'I Wish We'd Died that Night'
Image Credit: Alex Masi

'I Wish We'd Died that Night'


Bhopal is a beautiful city. Located about 750 kilometres south of Delhi and surrounded by lakes and lush greenery, Old and New Bhopal are a fascinating and thriving combination of Islamic and Hindu architecture vying for space in a city founded about 1000 years ago.

But perched a little away from the old and new cities is a quite different face of Bhopal. Here in Jayaprakash Nagar, or JP ith potholes and the lanes are dusty and unkempt. For this is a place that many want to forget–the location of the Union Carbide Plant, the scene of the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster.

Twenty-five years ago, in the early hours of December 3, deadly methyl isocyanate and other toxins leaked from the plant, exposing hundreds of thousands to the poisonous gas. Although no official total casualty count has been released, estimates based on hospital and rehabilitation records suggest that more than 25,000 people died either as a direct result of the gas leak or from diseases related to it, while tens of thousands more have reported being sick.

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‘I think it would have been better if we’d died that night,’ says Leela Bai. ‘At least then I wouldn’t have had to see my children in such a miserable condition.’

Leela’s daughter, Renu, was a year old when the gas leak occurred. She survived the incident, but has suffered the after-effects ever since. Her face became bloated, her hair grew thinner and she developed an abnormal growth near her stomach.

Renu eventually married, but her first husband left her after their first child was born because her poor health prevented her from performing daily chores. Her brother, meanwhile, could not escape the effects of the leak despite being born four years after the disaster. Even at 22 he’s more like a teenager, with both his physical and mental growth having been stunted.

‘Our lives are passing in misery,’ Leela says. ‘There’s nothing to be happy about.’

Most of the victims of the Bhopal disaster are economically deprived, with a survey by a local non-government organization showing the average household income of the colony is 30 to 35 Rupees (less than a dollar) per day.

Leela says that as a victim she received two payouts of 25,000 Rupees from the government, and that she receives some monthly rations. But she says she didn’t receive any money for her children and can’t afford to get them proper medical treatment.

Hospitals are anyway inadequately equipped to handle the numerous diseases and ailments that were caused by the accident. Tota Ram Chauhan, a former plant control room operator for Union Carbide, says there has been no comprehensive, scientific approach undertaken to treat the victims, and has also said he believes there’s enough evidence to prove that the management was responsible for the cost-cutting that led to the lapse behind the leak.

Claims of neglect on the part of the government have been dismissed as propaganda by Babulal Gaur, Minister for Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation in Madhya Pradesh, who says enough has been done for the victims.

But Satinath Sarangi, a key member of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, which has campaigned on behalf of victims, says those responsible for the accident have been allowed to get away with neglect because of the backing of both the Indian and US governments. ‘The people who have suffered in this disaster are poor, while the agency that committed this crime is powerful,’ he says.

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