3rd December 1984. Bhopal. 7 am.
It was a chilly Monday morning. The school bus, which was actually an improvised Shaktiman truck, was parked in its usual place in Sultania Infantry Lines. The kids, including me, had boarded the bus and it was ready to go. The driver counted the number of school kids who had boarded, quickly checked his list and closed the door. It was just another day with the school bus heading towards Kendriya Vidyalaya near Flour Mills.
…except it wasn’t just another day. This was different. There was nobody on the streets, not even one person. It was cold but it was unusual not to see anybody at all. After a while, I saw a cow sleeping on the pavement. And then another one. But not a single human soul. The bus kept going and reached our school. We all got down from the bus only to be told that the school was closed. We didn’t know why but there was a sense of childish euphoria about it. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India had been assassinated only a few weeks ago and the school was closed for a couple of weeks before it was reopened. Nobody complained about another day off though. It was always welcome.
We were all huddled back into the bus and were brought back home and I saw a bunch of parents discussing something seriously. I was told that there was a gas leak in the night. It didn’t make much sense immediately but within a few hours, TV and radio stations were abuzz with talk about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The Union Carbide factory leaked Methyl Isocyanate gas overnight which led to over 15,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of people were affected ( see this ). It was the biggest industrial catastrophe mankind had ever seen.
Thousands died. Several others were suffocating, vomiting, had burning eyes or even went blind. Trains coming into Bhopal station were bringing dead bodies as the passengers had died. It was hell.
Fast forward 26 years. June 7, 2010.
Seven ex-employees including the former chairman of Union Carbide India were convicted in Bhopal of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years imprisonment each. They were all released on bail within a few hours. Reacting to the judgment, the U.S.-based company said neither it nor its officials were subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian court as they were not involved in the operation of the plant, which was owned and operated by the Union Carbide India Limited. Warren Anderson, chairman of the U.S.-based Union Carbide group, who was named an ‘accused’ in the tragedy, was absconding throughout the trial period. Interestingly, the court did not mention his name on Monday.
I almost cried as it brought back memories from 26 years ago. People are still suffering in the streets of Bhopal from the aftermath of the disaster. What kind of justice is this? Would the judgment have been the same if this had happened in USA? Why is the cost of a life in India considered so cheap?
My thoughts are with all those who lost a loved one.
I realized that the cows on the pavement were actually not sleeping. They had died. I lived only a mile away from the Union Carbide factory. I could have died!