Bhopal: A look-back

Looking  back in time,  on what happened over 25 years ago,  you are  fuzzy on details,  but  clearer on the big picture on the Bhopal gas leak story.  I was then 45 , a newspaper reporter  looking at every happening  as a  story,  to be hyped, if need be ,  to claim a  Page One treatment.  Every  event ,  as a newsworthy  opportunity to prove myself . Wars,  floods, quakes, air crash or train smash  have  helped many to  advance their  reporting careers.  The calamitous Bhopal leak in 1984 was, in this sense,  a reporter’s dream story.  Anyone who was someone in the media managed to be in on the story.  They were known as  ‘parachute’  journalists. They dropped in for head office on  the scene to report the story ; and ended up stealing byline and front-page glory from the regular reporter.

That night :   Streets were  full of people moving by instinct, as far away from the Union Carbide factory on Chola Rd as they could. I could smell the gas, though we lived some 5 km away from the factory.  There was no public  announcement through loudspeakerin my part of the town,  no police patrolling . No one seemed in charge.

The morning after:  Hamidia Hospital  overflowed with the sick and the stumbling.  They were all over the hallway, on the driveway, and on the hospital  lawns.  Dr N P Mishra, a high-up in hospital,  said people started coming in with complaints of burning eyes, breathlessness and worse, shortly after midnight.  Doctors didn’t know how to cope .  The gas victims were treated for cyanide poisoning.  Dr Mishra sent out his staff in the middle of the night to drug stores in town,  as the hospital ran out the drug. Treatment did not work on the gas affected. Death toll mounted by the hour.

Union Carbide :  The factory executives made themselves scarce to the media.  Nor were they helpful to the medical authorities by way of  info. on how to deal with gas leak victims.  The company  had an in-house manual on the drill to be followed in case of gas leak within the factory. But they wouldn’t share it with the hospital , at least not in the initial hours when it was most needed.  As for the chemical code in manufacture of MIC, the lethal gas, it was an industrial secret that could not be divulged, even when it claimed lives in thousands.

The Government :  They seemed anxious to ‘facilitate’  the visit of  Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson and two  other company high-ups to Bhopal in the wake of the gas leak. Police bandobast ensured they were kept ‘safely’  away from  the media that moved in packs during the first few days after the calamity.  Mr Anderson , presumably, on official advice, didn’t visit the factory.  Instead,  they were driven from the  airport to the company guest house.  A few hours later they were  escorted back to the airport and flown to Delhi in a state  govt. plane.

After Mr Anderson was safely airborne the govt. came up with a press statement saying,  1) Mr Anderson was charged with 304 IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) , and Sections 304(A),  120(B),  278,  284,  426 and 429;  and  2) he was  released on a bond of Rs.25,000,  on the surety furnished by a company official.

As for his  ‘house-arrest’ in comfort at Union Carbide guest house, and his trip back on a state plane an official spokesman had this to say:  ‘Mr Anderson’s presence (in Bhopal) might provoke strong passions against him…and  (he was released on bond because) we do not consider his presence in the country desirable’.

A likely story.  And I reported this faithfully, in The Times of India.

Media :  Big newspapers ‘parchuted’  senior journalists to  Bhopal, making  local reporters  feel less important.  And every newspaper reporter  wanted to be in on the story.  And  many seniors in Delhi newspaper  offices,  even a couple of editors, filed news reports to foreign papers and news agencies. They are called ‘stringers’ –  they got paid in dollar terms, took pride in ‘stringing’ for Reuters, BBC or the London Telegraph ;  and they occasionally got a  chance to visit their  ‘home’  offices abroad.  Bhopal gas leak was a story  that interested newspapers  the world over.  Parachute reporters (flown in from Delhi) and stringers outnumbered the Bhopal-based reporters.

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2 Responses

  1. the saddest thing is that the situation would be no better even today for such disasters..

    nd yet we are hopefully looking forward to the nuclear plants…

    We need more accountability from those who govern this country…

  2. GVK !

    It must have been a nightmarish experience. You were there in the place where it happened.! I wish you would write a detailed story on what happened afterwards – the intrigue, the sellout etc. I hope we can kick Anderson’s ass – as per Obama;s language and get that chap here. If he truly is sincere, he must make sure Anderson is deported here.Then only we can believe , ‘yes. we can’. otherwise the guy uses lot of rhetoric to get by.. That’s all.

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