An Auschwitz in Bhopal
An Auschwitz in Bhopal
by Raajkumar Keswani
It proved to be a fatal accident for Mohammad Ashraf Khan, a plant operator at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal.
On 24 December 1981 he was asked to replace a defective flange connecting two pipes, a routine maintenance operation in the phosgene- manufacturing unit. But no sooner had he removed the flange than the deadly phosgene gushed towards him. Though he was rushed to hospital, doctors could not prevent the poison from spreading in his body. He died in the local Hamidia Hospital the next morning.
Three years later this very plant led to the death of another member of Ashraf‘s family: his four-and-a-half-year-old son, Arshad. Arshad, along with his mother, Sajda Bano, and brother Shoyeb, was at the Bhopal railway station on 3 December 1984 when the deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the Union Carbide plant. They were returning from a visit to his grandparents.
But Arshad did not die alone. Hundreds perished instantly as a result of the MIC leak from the Union Carbide plant that fateful night. Thousands died later.
The Union Carbide pesticide plant was established on Bersia Road in 1969. It was regarded as a prestigious unit of a famous multinational company, commonly identified with the well-know brand of Eveready batteries. The first signal of danger came on 24 November 1978 when a huge fire broke out in its alpha-nepthol store. Nobody suspected foul play, neither the residents of nearby colonies, who believed the plant only manufactured the friendly torch batteries they used, nor politicians and bureaucrats, who knew what was being manufactured. However, the black clouds that hung over Bhopal for several hours served notice that all was not well.
Life got back on track after a while, though the foul smell of the burning nepthol left people wondering if the situation could have been worse had firefighters from the municipal corporation and Bharat Heavy Electricals plant had not reached the site in time. The question on everyone’s mind- Could what had happened recur? – remained unanswered and was forgotten with the passage of time.
I too was part of the crowds that gathered outside the Union Carbide plant that evening. I was a small-time journalist, running Rapat, a little-know Hindi weekly newspaper of my own. In a city with a population of nearly 6 lakh, it had no significant impact on society because its circulation ranged around 2000 copies, selling a maximum of 6000 on one occasion.
My reaction to the incident too was little different from that of others. I allowed the event to dull in my memory. Yet even amidst the daily struggle for survival, one question kept nagging me: Could this be more dangerous than I had envisaged?
A chance meeting with an old friend working with Union Carbide nudged me out of this indifference and inertia. Uncertain and wary about the nature of the chemicals being used in the plant, he wanted to change his job. He had seen some of his colleagues suffering from several ailments due to exposure to deadly chemicals like phosgene and MIC. Still it took the death of my friend Ashraf for me to realize the gravity of the situation. Thus it was that in December 1981 I decided to get to the bottom of the mystery of possible danger from chemical processes within Union Carbide.
To investigate Union carbide’s affairs was not an easy task. Especially for someone like me, with no knowledge of chemicals, no background in science and no contacts in Union Carbide after the only friend in the plant quit his job. But I found friends very soon: Bashir Ullah and Shankar Malviya, two firebrand union leaders whose jobs had been terminated by Union Carbide for allegedly misbehaving with the management. Their jobs had gone, but the fire within them still raged and they continued to head a workers’ union in the plant, one more vocal than others on issues of workers welfare and safety.
Interestingly, even as I was searching for a helping hand within Union Carbide, Bashir and Shankar too were looking for a friend in the media. They were upset that they were not getting proper coverage in the local press vis-à-vis their employer. Union Carbide, with its white lettering against a red background stamped on the Everyday batteries, seemed employers. Every statement of the workers’ unions against the management’s anti –employee policies and scant regard for safety measures was taken as a routine union ballad against the employer. The logo of Union Carbide, with its while lettering against a red background stamped on the Eveready batteries, seemed to reassure everyone. It seemed to say I stand for light against darkness. The local media, like everyone else who mattered in the system, bought this line, much to their embarrassment after the tragedy in 1984.
To consolidate this faith, Union Carbide ensured frequent contact with the media. Its public relations officer regularly visited newspaper offices to befriend journalists. The company made sure its annual cocktail party was an occasion to remember and it hosted friendly cricket matches with a specially created Journalists’ XI during these bashes. More often than not, Union Carbide would lose to the journalists’ team. But win or lose, it was always celebration time for both teams amid the free flow of beer and wine.
