31 years

Bhopal is a city of contrasts. The capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, it is a delightful blend of modernity and tradition. It is a place where art and culture is revered and the fight for justice by the poorest of poor in the middle of the old city reverberates through the city’s collective consciousness.

Every year, in the months of November and December, Bhopal is on my mind. This is the time when the media sits up and takes notice of the protests, demonstrations, memorandums issued and (in)action taken during the past year for the intervening night of Dec 2 and 3, marks the anniversary of the world’s worst industrial disaster. 31 years ago.

The city keeps alive the horrific memories of that fateful night. For there has been no closure. The Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya in Bhopal is where I first encountered the reality of the Gas Tragedy of 1984 when tonnes of poisonous gases had leaked from a UCIL pesticide plant killing thousands and maiming countless since that day.

Bharat Bhawan and the Museum of Man also introduced me to tribal art. It was surprising to see the repetitive patterns of dots, little flowers or certain shapes used to fill larger images. The vibrant colours of the paintings grew on me and I explored all the Gond art structures.

The Museum of Man, is an ethnographic museum or anthropological, if you must say it that way, with an open air exhibition of tribal house types. Unlike the typical museums, where you go inside a building, girding up mentally to look at the curio-objects and get some knowledge, here the exhibits flow seamlessly from the confines of the exhibition rooms to the serene hillside outside and overlooking the placid Upper Lake.

The art in the museum that takes the pride of place is not merely a patronage but also a celebration of the Gonds, Bhils, Baiga, Rajwar, Pardhan and other tribes that populate the state of Madhya Pradesh. Through an exhibition in just another hall, a few steps from the vibrance and richness of culture, the despair of the victims of the industrial accident was documented on the walls and the faces of the deceased and diseased looked down in a mockery of the peaceful green hillocks of the city.

It was a shock to experience the polarities that exist, often in tandem. Just a short distance from the modernity of the suburbs lies the squalor of the affected ‘colonies’ where people jostle for clean drinking water, forced to live in an area contaminated by the toxic waste lying about for three decades now, waiting for compensation, something more than ‘apathy’ and justice for the victims.

In 1984, Bhopal saw an industrial disaster of horrendous proportions. 31 years on, the ‘poorest of the poor’, disadvantaged in every sense of the word, be it literacy or even an assured access to food, are still fighting for justice, refusing to give up. Activists insist that adequate financial compensation be given to the victims and that the toxic waste be cleaned from the site. The compensation initially paid out was paltry and the callousness towards the safety of the people living in the vicinity of the industrial disaster site meant that the toxic waste seeped into the ground, affecting the soil and the underground water. People exposed to these toxins suffer from cancer, blindness, respiratory problems, immune and neurological disorders. Birth deformities are rampant. The toxins are detected up to 3.5 kms away from the factory site where the gas leak took place.

The abysmally low level of compensation paid out, the complete lack of corporate accountability and the apathy of government agencies in cleaning up the site means that there could be many more Bhopals waiting to happen.

In the meanwhile, the activists and the protestors march on, holding placards and raising slogans, fighting a battle they cannot afford to lose. And the contrast between the haves and have-nots was never so stark.

Bhopal in 1984

In the plains, where I have spent most of my life till now, winter comes lightly, with nimble feet. At the beginning of December, the nights are getting colder and the mornings pleasantly chilly. Our breath is still not misting, and the clear air holds promises.

This is the time when I think of my sister because it is her wedding anniversary soon. We who were joined at the hip, or almost till the time she married and moved to a different city. Soon, it was time for the rest of the family to move too; so for the first time in our lives my sister and I were experiencing different places. She was very involved in her new phase of life, so I wrote her long letters. But, somehow, the experience that was Bhopal for me stayed buried in my heart. It was an experience of opposites and I am still overwhelmed with conflicting emotions when I find myself thinking of my beloved Bhopal.

It was and I am sure still is a place of lyrical beauty. I landed there just a couple of months shy of my sister’s first wedding anniversary and the twelfth anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

In 1984, which was a momentous year for my country, the fag end of the year brought upon the serene, placid town, an industrial disaster of unimaginable horror. In 1984, my family and my community were still licking the wounds of Operation Blue Star, which desecrated the holiest of Sikh shrines. A few months later, the Prime Minister of the country, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated. All hell broke loose and the Sikh community was persecuted, being held directly responsible for the death of the Prime Minister.

1984 was also when the astronaut Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to travel in space. Asked by Mrs. Gandhi about how India looked from the orbit, he famously replied, ‘Sare jahan se achha’, alluding to the urdu poem written by Iqbal and meaning ‘the best in the entire world’. At the time, the best nation was yet to see an assassination, an unprecedented bloodbath and one of the world’s worst industrial disaster.

At five minutes past midnight on the intervening night of December 2 and 3, deadly methyl isocyanate gas started leaking from a storage tank in the Union Carbide pesticide plant situated in the densely populated industrial area of the city Bhopal. The cold weather and the density of the gas ensured that the gas cloud stayed close to the ground, thereby causing maximum damage to the people who inhaled it, while asleep. Within minutes, however, the victims started coughing violently, gasping for breath. There was widespread panic and a near stampede as people tried to run away from the deadly fog.

The number of killed ran into thousands and those disabled were estimated to be half a million. The local hospitals were under prepared to handle casualties and injuries at such a large scale. Within days, the scene around the site was horrific. Thousands of animals died. Trees became barren.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. A report published earlier this year estimated that more than 120,000 survivors still struggle with serious medical conditions. Around the site, the soil and groundwater are polluted even now. The rehabilitation of victims is a challenge that has not been met.

The Bhopal Memorial proclaims that the suffering and the struggle of the victims of the gas tragedy continues.

At the same time, in my mind, Bhopal would always remain a beautiful city. Twelve years after the tragedy struck, we chose to live in New Bhopal, much removed from the industrial disaster site. It was tree-lined, broad avenued, clean and very green. The content silence was broken occasionally by passing trains. Newly metalled roads curved gracefully around hillocks; tall and dense trees hid magnificent buildings. Chhotta Talaab and Barra Talaab (Lower lake and Upper lake) appeared magical when venturing out to the city. In the busting markets, portly burqa clad Muslim women jostled with the average market goer for better bargains. Delicate beaded purses of different hues were hawked for the tourists.

A visit to Bharat Bhawan left me breathless by the richness of the tribal art. ‘Vibrant’ was how I described it in my mind. I still look for small, repeated patterns in the handicrafts of other areas as a throwback to my love for the tribal art. The legendary ‘Chambal’ dacoits and tales of their exploits struck terror into many hearts. The countryside was unspoilt and the gentle, rolling hills a joy to behold. Often, I would go out to the nearby temple to watch the sunset. Sunset by lake side just outside the Museum of Mankind was another beautiful memory. But, here my consciousness of the industrial disaster merged with the redness of the sunset for the Museum detailed the tragedy graphically.

In my memories of those times, the beauty of the city stands out. I also find my thoughts turning to the suffering of the gas tragedy victims and their struggle even though 30 years have gone by. I find myself poring over news from Bhopal but I , like million others cherish the beauty, acknowledge the ugly but do nothing to reach out with a helping hand.