In the early hours of December 5, 1984, travelling in the Grand Trunk Express from Chennai to New Delhi, on our way to Amethi, my photographer friend Yoga stood near the entrance of the coach, door wide open, when the train was in the outer, to see the name of the station approaching next. He could not stand for more than a few seconds and returned to his seat complaining that he had suddenly developed itching in the eyes. When the train chugged into the station we noticed, it was Bhopal. The platform was buzzing with unusual noises. Within minutes, we came across several men and women boarding almost all the sleeper coaches and reserved compartments, many of them with their eyes blindfolded! Railway authorities requested the passengers to accommodate them in the coaches so that they could reach Delhi for treatment. We were surprised to see so many of them on the platform too, waiting to board the train.
There was one father-son duo who sat near us. I asked them how so many people had been affected all on a sudden. Then the father told us that there was a poisonous gas leak from the Union Carbide chemical factory that thousands had died while hundreds had been afflicted with eye infection. Their vision has been affected and they were going to Delhi for treatment. We could see the factory from the train just across the station.
I immediately looked at my photographer friend, who was now wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. Sure enough, the methyl isocyanate gas had polluted the atmosphere.
We asked the gentleman what the government officials had done to face the calamity. ‘Where is your Chief Minister? Did he visit the area?' I queried. The son kept quiet, but the father answered. “He had left for Indore last night itself.” I do not know whether that statement was true, but it was shocking.
When we reached Delhi, our host took us to a Tamil-speaking ophthalmic surgeon at Karol Bagh. He checked my friend's eyes thoroughly and prescribed eye drops. By evening, fortunately, his eyes became normal.
The next evening, with the sensational story and the photographs, we reached the Delhi airport to pass on the envelope to a Tamil Weekly's editor in Chennai. (There was no courier service then.) There was commotion inside the airport. A correspondent of an American newsmagazine was seen shouting at the authorities. He climbed on a table and questioned the police, “How dare you arrest Warren Anderson?” An airlines pilot who accepted the envelope from us stood watching the man and said before leaving, “He is unnecessarily creating a scene!” The American journalist was indeed creating a ruckus.
What makes me think about the ghastly tragedy now is why there was no big noise in the capital about the incident then. The entire city was abuzz with election rhetoric, but I did not hear anything about the tragic incident of Bhopal. Even at 24, Akbar Road, the Congress headquarters, this was hardly debated. It was only the election fever that had caught on everywhere. We left for Lucknow the next day and from there to Rae Bareli. We returned to Lucknow to attend an election meeting addressed by Rajiv Gandhi. Here also, no speaker mentioned the Bhopal gas disaster in the public meeting.
I presume that the uproar created by the tragedy must have been confined to Bhopal and the matter must have been left to be dealt with by the Chief Minister and the State ostensibly by the Centre in view of the general election. This is borne out by the notings of a secret document of CIA, No.1852 available on the website, under the title “India – Political Implications of Bhopal Disaster', approved for release in 2002. It reads thus:
“The Indian press reports that most public criticism over the poison gas leak in Bhopal has been directed at the Indian management of the Union Carbide subsidiary and the Central Government in New Delhi for inadequate safety precautions and relief measures. The Madhya Pradesh State Government has filed a criminal negligence suit against the subsidiary.
“Comment: With Indian national elections just over two weeks away, both State and Central Government politicians are trying to deflect blame from themselves to the subsidiary and to wring compensation from its parent company. The Central Government's quick release of the Union Carbide Chairman from house arrest yesterday, however, suggests that New Delhi believes State officials were overly eager to score political points against the company. Public outcry almost certainly will force the new Government to move cautiously in developing future foreign investment and industrial policies and relations with multinational – especially US – firms. The incident is not likely to have a major effect on the election results.”
This noting must have been done on December 7, 1984 itself although it was released to the public only in 2002. (This could be inferred from the words ‘from house arrest yesterday'). It is also clear that it was only the Central Government that released Anderson. The Bhopal disaster is debated only when compensation issues are discussed or any judgment is delivered by the courts. Otherwise, the issue is buried deep.
There is no doubt that the disaster has been a major one and the discussions on the court verdict or the arrest and extradition of Anderson now are a sheer waste of time. First the blame game has to stop. The only remedy is adequate and expeditious settlement of compensation to the victims who are alive and to the legal heirs of the dead.