When I began investigating why the powers that be were overtly kind to Union Carbide, I stumbled upon one shocking revelation after another. Between September 1982 and June 1984, I published the entire list of company beneficiaries. This was used by the national and international media in the wake of the tragedy to highlight the nexus between the state and the company. Hence it is a matter of common knowledge that a large number of politicians and bureaucrats were receiving favours from Union Carbide. Suffice to say that a number of relatives of politicians in power and serving bureaucrats were hired by the company on high salaries. A retired inspector general of police was given the security contract. The company’s beautifully located guest house on Shyamla Hills, facing the Upper Lake, was a great attraction for top ranking politicians. Arjun Singh, the then chief minister, was a regular visitor and others like Madhav Rao Scindia had stayed there a couple of times.
I approached the state agriculture department, the directorate of industrial health and safety and the pollution control board to get information about Union Carbide, but officials would only sing paeans about the company, its management and extraordinary safety systems. When I pointed to earlier lapses in the plant, they would compare it with other local industries which were worse violators of safety norms.
Even doctors in Hamidia Hospitals, attached to the Gandhi Medical College, were not forthcoming about the Union Carbide workers who were frequently taken there for treatment following exposure to chemicals. Union Carbide had funded a special private ward of its own within the hospital premises so that everything remained under cover. Certain senior doctors were the company’s friends’.
All this created difficulties in finding out the truth about the plant and its operations, which I believed could lead to a disaster at any time. However, I was lucky to find one or other disgruntled official or clerk in government offices and some sympathetic junior doctors in the hospital. I started taking more interest in the activities of the union led by Bashir and Shankar and thus made more friends within the Company. The publication of news items about union activities in some local newspapers further strengthened the worker’s faith in me. On the flip side, following one such publication, a reporter friend was shifted from the field to the desk.
Union Carbide employees helped me procure copies of the plant’s operation manual and other relevant information and also managed to smuggle me half a dozen times inside the factory to see how the safety regulations advertised in the company documents were being implemented. To my horror I found workers handling chemicals without the prescribed gloves and working in MIC and phosgene hazard zones without gas masks. Hissing and gurgling sounds emitted by the pipe network did not allay my apprehensions.
However, what I found most alarming in the company documents was the phosgene and MIC were one and a half times and two and a half times respectively heavier than air. This meant that if either leaked, it would tend to settle and not be dispersed by winds. If it leaked on a major scale, an eventuality that could not be ruled out, the entire population of Bhopal could be at risk.
Though agitated, I wondered if I was jumping the gun. I decided to study the matter more deeply and visited the local British Council library to develop a better understanding. I went to a professor in a local science college who had been appointed to inquire into the cause of the gas leak that led to Ashraf’s death.
He agreed with me that phosgene and MIC were deadly gases and could harm the workers but insisted that they could never leak out in amounts large enough to threaten the entire population of Bhopal. Winds would disperse the gas even if it leaked out, he argued. But the layman in me thought it was only common sense that the heavy gases would settle just above the ground. I was not convinced by any other argument. Moreover these arguments and counter-arguments seemed to be based on the character of phosgene and not that of MIC since there was almost no literature available about the latter in any of the books available in the science college or the British Council library. The only source of information on MIC was the Union Carbide manual.
I was further convinced of the dangers posed when I read a report in the Hindi newspaper Aaj about the leak of chlorine from a factory which had caused a stampede in the Aishbagh area in Lucknow due to its foul smell. Hundreds were reported injured.
On 17 September 1982, after nine months of painstaking research, I published my first article titled ‘Save, please save this city’. The story chronicled the incidents of gas leak in Union Carbide and the harm caused to humans, farms and livestock in the vicinity. I also described the dismal safety arrangements in the factory as against the norms prescribed. Naively, I expected an overnight revolution against the risk to people’s lives but to my surprise there was no discernible reaction in Bhopal.
