Bhopal, before 24×7 media

Todays’ media people,  fed on 24×7 news channels,   may find it hard  to imagine that there was a  24-hour delay in the Bhopal gas tragedy  making media headlines.   TV those days was limited to a few hours  of evening telecast.  Bhopal 1984 was in B G era (Before Google) ;  and the gas leak that killed over 2000 overnight  happened on a  Sunday night,  well past the  newspaper  deadline (time at which an edition  goes to print) .

I was then The Times of India (TOI) correspondent;  and the English  print media of  that time  meant a  handful of dailies –  Hindustan Times Indian Express and The StatesmanPatriot of Delhi, and  The  Hindu ,  Madras ,  didn’t even post full-time correspondents in Bhopal in the 80s ;  a media outpost,  to which no senior TOI reporter from New Delhi  was happy  to be  posted.  I went to Bhopal, as staff correspondent,  from the Delhi news service desk.

Bhopal  was a city of  ‘stringers’,  in media parlance.  Stringers are locally influential reporters retained by major dailies to file news reports for them.  And then we had carbon-copy hacks, reporting for several media outlets.  They are paid by the column inches they get published. The  complaint some outstation newspapers had was that they got from their stringers  fourth or the fifth carbon-copy  that was barely visible to the naked eye.

Bhopal reporters on media junket to Sagar. The face under the strawhat is Tarun Bhadhuri of The Statesman

This was the media scene in Bhopal 1984.   There was  camaraderie among reporters of major outstation dailies.  We moved together on assignments,  often pooling information,  while respecting  the right to ‘exclusives’  a reporter was obliged to put out now and  then to please their editors.

Reporter at work in back-seat of a car

Barring a few major newspapers that maintained an office with teleprinter connection,  reporters  relied on Post Office telex to send  news reports.  I have once sent a report to New Delhi from a post  office in remote area that still used Morse Code telegraph.

Our teleprinter operator in Bhopal worked four hours daily, from 4 p m ; and stayed beyond 8 p m on request, but rarely more than an  hour or two.  I could phone in  brief reports,  but  you can’t expect to  get too popular with the steno at the news desk  in New Delhi,  if you  phone in your reports too often. Besides, there was STD cost to be
considered.  The phone bills you submit to New Delhi for  reimbursement were liable to be sent back with query as to why and what-for certain phone calls were made,  and if they were  necessary.

Bhopal gas leak happened late on a Sunday night. I was woken up from sleep by a phone call from N Rajan, a media colleague and neighbour who edited local daily Hitavada, and also filed news  reports for Patriot, New Delhi. He had heard from a contact about a  major gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticides factory. The gas  had already drifted our way, though our  Professor Colony residence  was about 5 km from the factory.

As I looked out  from our first-floor balcony I saw residents in our  neighbourhood out on the street, fleeing from the gas spread.  Rajan  and I  – with my wife, son and our dog –  joined the crowd.  It ddidn’t  require a reporter’s nose for news for one to realise that we were amidst a major developing story. Our frustration was we couldn’t report it to our New Delhi offices at that late hour.  No cell phones then.

Our priority was  survival ;  making it  somewhere away from the gas,   which had by then spread to much of Bhopal . We spent the night  with Narasimhan in Arera Colony.  He is a relative and was then a  Bhopal bank official whose house was on  higher ground and unaffected.  On our way up to Narasimhan’s  place we found several gas victims  who collapsed on the street after inhaling the toxic gas  methyl isocyanate.

The morning after the gas leak I started phoning colleagues and contacts, but found them equally in the dark on details. The 8 a m  radio news wasn’t much of a help, by way of hard news. Meanwhile our colleague in The Statesman Tarun Bhadhuri (Jaya Bachchan’s  father) phoned to say he heard from a Union Carbide factory official  that the gas leak was under control and the casualty figure was five deaths.  This was what a Union Carbide official would have us believe that  morning .Anyway we still had the entire day to work on the news report.  That night TOI news desk kept open the Page One lead slot till 11 p m.

At Bhopal, when Rajan and I went to the government hospital – Hamedia – around 10 a m we found a spill-over of gas victims from hospital wards,  to the corridors and scores more were being brought in to the casualty in vans,  three-wheelers and even push-carts. Many of the victims collapsed right on the drive way.

Driving through the town later that day we found dead cattle with bloated belly lying on the street,  waiting to be disposed of.  The army had moved in  and their trucks helped disposal of the dead.  We still  had places to  visit, and contacts to be tapped – at the railway  station (where gas victims, dead and dying, were being taken out of  platforms and waiting halls), at  the police headquarters,  the P R  office,  and the hospitals.  I made a final round of phone calls to other  reporters to exchange notes before filing my news report for the day.

In the absence of an officially declared tally of the gas victims, reporters  worked out a consensus on a figure  –  500 dead .  But then the  headline writers sitting in Delhi  had other   calculations. Upshot was that no two newspaper headlines carried the same figure. We in Bhopal based our guesswork on a  report that all nine cremation grounds in town worked  round the  clock during the  24 hours after the calamity struck.

This was how the Sunday night gas leak in Bhopal made it to  print  on Tuesday morning.

Related write-up –  The night Bhopal turned into a gas chamber

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3 Responses

  1. What a tragedy that was! I did not know you were a survivor of this Gas tragedy! Your description of the aftermath sounds like a scene from a war zone and indeed it was. Unfortunate that Union Carbide got away with it so easily and India never made a serious enough attempt to bring people to justice nor rehabilitate victims as is evidenced by those living with scars and disabilities even now. Poor show indeed.

  2. God ! you experienced such a horrendous incident ! Must have had nightmares later.
    We merely read the papers without sparing a thought to the brave and industrious reporters who toiled to bring the news to us.
    What utter contrast to the “live coverage” of the Mumbai terror attack !

  3. Nice detailed post.. I cannot even imagine the scene.. wonder how it must have been to be there..

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