With a former Chairman of Union Carbide India Limited, Keshub Mahindra, and seven others convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment by a trial court, the 26-year-old Bhopal tragedy case has reached a new stage.

The long wait for the families of thousands of victims who were either killed or seriously injured by toxic gas that leaked from the Union Carbide's chemical pesticide plant has not brought justice to these people, most of who are poor. This is a heart-rending case of justice delayed, justice denied. The subject therefore is back in the arena of public discussion.

Moves are on to take the issue to higher courts, either in India or the United States or both. Meanwhile questions are being raised and discussed over the whereabouts of Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson, the principal accused in the case and a proclaimed absconder. A hot question raised is who facilitated the escape of Anderson who visited Bhopal a couple of days after the disaster after being assured of “safe passage.” He was arrested along with a few other executives of Union Carbide but freed and allowed to return to the United States.

The main issue

The key issue, as it often happens, is being sidetracked: it is the accountability and culpability of those in Bhopal and New Delhi who made the critical decisions preceding and following the calamity.

Going back to the archives of The Hindu to discover how a newspaper of record covered the Bhopal tragedy, poring over 26-year-old files, was an enlightening and moving experience. Readers below the age of 40 may benefit from this because most of them could not have read the news and analysis published in the first week of December 1984.

The first report on the tragedy, headlined “350 killed as poisonous gas leaks from Bhopal plant,” was the lead story on page 1 of the issue dated December 4, 1984.

The opening paragraph reads: “At least 350 persons were killed and 2,000 badly affected when they inhaled poisonous gas, which leaked from an insecticide plant of the multinational Union Carbide company here early today.” The 1,500-word story, compiled with Press Trust of India and United Press of India reports as input, said that 20,000 people were treated at hospitals. The factory was ordered closed after methyl isocyanate, stored in an underground tank of the plant located near the railway station, began leaking some time after midnight.

According to first reports, 2,00,000 people in Bhopal (25 per cent of the city's population) inhaled the killer gas and it affected them one way or another. The gas had spread over a 40 sq.km. area and caught the sleeping population unawares.

The lead story provides comprehensive information related to the calamity — the treatment of the injured at different hospitals, the arrival of the Central Bureau of Investigation team, the house arrest of five senior officers of Union Carbide, the appointment of an enquiry committee, and the disruption of traffic. All that is expected in a report on a calamity is there in the report.

But although informative, the first report somehow fails to convey the enormity of the event, possibly because it looks like a patchwork of agency items. The supportive box has a lot of information on methyl isocyanate. A front page report carried an announcement that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had released Rs. 40 lakh for rehabilitation of the affected people.

The December 5 issue of The Hindu gives more information on the reasons and factors behind the tragedy and also cautions against the threat from a number of chemical units. It reveals that Union Carbide had stopped production of lethal gas worldwide. The lead story in the issue by a staffer revises the estimated death toll upwards to 1,000.

The leader, “The Bhopal tragedy”, adds to the value of the paper's comprehensive coverage. It leaves nothing unsaid. However, it ought to be mentioned that pictorial coverage of the calamity was quite inadequate. There were only three photographs in all: one, Rajiv Gandhi consoling the victims, the second, a photograph of an injured family, and the third, a picture of the chemical factory.

Shocking failure

Characterising the “horrendous” tragedy as “the worst environmental disaster in history” and emphasising that treating the injured, rehabilitating them, and providing relief to the affected families was the immediate priority, the editorial was both comprehensive and precise. It honed in on “the fact that the highly toxic methyl isocyanate continued to leak for nearly an hour and turned the neighbourhood into a virtual gas chamber, made it clear that there had been an inexcusable failure to discharge the responsibility on the part of those engaged in an inherently hazardous activity.”

The editorial noted that the State Government, which had been entrusted with the task of inspection and enforcement of regulations and of ensuring safety in factory operations, could not escape blame. It pointed out that it would be a worthwhile exercise for the State and Central teams engaged in examining the safety standards in the factory “to find out if these matched the safety standards built into a similar plant of the company in the United States” and whether the maintenance and operations were sound.

The leader made a pointed reference to the accident at a nuclear power plant in Three Mile Island in the United States, where, in contrast to the Bhopal case, “the safety systems came into play to prevent a major disaster and loss of lives.” This led to a re-examination of the design, operations, and safety features in nuclear stations across the world and, as a result, the dangers associated with nuclear power plants have been drastically reduced. (The Three Mile Island accident, which occurred in March 1979, was the most serious in the commercial nuclear power plant operating history of the United States, though it did not cause any loss of life or injury.)

The editorial drew a lesson from this: “The Bhopal tragedy should trigger such an evaluation in the chemical industry, particularly where highly toxic and hazardous materials are involved.”

It questioned the wisdom of building such industries in thickly populated areas. It called for “a close look at the regulations covering the production, handling and use of dangerous chemicals” and demanded that “in a matter affecting the lives and the health of the people, no slackness and no compromise should be allowed on such considerations as cost.” The editorial concluded by stressing “the need for greater awareness and alert among the people” while sounding a caution against “allowing a hysteria to be built up against the chemical industry or any other.”

The estimates of the death toll were rising by the day: from the 350 of December 4 to 2,500 by December 8. The Hindu's coverage picked up after December 6, with more staff journalists deployed to broaden and deepen the coverage of the calamity.

Insightful articles

Within a week, long reports and insightful articles began to appear from staff journalists, including veteran Political Correspondent G.K. Reddy and Washington Correspondent R. Chakrapani. These articles covered various aspects relevant to the calamity such as neutralisation of the poisonous gas, payment of compensation, legal initiatives, and the filing of cases seeking compensation in Indian and U.S. courts.

After verifying the details with his unmatched insider sources, G.K. Reddy reconstructed the arrest and release of Warren Anderson in Bhopal on December 7, 1984, which has become highly controversial now. In his report, “Union Carbide chief arrested and released” (December 8, 1984), he noted: “After the Central Government's intervention, it was stated that Mr. Anderson and others were only taken into protective custody and lodged in the company's guest house to save them from mob violence.”

He interposed this comment: “But the arrest and release of Mr. Anderson, despite safe conduct assurances given to him, indicated the deplorable lack of coordination between the Central and State Governments.” The Hindu's chief political correspondent offered this surmise: “It is quite possible that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was not aware of the safe conduct assurance given to Mr. Anderson before he left the U.S. for India, since the Prime Minister had been away from Delhi campaigning in different States. So his Principal Secretary, Dr. P.C. Alexander, brought the facts to his notice today [December 7, 1984] while he was still in Madhya Pradesh, before the Centre intervened to secure Mr. Anderson's release and arrange for his flight to Delhi later tonight [December 7 night]”.

Can there be a better example of fair, factual, and sober coverage of a calamity and the responses to it?

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in