Changing tack the next time, I made the 1st October headline more direct and somewhat sensational:’ Bhopal sitting atop a volcano’. This article went a step further and described the alarming situation inside the plant and the government’s apparent apathy. The reason was no different.
Incidentally, three days after my second article, a small quantity of MIC leaked from the Union Carbide plant. The leak was controlled within minutes, but the lingering effects forced residents of nearby shanties to flee from their homes in the wee hours of the night.
My anger and disappointment reached its pinnacle. In my third front page article on 8 October I said, ‘ Na samjhoge to aakhir mit hee jaaaoge’ (If you don’t understand you will be wiped out),paraphrasing poet Allama Iqbal’s famous lines ‘ Na samjhoge to aakhir mit hee jaaaoge aye Hindustan walon, tumhari dastan tak na hogi jahan ki dastanon mein’(Hey, you people of India, if you don’t understand, you will be wiped out and there will be no mention of you even in history). Obviously, my emphasis this time was on the recent leak and its effects on people living nearby. Again, it seemed, nobody was paying attention
However, I was determined to persevere. I realized my voice was too meek to be heard by the higher-ups. And it was only they who were in a position to save the situation. I wrote a letter to Chief Minister Arjun Singh, requesting him to order an inquiry. I went to members of the Legislative Assembly with copies of my newspaper. This did work to some extent, but did not produce the desired result. Some members from both the Opposition and the ruling party raised the matter in the Assembly, but the state government said there was no cause for alarm.
Dismissing all the apprehensions of a disaster, Tara Singh Viyogi, the then labour minister, assured the house that he had himself seen the foolproof safety arrangements in the Union Carbide plant. He described a water curtain which would automatically be created by showers installed around the gas operation area in case of a leak. It would bring down the gas immediately and neutralize it. He rejected the demand to shift the plant outside municipal limits to avoid any possible danger to human life, saying, ‘ It’s not a piece of stone which can be shifted from one place to another just like that.’
This is where I stepped out of my role as a journalist to assume that of an activist. After all, more than 6 lakh human lives were at stake. I petitioned the Supreme Court on 15 December 1982, seeking its intervention since all other options had been exhausted. I got a postal acknowledgement but nothing more.
By now I and my failed campaign had become the butt of jokes in media circles as well as among friends who thought I had gone crazy. Feeling cheated and defeated by an insensitive system and its scant regard for human lives, I left Bhopal in disgust in 1983 to work in Indore with Nav Bharat
A year later I returned to Bhopal as a freelance journalist. As soon as I got a foothold in the national media, I attempted to revive the Union Carbide campaign. I worked afresh on the story and sent it to Ravivar, which was then a most popular Hindi weekly, published by the Ananda Bazar Patrika group. This was returned after some time with a regret note. (The then editor of the magazine, S.P. Singh, told me in 1985 after the tragedy that he had been shocked to learn from one of his colleagues that the article had been returned without informing him.)
Around this time Jansatta, a Hindi daily published by the Indian Express group, was making inroads into the market. The dynamic editor, Prabhash Joshi, gave the publication an unconventional look and content. Hence I decided to take a chance with jansatta. This time I was not disappointed. Convinced by the documents and researched material I produced before him, Joshi splashed the story over almost half a page. Among the documents quoted in the story was a safety audit report of the Union Carbide team from the United States in 1982. It indicted the management of the Bhopal plant for several violations of safety rules and warned of the possibility of a major accident.
Even the publication of the story so prominently in a newspaper with such a wide circulation did not move officialdom. That happened after six months when the tragedy struck Bhopal on the night of 2 and 3 December 1984. And that too only to launch a cover-up.
Water entered the killer tank 610 containing MIC that fateful night during a routine cleaning operation of the line. The MIC leaked out from tank and enveloped half the city’s population in a vicious grip. None of the preventive systems, namely, the refrigeration system to keep the tank at a temperature of 10 degrees below normal, the flare tower which should have burnt the leaking gas and the water curtain system mentioned by the minister in the Assembly, worked. The water curtain shower at 12 meters could not reach the 33-metre-high gas scrubber from where the gas was leaking. The company had jettisoned all the preventive systems as part of cost-cutting measures.
