Bhopal is a city with lakes in the middle and hills all around it. Pretty. Pleasant. Quiet. In the surrounding hills a unique museum, where tribes from all over India were invited to build homes in their own unique styles, spreads over the rolling landscape. Visitors can wander for hours under the trees, in and out of houses made from crooked limbs and mud. All have a simple dignity; some are beautiful.
But Bhopal isn’t as famous for these nice things as it is for tragedy. One December night in 1984, there were 3,900 people killed by gas from a pesticide plant (or more, depending on which statistics you trust). In the following months, more succumbed to burned lungs and poisoned systems—at least 15,000 died because of the gas leak.
Of course, 1984 was a long time ago, and many tragedies have happened since then. The public attention span for tragedies affecting others isn’t limitless. How many school children in the United States or Britain or Japan or South Africa could say what happened in Bhopal before they were born?
That night wasn’t the center of much attention in India either, until recently, when the courts finally came through with a verdict, punishing those responsible. Eight people were found guilty of negligence and sentenced to two years in jail. One of them had already died, and the others were out on bail within hours. They’ll appeal, of course.
Legal as it was, this decision didn’t seem right. Suddenly the public was baying for blood, or more money, or something—anything that would make it clear that someone had been made to pay for negligence on such a scale.
This was no tsunami, after all, no act of God or nature. Union Carbide, owner of the plant from which the poison leaked, swore that some disgruntled employee must have sabotaged the tanks. Investigators insisted that at least two safety measures observed in Union Carbide’s US plants were not observed in Bhopal; the storage tanks were larger than they should have been, and no system was running to keep the tanks cool and, thus, safe. No doubt there were some lapses on the governmental side, as well—why had the authorities allowed such a dangerous plant in a heavily populated area? Who inspected the works for corroded pipes or faulty valves or whatever might have allowed water to get into the tanks and cause the disaster?
Media picked up on the obvious public disgust. Politicians popped up on the news every evening, each saying the other party had let the disaster happen and allowed the bad guys to get away. Media repeated that shortly after the tragedy, the American head of Union Carbide was escorted to a plane and out of India. Some people had wanted him arrested there and then, though he was saying things even then about “there is a law, American law….” The fact that he now lives out his advanced age, apparently untroubled by any worries over Indian law, seriously bothers some people.
What the law could do was exactly what it did: announced some sentences that may never be carried out in the lifetime of those accused—sentences similar to that for reckless driving.
Law can get money to victims legally recognized—a full and final settlement with the company won an average of $2,900 for each of the dead, and $800 for those seriously impaired. If that sounds puny in American terms, it sounds just as ridiculous to the woman married to a writer who went blind from the gas and sank into a deep depression, or to the woman who was three-months pregnant at the time of the disaster, whose husband died before their child was born handicapped.
The long arm of the law may not be able to do more, but one thing the media frenzy accomplished was to bring out stories of people who suffered, making it a little harder to forget. Reporters located victims and let them speak on television and in newspapers.
A large percentage of the victims of Bhopal were children, for a very simple reason: the gas was heavy and thick, so it remained closer to the ground. As panicked families fled from the low-lying area inside the bowl of hills, the children, nearer to the ground, inhaled more gas. An iconic photograph of Bhopal once again was projected everywhere after the verdict featuring the face of a wide-eyed child, half buried, with an adult’s hand lingering just beside it, as though the parent could not bear to see that face disappear forever beneath the dirt.
When I was younger, a photograph like this could engender outrage, crusading anger, and a sort of generic sadness. But at the time of the disaster, when the picture emerged, I had become a mother and some huge shift in the heart had occurred, as I think it does with most mothers. Such pictures, or those of the lines of small bodies after the disaster, triggered an elemental, howling grief.
The more people who see these pictures again—see them like a mother—the more people will know that we must not let such a thing happen again, anywhere, to anyone’s children. Only then will we get serious about doing what needs to be done to assure that a Bhopal tragedy never happens again.
Author Bio: LUCINDA NELSON DHAVAN first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant immediately after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. She is still there. After several years devoted to domestic bliss, child rearing, and learning Hindi, she joined the staff of a regional newspaper. She now feels she may have learned enough to write fiction and is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.