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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bhopal,25 years on

When a mysterious,deadly gas leaked out of tank 610,few people knew what had struck them. A quarter of a century later,as people continue to suffer from the after-effects of that leak,The Sunday Express meets some of the people who were in Bhopal on the night of December 2-3,1984,and who stayed back to make sense of the mayhem...

Written by Vidya Krishnan |
November 29, 2009 11:07:24 pm

The cremator

The pyre used to burn day and night,says Shivcharan Dhaulpuria

SEVENTEEN Ashoka trees stand tall in a small park on Chola Road. Had Shivcharan Dhaulpuria not seen it himself,he would never have believed what the manicured grass hides.

Twenty-five years ago,where Dhaulpuria now stands,bodies were cremated in batches of 200 and more. “We did not have time for individual burials. Bodies came from hospitals in trucks and we had to cremate them fast,” says Dhaulpuria,whose family has been working at the Chola cemetery near the Union Carbide factory for three generations.

For the first few minutes on the night of the gas leak,Shivcharan—who had just gone to bed—thought it was smoke from the hawan kund in the crematorium that was causing his eyes and throat to burn.

“It was like someone had put chilies in my eyes. When we came out,everyone was running towards the railway station. When I heard someone shout “tanki fuut gayi (the tank has burst)”,I decided to take my wife,children and parents to Sujalpur. I left them with my relatives and came back to work as bodies had to be cremated. We had to cremate them quickly and send the remains to be immersed in the Narmada,” he says.

Bodies of over 3,000 victims,who died in the first 24 hours,were cremated at Chola cemetery and the Badebaag Shamshaan Bhumi. The hospitals separated bodies of Hindu and Muslim victims.

“Initially,the pyre used to burn day and night. There were so many bodies to be cremated. No one had enough wood,coffins or kerosene,” he says. By the fourth day,volunteers came to cremate bodies and traders donated coffins. The forest department arranged for wood while people donated kerosene.

Dhaulpuria,meanwhile,considered moving to a new city. “But I could not bring myself to do it. My family has lived here for generations and cared for the departed. Tending to this garden gives me peace. This is the final resting place of troubled souls and I will remain here and watch over the place,” he says.

In the intervening years,he says his parents died due to MIC poisoning while his wife developed tuberculosis. “Both my children suffer from respiratory ailments. We received compensation twice but that did not even cover even the basic medical care,” he says.

In 1990,to mark the sixth anniversary of the tragedy,the state government set up Smriti Udyan,a memorial to the thousands who had been cremated here. Twenty-five years later,the memorial is a forgotten landmark in a city which now attracts ‘gas tourists’. “The government does not have time to care for the living. Who is going to remember the dead,” asks Dhaulpuria.

The ‘death doctor’

Dr D.K. Satpathy and his team conducted 750 autopsies in the first 24 hours

A month into retirement,Dr D.K. Satpathy does not know what to do with the ‘papers’. They cover a whole range: from the medico-legal notes he painstakingly took on the night of the gas leak to chits he meticulously pasted on the forehead of each dead body for identification.

Bright,cherry-red blood—that is the 60-year-old forensic expert’s lasting memory of the disaster. “In every body that we examined,we found that all organs were cherry red in colour. At that time,we knew nothing about the nature of poisoning and this was our first hint. It is typical of cyanide. When our Casualty Medical Officer contacted Union Carbide,they said they didn’t know the composition of,or antidote to,methyl isocyanate (MIC,the gas released from the plant) poisoning,” he says.

By December 5,doctors had started administering sodium thiosulphate (STS) to bring down the level of MIC in victims. “The treatment was discontinued due to differences between doctors after rumours circulated that STS was causing deaths,” he says.

The Casualty Medical officer at the Gandhi Medical College (GMC) reported the first case at 12.45 a.m. on December 3,1984. By the time Satpathy reached the hospital,42 bodies were kept near the emergency and over 200 bodies were lying in the mortuary. To maintain records,it was decided that each corpse would be given a number and that it would be photographed. “When I entered the hospital campus,everyone was retching,gasping and groaning. Our biggest challenge was to identify bodies,number them,click pictures and swiftly conduct post mortems,” says Satpathy.

Four doctors and 13 final-year students from GMC worked round the clock for the next five days. “We could not possibly conduct a post-mortem on each victim. So we decided to do random autopsies while conducting detailed external examinations. We noted everything from clothing,scars,even patterns of moustaches,” he says. In the first 24 hours,750 autopsies were conducted.

Doctors assumed that the papers they were collecting would be useful in medical research. “I was young and naive,” says Satpathy.

In February 1984,forensic experts submitted a report that connected tank 610 to the deaths. “We gave the report to the court and waited for the big day when responsibility would be fixed. No judgment came,” he says.

Through the next decade,Satpathy worked on developing a disaster management plan. “Our biggest failure is that we still do not have a decent disaster management plan,” he says.

His wife calls him a hoarder and Satpathy knows too that his papers are not of any relevance to anyone anymore. “I know one day all these papers will end up in a museum,” he says.

The voice

Through his Sambhavna Trust,Satinath Sarangi tells the world about Bhopal

THIRTY-year-old Satinath Sarangi had just completed his Ph.D in metallurgy and was working as a community activist in Piparia,about 150 km south of Bhopal,when he heard of the gas leak. He reached Bhopal on the morning of December 3,hoping to help the victims for a couple of weeks and go back to his life. “I did not realise it has been 25 years,” says Sarangi.

In all these years,Sarangi has used all his skill and resources to tell the world about Bhopal.