On the face of it, the site of the disaster looked untouched. There was no evidence of mass destruction on the ground – no ruined structures, no debris strewn around. But that night hundreds of thousands of people could be seen coughing and vomiting , making their way from the old city towards New Bhopal. Situated as it is at a slight elevation, New Bhopal hardly had any trace of the gas. But not everyone was able to make it. Hundreds perished on their way to safety. Hundreds of others, especially children and older people, died in their sleep. The rest survived, only to be further stupefied by the behavior of the multinational which seemed interested only in making money and a government indifferent to the loss of human lives.
I was then residing in old Bhopal. Around midnight, having finished a story for the Sunday Observer, I went to bed. Before I fell asleep, I felt a sharp pricking in my throat. I thought I was coming down with a cold. But in a few minutes I was seized by a bout of coughing and breathlessness. I was surprised to hear loud coughing from the road outside. Looking out of the window, I saw huge crowds on the streets, convulsed by fits of coughing and scurrying for safety, their mouths covered with whatever was available.
And then I noticed a very strong, foul odour I moved back to the bed to find my wife coughing. I realized that there was something terribly wrong. I immediately closed the window and ran to switch on the fan in spite of the December chill. I asked my wife to sit under the fan and dilled 100 to contact the police control room. When the telephone was picked up, I could hear someone coughing and then a havaladar identified himself.
‘Kya hua hai shahar mein,’ (What has happened in the town?) I shouted.
‘Sahab, Union Carbide ki gas tankee foot gayee hai. Dam ghut raha hai,’(Sir, a Union Carbide gas tank has leaked. I am suffocating.) . He barely managed to splutter between bouts of coughing.
So it had actually happened, I thought. Had my Cassandra like prediction come true? No one listened to me and today everyone was going to die. Me too? Oh, God!
I looked at my wife, who was speechless with fear. Like me, she too knew what the gas leak meant.
Within seconds the fear of death was overpowered by a stronger feeling: to ensure that people who still had a chance to escape did. I picked up the phone and called N.K. Singh, a friend and Indian Express correspondent who lived at a distance in 45 bungalows, a government colony. ‘Run. The gas has leaked. My time is up but you have some. Run for your life.’
He insisted that I should try and reach his place, which was so far unaffected. But I was already resigned to my fate. I made two more calls warning my friends. My wife shook me out of this state of mind, reminding me of my parents, brother and sister who were sleeping in another room.
All four of them were in bad shape when I reached them. My mental faculties suddenly began working fast. I asked them to move out with a wet handkerchief over their noses. We had two scooters. I asked my younger brother to take our parents on his two-wheeler and move away from the Union Carbide plant, towards New Bhopal. Carrying my wife and my sister on my Lambretta scooter. I violated my own instructions and rode towards the plant, only to be greeted by warnings from the crowds, moving in the opposite direction. I turned around and rode towards Idgah Hills to my friend Rajendra Babbar’s place.
My family and I survived the killer night. We still suffer from lingering health but are far better off than others. Bhopal hospitals even today wake up to cries of help from the gas victims every morning. People, with severely affected lungs, near loss of sight, neurological disorders, low resistance and damaged uteruses, still wait in long queues in the fading hope of getting cured. Doctors do not know how to treat them. Union Carbide, which created the MIC and must know its antidote, has so far not revealed how the patients can be treated. Left to their own devices, doctors treat this medical enigma according to their understanding of it. On the day of the leak they prescribed eye drops and antacids for the victims. Eighteen years later they suggest antibiotics, painkillers or whatever drugs are to be promoted. Obviously, it does the patient little good. The official number of dead is nearly 15,000. The tally will not stop here. Many more are in waiting.
During the night of horror there was complete chaos. The administrative machinery had come to a standstill. People did not know what to do or where to go since there was a total system breakdown. People blindly followed one another without knowing where they were headed, hoping to save their lives.
On 12 December Arjun Singh announced that another 15 tones of MIC remained in the plant. The only option to dispose of the stock, he said, was to restart production in the plant and use up the deadly gas. To ensure safety in the government proposed to set up.
