With around a million and a half inhabitants, BHOPAL, Madhya Pradesh’s capital, sprawls out from the eastern shores of a huge artificial lake, its packed old city surrounded by modern concrete suburbs and green hills. The nineteenth-century mosques emphasise its enduring Muslim legacy, while the hectic bazaars of the walled old city are worth a visit. Elsewhere, a couple of good archeological museums house hoards of ancient sculpture and the lakeside Bharat Bhavan ranks among India’s premier centres for performing and visual arts. The Museum of Man on the city’s outskirts is the country’s most comprehensive exhibition of adivasi houses, culture and technology. Despite all this, Bhopal will always be known for the 1984 gas disaster, which continues to cast a long shadow over the city and its people.
Bhopal has two separate centres. Spread over the hills to the south of the lakes, the partially pedestrianised New Market area is a mix of shopping arcades, internet cafés, ice-cream parlours, cinemas and modern office blocks. Once you’ve squeezed through the strip of land that divides the Upper and (smaller) Lower lakes, sweeping avenues, civic buildings and gardens give way to the more heavily congested old city. This area includes the Jama Masjid and the bazaar, centred on Chowk, a dense grid of streets between the Moti Masjid and Hamidia Road. The art galleries and museums are on side-roads off New Market, or along the hilly southern edge of the
Bhopal’s name is said to derive from the eleventh-century Raja Bhoj, who was instructed by his court gurus to atone for the murder of his mother by linking up the nine rivers flowing through his kingdom. A dam, or pal, was built across one of them, and the ruler established a new capital around the two resultant lakes – Bhojapal. By the end of the seventeenth century, Dost Mohammed Khan, an erstwhile general of Aurangzeb, had occupied the now-deserted site to carve out his own kingdom from the chaos left in the wake of the Mughal Empire. The Muslim dynasty he established became one of central India’s leading royal families. Under the Raj, its members were among the select few to merit the accolade of a nineteen-gun salute from the British. In the nineteenth century, Bhopal was presided over largely by female rulers, who revamped the city with noble civic works, including the three sandstone mosques that still dominate the skyline.
Today, Bhopal carries the burden of the appalling Union Carbide factory gas disaster of 1984, with residents quick to remind you of their continuing legal and medical plight. In 1992, Hindu-Muslim rioting broke out following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. However, the many tales of Hindus sheltering their Muslim friends from the mobs at this time and vice versa demonstrate the long tradition of religious tolerance in the city. In recent years, Bhopal – and Madhya Pradesh in general – has remained true to its lenient nature, with little of the political and religious intolerance that afflicts many other north Indian states.Read More
The Bhopal gas tragedy
The Bhopal gas tragedy
At 12.05am on December 3, 1984, a lethal cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a toxic chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides, exploded at the huge, US-owned Union Carbide plant on the northern edge of Bhopal.
Highly reactive, MIC must be kept under constant pressure at a temperature of 0°C – yet cost-conscious officials had reduced the pressure to save some $70 a day. When water entered tank E-610 through badly maintained and leaking valves to contaminate the MIC, a massive reaction was triggered. Wind dispersed the gas throughout the densely populated residential districts and slums. There was neither a warning siren nor adequate emergency procedures in place, leaving the thick cloud of gas to blind and suffocate its victims. The leak killed 1600 instantly (according to official figures) and between 7000 and 10,000 in the aftermath, but the figure now totals well over 23,000 in the years since the incident. More than 500,000 people were exposed to the gas, of whom about one-fifth have been left with chronic and incurable health problems, often passed on to children born since the tragedy. The water in the community pumps of the affected residential areas remains contaminated with dangerous toxic chemicals that seeped out from the now-deserted factory. Campaigners say the factory still contains thousands of tonnes of toxic waste.
Though the incidence of TB, cancers, infertility and cataracts in the affected area remains way above the national average, the factory officials initially said the effect of MIC was akin to that of tear gas, causing only temporary health problems. They accepted moral responsibility for the accident, but blamed the Indian government for inadequate safety standards when it came to the issue of compensation. Only in 1989 did Union Carbide agree to pay an average of Rs25,000 to each adult victim – a paltry sum that didn’t even cover loans for the medical bills in the first five years, let alone compensate for the loss of life and livelihoods, and other consequences of the disaster. In 2001, the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre opened to treat patients.
Despite both US and Indian former bosses being charged with serious offences – including manslaughter – the government and factory authorities had been keen to sweep the whole episode under the carpet. It took until June 2010 for some measure of justice to be dispensed, when a Bhopal court gave seven former factory employees two-year prison sentences for causing “death by negligence”. The court also fined the former Indian unit of Union Carbide Rs500,000. NGOs and local campaigners dismissed the ruling as completely inadequate. Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide in the US, has yet to face justice; in 2002, a Bhopal court directed India’s Central Bureau of Investigation to pursue his extradition, but the US authorities have so far refused to extradite him. (Anderson fled India after the court there granted him bail.)
After much lobbying, the government in 2005 launched a legal case to recoup money from Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001 but denies ongoing liability. To date, little progress has been made but people in Bhopal continue to stage regular protests and rallies.
If you’re interested in learning more about the disaster or volunteering your services, contact the Sambhavna Trust at Bafna Colony, Berasia Road, Bhopal t0755/273 0914, wwww.bhopal.org. Five Past Midnight in Bhopal by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro, and the 2007 Booker Prize–nominated Animal’s People by Indra Sinha are both highly recommended further reading.