When Bhopal died a million deaths

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Bhopal gas tragedy monument

To quote Ruskin Bond from ‘Strange men strange places’ – History is best experienced by visiting the actual place of the events and allowing one’s imagination to roam backwards and forward in time.

Ever since I saw a Natgeo documentary on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy couple of years back, I have wanted to visit Bhopal. The intention has been to see what remains of the city that saw the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Bhopal gas tragedy monument

Revisiting 1984

Bhopal is known not so much as the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Neither is it popular as a tourist destination. But the world knows Bhopal as the city that saw an industrial catastrophe like no other in the year 1984.

1984 must have been a difficult year for India. Although, Rakesh Sharma made it to space in April, the nation witnessed Operation Blue Star in June. Indira Gandhi ordered military forces to attack the Golden Temple (the holiest place for the Sikhs), to capture militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. Soon after, Congressmen took to streets and went on a rampage killing over 2000 Sikhs in Delhi alone. The incident is widely known as the 1984 Sikh Massacre.

December 1984 awaited a disaster that witnessed damages to humankind we see till date. On 3rd December, tank 610 of the Union Carbide factory had a leakage that resulted in emitting methyl isocyanate, one of the most poisonous gases in the world. Hundreds of locals died in their sleep. Others woke up to the sight of death and horror. Kids lost their parents. Parents lost their kids. The incident took the lives of nearly 3000 people according to government reports. Although unofficial sources state 20000 deaths over several days. Thousands of other survivors continued to battle diseases like cancer, cerebral palcy and birth defects.

Bhopal gas tragedy monument

Union Carbide factory in ruins

The visit

I was on a half day city exploration of Bhopal in March 2016, when I mentioned to our driver to show us around the Union Carbide factory. My request was met with a surprised reaction. He found it amusing why I’d be interested in visiting a shut down factory on the Bhopal outskirts in an underdeveloped area surrounded by shanties.

What remains…

The factory, now in ruins, screams of a horrific past. When we drove by the defunct plant that morning, we were aghast by the sight of how close houses were to the factory. Locals used the deserted land to graze their cattle; kids used it as their playground. Tragically, when Union Carbide abandoned the factory, it didn’t clean up the place and locals were forced to drink water contaminated by the pollutants in the region. The ill-effects of this are seen in the second and third generation of survivors suffering from several respiratory diseases and disabilities.

Bhopal gas tragedy monument

Anger on the streets of Bhopal was evident. Graffiti paintings on walls stretching for kilometres had anti-government messages. It prominently displayed its displeasure with the current government and how justice has been delayed to them.

Bhopal gas tragedy monument

Anti-government messages along the roads leading to the factory

Bhopal Gas Tragedy monument

A memorial of a weeping mother carrying her dead child in her arms stands on the footpath opposite to the factory. Sculpted by artist Ruth Watermann, this was the only public memorial for the tragedy until a couple of years back. Recently, activists have set up the ‘Remember Bhopal Museum’ in a converted flat of a housing colony, two kilometres from the factory. Unfortunately, I couldn’t visit the museum due to lack of time. Although, I encourage the readers of this post to visit the museum and support the initiative of the activists. It’s a great medium to know more about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy through exhibits, lots of pictures and audio narration by the survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy monument

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Edwina D'souza

Read write watch, 2 left hands and feet, recluse, gazer and occasionally suffer from wanderlust syndrome!!

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