The plan was named Operation Faith. But people had lost faith in government by then. Their faith had left them with nothing but the lifeless bodies of their near and dear. They were determined not to repeat the mistake. By 14 December, when Operation Faith was launched in the Union Carbide plant, the old city was completely deserted. Except for the rumble of cars belonging to national and international media persons and government vehicles there was deafening silence on the roads. Lakhs of people had fled to other cities in a striking expression of no- confidence in the government.
Successive governments over the past eighteen years have proven that only faces change, not attitudes. If Arjun Singh and his government could not protect the people sacrificed at the altar of Union Carbide’s cost-cutting measures, his successor, Motilal Vora, failed to do anything worthwhile to provide relief and rehabilitation to the victims.
Sunderlal Patwa of the Bharatiya Janata Party went a step further and closed the sewing centers opened for women affected by the gas leak. And in the past eight years, Chief minister Digvijay Singh must have repeated at least eighteen times that it would be better if the people put the tragedy behind them. This comes from a man who used to champion the cause of the victims during Patwa’s term. But, then, he was in the Opposition and president of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee.
To divert attention from the question of the state government’s responsibility for the tragedy during the early days, its public relations department launched subtle campaign through friends in the media to highlight the issue of compensation from Union Carbide. The newspapers were more than happy to allot a lot of space publicizing the amount each victim would get, which they said would run into several thousand dollars based on cases settled in the United States.
The campaign worked to some extent. The arrival of American lawyers, called ambulance chasers, came as a godsend to the campaigners. The lawyers promised thousands of dollars as the compensation to poor victims whose lives were an everyday struggle for two square meals. With their lives in disarray, they began dreaming of living in luxury.
The state’s cover-up did not stop at this. Chief Minister Arjun Singh had announced a judicial inquiry on 3 December itself, headed by a sitting judge of the high court, Justice N.K. Singh. But as the commission was about to summon crucial evidence, it was hastily wound up. It is no surprise that eighteen years after the tragedy, not a single person has been convicted for killing thousands of people and leaving another 5 lakh with after-effects of varying severity from inhaling the deadly gas.
In 1985 the Central government debarred the victims from fighting the compensation claims individually. It adopted the role of parens patriae and let off Union Carbide with a total compensation of $470 million. In accepting the out-of-court settlement, the Supreme Court quashed criminal proceedings against Union Carbide officials 1n 1989. Famous activist lawyer Indira Jaisingh challenged the settlement in the court naming me as a petitioner, along with others. The apex court amended its earlier order and restored the criminal case against Union Carbide. The case still drags on in the Bhopal District court without any end in sight. (On June 7,2010, finally came the verdict, which sparked off an uproar in India over the injustice. It was just 2 years imprisonment for 7 accused Indian officials, while Warren Anderson was left out. He had jumped the bail. 7 convicts too did not go to jail, since they were granted the bail at the same moment.)
It is no less ironic that the state and Central governments, which were initially accused of neglecting public interest (in granting the license and allowing Union Carbide to run the plant without ensuring its safety), have donned the mantle of prosecutor against Union Carbide when they should have been prosecuted as partners in crime. The successful public relations campaigns, the helplessness of the victims and sheer manipulation have allowed them to go scot-free. And the victims have had to make do with $470 million. Against the promised thousands of dollars, more than 90 percent of the victims got only Rs 25,000. A cursory look at the following figures reveals how shabbily the victims have been treated in the distribution of compensation by claims courts set up for the purpose.
The total number of claims field was 5, 66,786 at the final count. According to an estimate, nearly 95 percent claimants were awarded the minimum amount of Rs 25,000. About 4 percent were awarded Rs 30,000 to Rs 80,000 and only 1 percent got Rs 1 lakh or more.
Of the 22,149 death claims field, in only 14,677 cases was compensation granted while the rest were rejected. Thus the official figure of ‘nearly 15,000’ is also suspect.
Getting compensation was a Herculean task for the poor and illiterate. They were made to hire lawyers, who took heavy cuts from the compensation received. But for those with the right connections, it was not all that difficult. There is a long list of people who were not even in Bhopal on the fateful day but managed to get huge sums as compensation. This includes journalists, government officials and politicians.
