Amidst the Bhopal gas tragedy, a former bureaucrat recalls the night of horror and how individuals staked everything to save the lives of others
MR Sivaraman Chennai
I came out of my house at around 1am on December 3, 1984, when I heard people running and shouting that the gas has leaked. I rushed to the hospital where I saw people trickling in with complaints of eye irritation and difficulty in breathing. I returned home immediately to caution my wife to take care of the children and headed back to the hospital.
By 6am it was clear that the gas tank in the Union Carbide factory had leaked out a deadly gas, the nature of which was not clear till about two hours later. People had already started dying by then. I saw a patient talking intelligently one moment and, the next moment, he was dead. Many more died at the medical college hospital as it was close to the site of the incident. Doctors were doing whatever they could in the absence of any idea of what the antidote was for methyl isocyanate (MIC), the gas that had leaked.
I rushed to the state secretariat. As secretary of finance and planning I had no direct role to play in the rescue operations. But I thought I had to do something in the wake of the horrendous tragedy. On the spur of the moment I decided that people required financial help. So I ordered the withdrawal of Rs 1 crore from the state government's account.
I called all the young IAS officers posted in the secretariat and asked them to come with their briefcases. Each one of them was given Rs 2 lakh and asked to go from house to house, distributing cash to the injured and the relatives of those who had died. I conveyed my decision to NR Krishnan, secretary to the chief minister, and asked him to get the ex post facto approval of Arjun Singh, which he did.
Arjun Singh was in the field, also consulting the chief secretary and others on rescue and relief operations. He provided the best possible leadership under the circumstances when people were dropping dead all around. This was not 9/11 when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had only to tackle a tragedy that had ended in a few minutes. This was a horrendous tragedy that was unfolding before the eyes of the chief minister. There was no enemy to pursue here.
While it was necessary to book those who were responsible in the factory, there was a more urgent need - to save the people from sure death. The chief minister had to do a thousand things. To the credit of the government and the people of Bhopal, peace was maintained.
When hundreds were dying, there were many things to be done. First, treating the injured and saving those who could be saved when there was no known remedy to the gas. The dead had to be buried and cremated, but there was overcrowding. One secretary to the government was in attendance at the cremation grounds and another at the burial grounds. Other senior officers were moving from house to house, removing the injured and the dead. The commissioner of Bhopal was on his feet coordinating the field operations. My room was used to keep account of the dead and establish the identity of those who could not be identified. Messages had to be sent to the neighbouring states with photographs of the unidentified dead.
The fact that the entire governmental machinery rose to the occasion without fear of suffering is a tribute to those hundreds of officers and others who worked with passion and commitment. They were doing the best they could in those circumstances.
Dr MN Nagu, the director of health services, Dr Dhoot, the doctor-in-charge at the TT Nagar Hospital, and scores of doctors and nurses in the Hamidia Hospital - does anyone remember them today? I saw many of them collapsing due to exhaustion after relentlessly tending to the injured and those mentally tormented by the deaths all around.
The government had an immediate problem on its hands. There was another tank full of the deadly chemical and there was panic that it might explode any moment. The chief minister had to ask the government of India to get top scientists to rush to Bhopal to neutralise the gas. Dr S Varadarjan, an eminent scientist and secretary to the government of India, soon arrived with his team. They stayed in the factory without caring for their own safety and evacuated the gas into safe containers.
When the town panicked again, I went with my nine-year-old son to the area close to the factory tank and spent hours with the fear-ridden people to give them confidence that it was not necessary to evacuate the city.Not everything could be perfect in that chaotic situation when the antidote to the killer gas was simply not there. Two days after the tragedy, a German scientist landed in Bhopal and said he had brought sodium thiosulphate injections which could be an antidote to MIC. I saw some officers becoming guinea pigs, but the so-called antidote had no positive impact, according to the doctors; some victims took the injection but there was no improvement in their condition.
When normalcy returned to Bhopal, people were asked to file information relating to the injuries and deaths suffered by them and their families. Claim forms were filed and processed in computers across the country as the planning department's facility was inadequate to deal with the sheer volumes. Later, the government decided to ask all the residents of Bhopal to file damage claims as it was becoming clear that Union Carbide India Limited would be forced to compensate the victims. This was a big mistake because the real victims got much less than what they deserved. There were several conscientious objectors (like me) who refused to file any such claim and persuaded many others not to do so.
The tragedy occurred in 1984. The court took 26 years to decide the criminal case. Is our higher judiciary so powerless that it could not have expedited the case?
The recent case involving the spat between the Ambanis was decided in just a few months. Why didn't this happen in a case that involved the death of thousands as a result of gross negligence by the factory management in maintaining safety at the plant?
It seems successive state governments did not bother to file any petition in the higher courts asking for a special fast-track court to decide the matter. The culpability for this delay, if any, must be laid at the doorsteps of the bureaucracy. For it is they who should have advised the government to opt for a fast-track court. When they found that the compensation was inadequate, they could have immediately taken it up with the courts again.
However, as it happens always in this country, no one does anything with commitment to the people. When will this nation's bureaucracy and political executives wake up to the urgency of helping the common man? Will the nine per cent economic growth only benefit nine per cent of the population - as is commonly perceived? Bureaucrats must realise their responsibilities towards the nation. Or else, one day, they will be swept away by angry and frustrated citizens of India.
The writer is a former secretary, government of India, and executive director, IMF