Bhopal again

Raghu Rai's exhibition is a

Raghu Rai's exhibition is a "concerned, intense look at some individuals whose lives have been paralysed by the tragedy".  

The survivors of the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal are today a liability, even for some doctors, Raghu Rai tells PRASHANTH G.N.

WHEN BHOPAL went to sleep on the night of December 2, 1984, its citizens would not have dreamed that life would change for them forever. Forty tonnes of the lethal methyl isocyanate that escaped into the cold night air saw to that. Such a night was not what Bhopal wanted — a corporate crime unparalleled in devastation that is still taking its toll on its population.

Records tell us that by the third day, the gas from Union Carbide's factory in Bhopal had killed an estimated 8,000 and injured 500,000. The deaths, today, are put at 20,000. Raghu Rai, who photographed the burial of a child that came to be the icon of the world's worst industrial disaster, shot the many faces of the leak just hours after. He did again 17 years later. The first assignment captured the aftermath and the second, the survivors. You can see vivid pictures of the tragedy, then and now, in his exhibition, Exposure: Portrait of a Corporate Crime, Photographs of the Bhopal Disaster and After. The exhibition, sponsored by Greenpeace, is a "concerned, intense look at some individuals whose lives have been paralysed by the tragedy".

Raghu Rai has been around so long there's not much new to tell about him. Greenpeace, which has been spearheading movements to save ecologies around the world, requested him to record the life of the "Carbide people" 17 years after the leak. Knowing the import of the project, the photographer agreed. Doing the project was not easy. Why disinter old skeletons? What is dead is over and done with, was what many friends said. The government too was not keen on sharing details of a suffering, 20 years old.

Rai, however, thought it important to grasp life after the horror, and saw sense in his persistence.

"People who suffered have accepted just one-tenth of what they should have. The Government has Rs. 1,500 crore lying idle. The interest on this is going waste. The Bhopal Memorial Hospital meant for those suffering has no money to keep itself going. Who is benefiting?" he told Metroplus.

Bhopal again

The compensation the sufferers received, and after years of litigation, is inadequate, and the disbursement slack. The issue of disbursement, moreover, is pending before the Supreme Court. No one is clear how much time the settlement will take.

At the Bhopal Memorial Hospital, people told him things he would not have wanted to hear. "People who died are lucky. Some of us are still dying, slowly." That is why he tried hard to convince cynical friends that the tragedy has not seen its end.

He admits that the Madhya Pradesh Government has done something by way of building hospitals for the victims, but makes an observation that unsettles. The doctors, he says, are sick and tired of treating the same patients who come with the same problems. "They are fed up. They (the patients) are seen as a liability." People get free treatment all right, "but they are treated like dirt". "This is psychologically devastating, isn't it?"

The work, which captures these sentiments starkly in black and white, has been well received around the world. It has done the Earth Summit in South Africa, the Dow Chemicals headquarters, and Japan. It will see China too. The response in Japan was instructive. They know all about gases and disasters. They should because Hiroshima and Nagasaki are seared into their collective consciousness. "It took them 40 years to get compensation from the U.S.." It has taken 20 years to get some compensation here and it could easily take 20 more. "People are not happy. What does Rs. 200 a month or a one-time settlement of Rs. 25,000 mean?"

While the Western media have responded sensitively to his project, the Indian media, he feels, should do better. "We have a number of dead stories. It is now fashionable to print pictures of September 11 where 3,000 people died, not about a disaster where 20,000 people died." Developmental photography, he thinks, is not in and all there is to the media here, "a clich�d set- up", is "pretty pictures all over the place".

The shooting was double-edged. Some liked it, some didn't. Rai is looking at creating awareness on the continued suffering. But some ask him other questions: "Why bother us? What will we get from the portraits?"

He continues: "It is fair, what they ask. I understand how they feel. But I do things that only not move me."

He had earlier said: "What I saw was to change my life... What startled me most was the silence of death. I vowed then and there to continue my work, to do all I could to show the world what happens to people when corporations are not held liable for their operations, when they are allowed to cut costs and safety standards when they operate abroad."

Tara Bai, a survivor, gets it right about the Government and its response to Warren Anderson, the then Union Carbide chief: "I remember the gas leak as though it were yesterday. I lost my child and could not conceive since. To see the culprits of this disaster being let off by a shameless government is too much to bear. They seem to treat the world's worst industrial disaster as though it had been a car crash."

You can view Raghu Rai's photographs at Time and Space Art Gallery, Lavelle Road, till May 14.

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