Of the $470 million deposited in the Reserve Bank of India in 1989, Rs 1511.51 crore was disbursed as compensation. Due to changing value of the dollar and interest accruing over thirteen years, Rs 1360 crore remains in the account now. (This money finally was distributed among victims following the protests)Many would like to grab this money one way or the other. The state government wants to use it for the Bhopal water supply system and under other heads of health and sanitation. Certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) want to create a trust and be part of it. But nobody wants to give the money to its rightful claimants, the gas victims for whom the compensation was actually meant. It is no secret that thousands of victims have been completely incapacitated and cannot undertake any physical labour to earn a living. In Minamata, Japan, the victims of mercury poisoning receive a lifetime pension from Chisso, the company responsible for causing the problem.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, people came together as one to help each another. Those in a position to help were unsparing in their efforts to help others. Traders in the chowk, sarafa and jumerati, infamous for their greed for money, worked overtime in hospitals and cremation grounds, spending money without count to help the needy. Hundreds of volunteers working tirelessly for endless days and nights formed a network though they had not known each other before the tragedy. And all this without any consideration of caste, creed or religion.
But this spirit of altruism lasted only a month or so. For many though not all of these selfless servers it was business as usual by January 1985. Thousands of poor victims, mostly daily wage earners, finding themselves unable to work, crowded sarafa shops to pawn their silver ornaments and other valuables to buy food and medicines. By now the traders were in no mood to lower interest rates for loans against the pawned ornaments which had been under assessed in the first place.
Quacks, doctors, lawyers and photocopy shops operating in gas-hit bastis flourished on the sufferings of the poor. It was boom time for medical shops too and many took the opportunity to dispose of their stocks of near-expiry drugs.
As if all this were not enough, the government could not get it right even when distributing relief material. Its thoughtlessness created more chaos in the gas-affected bastis near the plant. Instead of delivering milk and rations at the doorstep of the victims, the administration asked them to stand in queues, no matter if most had become incapable of such exertion. Unsocial elements colluded with officials to grab huge quantities of relief relations. If the victims resisted, bombs were hurled to scare them.
To this day the victims continue to be short-changed. They were treated shabbily by judges in claims courts and doctors in hospitals. ‘Gas victim’ became a dirty word among the elites residing in New Bhopal. They believed these people were getting too much attention and a lot of money for nothing.
The cause of the victims was finally taken up by the presence, or rather the creation, of their own organizations. These were generally headed by activists from other metropolitan areas who knew what had to be done under such circumstances. This was vital as illiterate victims simply did not know how to proceed. Dharnas, andolans and demonstrations organized by activists on every aspect of the victims’ suffering became a daily affair in the town. This created considerable pressure on the government for some time. But then the desire to snatch credit from each other for whatever was happening resulted in infighting among the activists. It reached a point where everyone started accusing everyone else of being an agent of Union Carbide or of working for foreign agencies. The stories about some activists traveling abroad frequently created suspicion even among the victims leave alone the local intellectual class. The end result was that most of those found in Bhopal fighting for the victims were not to be seen after a year or so. In 1987 a new association of victims was born: the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan. It was led by a gas victim, Abdul Jabbar. The sangathan has since been fighting victims’ issues, both on the streets and in the courts of law. Another group led by Satinath Sarangi, the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, is mainly involved in keeping the issue alive in international forums.
Life in Bhopal has never been the same since 1984. Mine too was no exception. As I had written about the possible dangers in a series of articles before the incident, I became a focus of attention for the media in general and the international media in particular.
Mark Tully, the BBC’s legendary reporter in India, was the first to reach me for an interview. I had never even dreamed of such a situation. I had never vied for a top slot in journalism. In fact I had never sat back and set a target to achieve in journalism.
Yesterday’s nobody in media was suddenly being crowned by the media as a ‘prophetic writer’ and a ‘man with foresight’. Television channels from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany wanted to show their viewers how a small town journalist could make a mark. And this small-town journalist would sit before the mirror in the wee hours of the night to see his face and detect what was so special there. Finding no answers, he would leave after a few minutes with a smile on his face.
