. They were taken to Hamidia Hospital.
Their lives could be saved only after several days of intensive medical care. In February 1982, MIC gas leaked and seriously affected 18 workers. They were admitted to hospital in serious condition. In August 1982, a chemical engineer came into contact with liquid MIC, and received burns over 30 percent of his body. In October 1982, there was yet another MIC leak which burnt two engineers. Similar incidents took place regularly from 1983 to 1984.
A few days later, a group of workers at the factory even went on for a hunger strike, demanding better security system inside the plant. The management made a promise to install sophisticated security system to avoid a possible accident in the plants. However, the Union Carbide never accepted its faults for the accidents. It is an open truth that it was Union Carbide, which was solely responsible for the worst industrial disaster.
Union Carbide had simply ignored several safety measures simply because they were expensive. For instance, the refrigeration system was turned off. It was meant to keep the MIC at 4.5 degree. But it was left at 20 degree Celsius, at room temperature. The steam boiler meant to clean pipes was not used for a long time. On the whole, over 80 percent of its safety systems were ignored by the Union Carbide management that subsequently led to the accident.
In addition, the management also regularly dumped its deadly chemical wastes in the backyard pits, contaminating underground water. In 1982, not a single tube-well around the plant area had drinkable water…their water had already been turned arsenic. In 1991, the municipal authorities declared water of over 100 such wells unfit for consumption.
After the incident, the BBC took water samples from regularly used hand pumps from the north of the plant, which contained excessive amount of carbon tetrachloride, a carcinogenic toxin. Looking at these facts one can calculate how much damage Union Carbide had caused to the environment.
About a month after the disaster, we were asked to fill compensation forms. Residents of the gas affected area stood in never ending serpentine queues to submit the compensation forms. After spending several hours in a queue, my brother and I managed to submit our forms, hoping to get some compensation in future.
It has been over 3 decades since the disaster took place, and a legal battle is still going on. The Government of India claimed US$3.3 billion, but Union Carbide agreed to pay only US$350 million. In fact, the sum was for insurance only.
Eventually, a settlement was reached under which Union Carbide agreed to pay US$470 million. From 1990, an interim relief of Rs. 200 was paid to every member of the family of 36 municipal wards. A sum of 25,000 Rupees was paid to the family who received serious injuries.
In the case of death Rs.62, 000 was paid out. The total number of cases registered was 1,029,517, out of which only 574,304 were found genuine while 455,213 were rejected. Several victims of Union Carbide could get no relief, whereas many claimers pocketed large sums by producing fake documents.
The anger of many genuine victims of Bhopal gas tragedy flared up when they received no compensation from the company. Many families had lost their breadwinners, without them their families were left in the lurch. These disgruntled people had waged a legal battle against the company that continues even today in the Bhopal District Court.
Two months after the infamous Bhopal gas tragedy, one early morning my father received a call from Nepal. My mama’s elder son was on the phone. He said his father was no more. We were shocked by the news of his untimely demise. Actually, we had asked him not to go to Nepal until he was fully cured from the effects of the gas…he was on regular medication.
But he insisted on going to Nepal to meet his family and return soon. We called his wife to Bhopal to file claims for the compensation. He died while he was on medication. After a yearlong legal battle, eventually she won the case in the Bhopal District Court and received a compensation amount for her dead husband.
A Nepali advocate, Dan Bahadur Malla, fought the cases of many Nepalese. He must be praised for his support for the Nepali gas victims. He fought their cases in the Bhopal District Court with all his commitment and sincerity. With his sincere effort helped receiving compensation for many Nepali gas victims.
So many years have passed since the tragedy first occurred, but the heartrending cries of many mothers and their babies still echoes in my ears. And the sight of those lifeless bodies haunts me in my dreams. The trauma has debilitated me to a great deal.
By writing this piece, I would like to pay my sincere tributes to all those unfortunate souls who had perished in the tragedy. May their souls rest in peace! I also ask the state government of Madhya Pradesh to do justice with the victims, who have been forced to live agonizing lives. Justice delayed is justice denied. But in the case of the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy, the justice has not been done.
There are many people in Bhopal who received no compensation at all. Our family’s claims and medical reports were turned down. This was done against hundreds of thousands of families. However, truth has it that the marks of that deadly gas can still be traced out among our family members.
The Madhya Pradesh government did focus on dead and bed-ridden victims only. But reality is that the effect of the gas seemed to be normal in the beginning, but it became more serious in later period.
Our fight for justice will never end until we receive an apology from the Union Carbide and due compensation. In fact, no compensation can heal the wound of loss and trauma that gnaw at the vitals of the millions.
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