In 1985,Sarangi started the Jan Swasth Kendra,a clinic from where he administered sodium thiosulphate to the victims. But by then,the government had discontinued that line of treatment and Sarangi was arrested. His clinic was shut down within 20 days of its opening. “I stayed in jail for 18 days and by the time I came out,I was clear that this was a fight I would take to its logical conclusion. I knew how to speak English and my family had contacts. I wanted to use those privileges to help the victims,” he says.

By 1986,Sarangi formed the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. “We started publishing papers in English and Hindi on corporate crime. Our office was raided and all our documents were taken,” he says.

In 1989,Sarangi toured four countries—US,Netherlands,Ireland and Britain—campaigning against the “inadequate” compensation of USD 470 million awarded by Union Carbide. “We took along with us three victims because the world had to see for itself what was unfolding in Bhopal. Information was the key. If justice is done in Bhopal,the whole world will be safer,” he says.

While in the UK,Sarangi met author Indra Sinha,who,at his own expense,placed a large advertisement in The Guardian,appealing for help for the victims. The donations provided the seed money Sarangi needed to set up the Sambhavna Trust in 1995. For the last 13 years,Sarangi has been focusing on medical research and dissemination of information through the Sambhavna Trust.

The officer

FORMER BHOPAL SP Swaraj puri is pursuing a Ph.D in crisis management—“I want to be better prepared”

WHEN the police commissioner told Superintendent of Police Swaraj Puri to rush to the railway station that night,he was expecting a stampede or a riot. When he reached the Bhopal railway station,Puri couldn’t understand why people were sleeping outside.

“I yelled at the inspector in-charge for allowing people to sleep there. He tugged at my shirt and asked me to look closely and then it sank in. They were all bodies,” says Swaraj Puri,then SP who retired in 2008.

The first call to a police control room came around 12.20 a.m. It said two persons had died and a large crowd was walking away from the Carbide factory. Against his driver’s advice,Puri decided to visit Ground Zero. “We were both nauseous and our eyes were bloodshot. I was one of the first officers to reach the factory. From there,I went to the control room.”

“From the first floor of the police control room near Union Carbide,the ‘grey-green’ cloud of chemical was clearly visible,” says Puri,who was one of the MIC poisoning victims whom the Indian Council of Medical Research studied between 1985 and 1994.

Soon,the police officers in the control room were vomiting profusely. “I contacted the doctors at GMC when I first heard of MIC,” he says.

By the morning of December 3,the police had been briefed to block ‘all entry points’ to avoid more casualties. The Chief Minister had called a high-level meeting,during which a rumour spread that another tank had leaked from the factory. “It was a law and order problem of unimaginable magnitude. The government was up against an unknown gas that was causing mass casualties,” he remembers.

Three days later,Warren Anderson,Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide,reached Bhopal in a private jet. He was arrested immediately. “At the airport,we asked him to come out. We shook hands,told him to sit in the jeep and later told him he was under arrest. He was astonished. The American embassy was involved and the matter was discussed at a very high level and I am not privy to the details. But yes,I do wish our government brings him back and holds him accountable,” he says.

Anderson was charged under six sections of the Indian Penal Code with culpable homicide,causing death by negligence,negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substances and the killing of livestock. He was released on a bail of Rs 25,000 and was allowed to fly back to the US the following day.

At 63,Puri is now pursuing a Ph.D in crisis management from Delhi University. “I am so disappointed by the turn of event that I know that Bhopal can happen again. I want to be better prepared the next time,” he says.

The fighter

Abul Jabbar is devoting all his time to ensure “the victim does not become a victim again”

ANY quest for information on the gas tragedy usually starts from behind the Central Library in Bhopal,where ‘Jabbar Bhai’,as Abul Jabbar Khan is fondly known here,runs the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS).

In 1984,Khan ran a lucrative tube-well boring business. His house was two kilometres from the Carbide plant in Rajender Nagar. “After the gas leak that night,I dropped my mother outside Bhopal and returned for my sister. By then,she was in Kasturba hospital. Then I started transporting people to hospitals and in effect,I am still doing the same,” says the soft-spoken 52-year-old.

His mornings,over the last two decades,start the same way. People start queuing up to meet him almost as if meeting Jabbar is a remedy in itself. Khan has moved several litigations,helped thousands of Bhopalis,yet there is little known about him. “A tragedy of this scale attracts tourists of various kinds. Journalists feast on anniversaries and activists make a profession out of this misery. It is all part of such an event but the common man—the victim and survivor—requires more than that,” he says.

In 1988,Jabbar married a widow with two children. “The marriage did not work for various reasons but my activism also had a role to play in it,” he says. Bowing to family pressure,Jabbar married again in 2002—he lives with his wife and three children in the same Rajender Nagar house.

Till 1989,when the government finally distributed compensation,Jabbar regularly led ‘morchas’. Today,he gets patients transported to hospitals,teaches women vocational skills,and often ends up as the voice for those who cannot fight for their share of compensation or pension. Over the years,the activist in Jabbar had very little time for his business and the tube-well money gradually ran out. “I shut down the business as I could not turn away from this (his activism). I may not have money but I cannot abandon the forsaken,” says Jabbar.

Apart from those living in the gas-affected areas,not many have heard of Jabbar or his work. He speaks little or no English,his Sangathan has no foreign affiliation and he is not exactly ‘media savvy’. All this has cost him dearly. “There are months when I cannot pay the telephone or electricity bills. But we are not going to ask people for money. Since 1984,the only thing we have been fighting for is dignity—in medical treatment,in life and in death. We want employment,not charity. That is the only way to ensure that the victim doesn’t become a victim again. I cannot fight for these people for ever but I can teach them how to fight by providing them employment,education and skills,” he says.

He may not be a national hero,but Jabbar,who himself suffers from degenerating vision and decreased lung capacity,personifies hope for those who have none.

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