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 Statesman. Patriot 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.
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.
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