35 Years of Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Why Is There No Definitive Record of the Union Carbide Disaster Like Chernobyl?

Social Commentary

35 Years of Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Why Is There No Definitive Record of the Union Carbide Disaster Like Chernobyl?

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

It’s 11:00 pm. The pressure in Tank E610 that contains 42 tonnes of MIC (methyl isocyanate) gas has increased dramatically. Two senior supervisors in-charge at the moment, however, believe the spike in the reading is an “instrumental malfunction”. They, therefore, decide to address the situation after a tea break. By the time they return, after midnight, the pressure in the tank has reached alarming levels. The presence of poisonous gases can by now, be felt by the employees. The search for a leak has begun but it is already too late. A large exothermic reaction within the tank leads to the leakage of 40 tonnes of poisonous gases. A strong wind carries these gases to settlements in town leading to the deaths of some 2000 and the permanent stunting of half-a-million people. This is not the second season of Chernobyl or an imprecise summary of the first. This is what happened in Bhopal 35 years ago. The fact that it was difficult, for a moment, to tell the difference here, raises the question, just why has the Bhopal Gas Tragedy disappeared from public conscience?

On the night of December 2 in 1984, a massive leak in Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant led to the biggest industrial disaster in Indian history. Though it is remembered as a tragedy, given the lives it maimed, Bhopal was, in essence a man-made disaster, a fatally botched operation from the get-go. Investigations revealed that the accident was a combination of design flaws, operating errors, negligence, training deficiencies, and unreasonable cost-cutting on behalf of the American company. The disaster can’t be regarded as an isolated merging of unanticipated circumstances either. Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant came up in 1966. But since the mid-70s leaks had begun to be reported inside the factory. In 1981, an employee died because of exposure to Phosgene gas. Local journalist Rajkumar Keswani began to investigate the plant’s suspected flaws and two years before that fatal night of 1984, he wrote in the local daily Rapat “Bhopal jwalamukhi ki kagaar par (Bhopal on the edge of a volcano).”

Neither Keswani’s warnings nor the rapidly declining state of safety within the plant motivated or pushed authorities to take notice or address the situation internally. India’s third-world euphemism for making do with what you have, aka what we proudly call jugaad, continued as the modus operandi, until it scientifically, no longer could. Bhopal is not just a painful reminder of the price people can be made to pay for someone else’s ignorance or callousness, but also of the fact that a country is only as big as its last mistake. In this case, however, forgetting Bhopal, and what it ought to have taught us, may well be the biggest mistake yet. Forgetting isn’t forgiveness, neither is it escape. Victims of the tragedy continue to find lawsuits even today. The then CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, died, in the US, in 2015, thousands of miles away from the land on which he should have faced justice. The area around the plant, much like Chernobyl, is still considered to be contaminated.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

On the night of December 2 in 1984, a massive leak in Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant led to the biggest industrial disaster in Indian history.

Photo by Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

It is quite incredible that both Chernobyl and the Bhopal happened only two years apart. The former, as the TV series by HBO points out, may have led to the downfall of the Soviet Empire. Here in India, it seems to have only made a slight dent in the best-of-year lists. What cinema often does, and perhaps does better than anyone else, is to appeal to a person’s sense of empathy. Chernobyl felt like a story of the future as much as it was a realistic depiction of the past. It reminds and warns at the same time. There have been several films on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy but you couldn’t task any to do either. Mahesh Mathai’s Bhopal Express (1999) was poignant yet too sentimental to expose the political malaise behind the disaster. Ravi Kumar’s Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (2014) was rather forgetful and weak. A host of other documentaries and a damning photo series by photographer Raghu Rai have over the years helped confront the aftermath of the disaster. The problem, though, is reach. To see Rai’s photos you must need to know what you are looking for, while films like Bhopal Express aren’t exactly the narrative coefficient that such a story requires for people to understand the scale and the corruption behind the tragedy.

HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl instantaneously became a hit. However, what surprised me most was the fact that people had little knowledge of the incident. Modern history might be replete with wars and revolutions, but it rarely educates in as plush, and let’s admit it, entertaining a manner as Chernobyl did. But there is a bigger case in point here other than cinematic success. The importance of the show does not borrow from its number, but its relevance. It resurrects the memory of those who have known and educates them who must know. From North India’s toxic pollution to the worsening of air in India’s industrial zones, it is important to understand how disaster has over the years become more gradual.

It is quite incredible that both Chernobyl and the Bhopal happened only two years apart.

We live in toxic air year round, but download apps to monitor air quality only when it becomes, visibly, evidently, deathly. Quite incredibly the gradual degradation of our living conditions has not resulted in matching increments in angst or even fear. Like a balloon, it blows up once in a while, but for the major part of our lives we carry it with us, this poisonous habit of fictionalising reality. The “seh lehnge thoda” mentality that has gotten us to where we are today. National Pollution Control Day commemorates the Bhopal gas tragedy but who really knows or thinks that way unless, nudged or pushed to the brink. Dying a little everyday, seems like the new living.

A series on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy might help shake that passivity and dump the idea of nostalgia being for the glorified past alone. Like back when air purifiers weren’t home appliances. The question is, who will make it?

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