The local media was asked why it had not written about the dangers posed by Union Carbide. Embarrassed, the journalists either confessed to having missed the story due to blind faith in Union Carbide or dismissed my premonition as a fluke.
However, they reproduced my 16 June 1984 story, published in Jansatta, on 4 December to boost their circulations. I chose to report on the tragedy for my favorite papers, Jansatta in Hindi and Indian Express in English. These two publications helped me report on hitherto uncovered areas, unknown facts and undiscovered documents.
My stories were published on the front pages. It was becoming easier and easier for me to do such exposes as people had learned to trust me and whosoever had any information regarding Union Carbide came to share it with me. My home and the Indian Express office in Bhopal, which had become my workplace though I was not employed there, thronged with visitors all through the day with queries about Union Carbide.
During this period I got an opportunity to work on an assignment basis with Granada TV of UK and French and German television teams. And then came an offer from New York Times to work on a special investigative series of articles to find out why it happened, who was responsible and what the lessons to be learned from the tragedy were. A special team consisting of Stuart Diamond, a journalist specializing in covering disasters like Three Mile Island and based in New York, Robert Reinhold from Texas, covering the space shuttle programmer, and I were pressed into the job. The investigations carried out over nearly a month resulted in a three-part series in New York Times. These stories were described by the paper’s editors in New York as ‘Pulitzer material’. But to my shock and disbelief the first two stories were credited to Stuart Diamond and the third to Robert Reinhold. My credit line was missing. When I protested, my ‘services’ were appreciated in writing but they refused to acknowledge my contribution. The two reporters credited with the stories expressed their helplessness’ before the editor’s decision. They informed me that all their arguments to credit me for my ‘outstanding contribution’ had been turned down. However, the New York Times, through its then South-East Asia bureau chief, Steve Wiesmen, indicated it was willing to compensate me financially for not crediting me for the stories. This I politely turned down. I expressed my resolve to fight against the mighty New York Times for justice.
But there soon came an opportunity for a compromise solution. I was awarded the prestigious B.D. Goenka Award for excellence in journalism in March 1985.New York Times carried a news item about it with a line in it saying that I was part of the team that had produced the New York Times series and assisted the two reporters. I was requested not to press the issue further since my contribution had been acknowledged in ‘some manner’. However, controversy which was covered by some US and Indian publications marred the chances of Pulitzer for the series.
I had the first taste of plagiarism in 1984. A news agency made it a practice to up my stories published in Indian Express and Jansatta in part of full without any acknowledgement. But to me it was still a dream from which I would occasionally wake up thinking,’ Oh God! Thousands of families are suffering and am I enjoying my glory? What an irony of fate. Success has come to me at the cost of several thousand deaths and the suffering of thousands of families in my own town! I will never be able to cherish this moment of “glory” in my life.’ But these thoughts were overtaken by praise of me in the print media or by congratulatory letters and telephone calls from every part of the world. I was overwhelmed and forgot about the dead or living victims for the time being. After all I too am human, with all human weaknesses. I knew I would have to learn to live with this paradox all my life. I would never be able to raise my head with pride and boast,’ I did this.’
While I speak about others’ fault or misdeeds, I must speak about my own shortcomings. What I uncovered was the result of a journalist’s effort to get to the truth and not a soothsayer’s prediction. Since the path to the truth passes through mountains of lies, I sometimes got lost. I made mistakes. One of them needs mention since it has led to several inaccuracies in others’ writings. I was wrongly made to believe that in 1975 the then administrator of the Bhopal Municipal Corporation, M.N.Buch, had issued a notice to shift the Union Carbide plant. I wrote about this in one of my reports before the tragedy. As soon as the tragedy took place some newspapers even attributed Buch’s transfer to this notice. In fact Buch remained in Bhopal till 1978 and had nothing to do with Union Carbide because no such notice was ever issued to the company. It was laxity on my own part that I did not cross-check the facts properly, trusting a lawyer I had known for years.
I knew that people would have high expectations of me from now on. But more Bhopal’s are unlikely to come my way. In truth, there should never, ever be another Bhopal. Human lives are more precious than the achievements of an individual.
( The essay appeared in the book Breaking the Big Story, published by the Penguin India in 2003)