Deepak Kher was one of many volunteers who chipped in in the aftermath of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy which killed over thousands of people in one night, and damaged the future of many others. He recounts his experience on the tragic night and the days that followed.
I remember that black night like it was yesterday. I was 29, staying with my folks at Shashtri Nagar near Jawahar Chowk, Bhopal, with the now infamous Union Carbide plant a little over six km away from my residence.
On the night of December 2-3 we all woke up to the commotion on the street. We spoke to some of those who had gathered and they revealed that some poisonous gas had leaked. We were still unaware of the magnitude of what had happened.
The next day, at around 10 am, I reached the State Bank of India office at Chola Road, which was a mere two km away from the UC plant. By now, the airwaves were rife with details about the deadly methyl isocyanate gas with little news about the human loss.
At the office I met my colleagues and together we planned to help out in some way. In groups of three we went to different hospitals like Hamidia, Sultania and govt and private dispensaries. We found the arrangements there wanting. It seemed that the government was wholly unprepared for such a contingency.
Disappointed, we came back to our head office, where we requested our manager MM Sinha to provide for a medical camp to assist the gas-affected people. He agreed and with the help of two bank doctors and some 10 staffers, a medical camp was started inside the bank’s premises.
While the heart of the gas affected area was almost inaccessible, we managed to approach and help the fringe populace. Our efforts seemed like a drop in the ocean.
Rumours were a problem. Two days after the tragedy there were rumours that there had been a second leak. To their credit though, the people of Bhopal showed conspicuous courage and unity. In many a sight we saw, Hindus and Muslims stood by each other. Us versus them didn’t seem a problem. Group funerals were the most painful to watch with five to 10 corpses cremated collectively.
Compensation was a problem. Those who had saved the required documents got it expeditiously. However, most of those affected were slum-dwellers, and had been lax about maintaining paperwork. It was very heartbreaking to see that most of the compensation amount went to the coffers of the middle-men and government officials.
At that time BBC’s Mark Tully had come over to Bhopal to cover the story. I met him at one of the medical camps where I was working. I introduced myself, and to my surprise he spoke to me in Hindi. In one of the few lighter moments during those bleak days, Tully was at a press conference where he was speaking to the then chsef Secretary. Ironically, the secretary was talking in English while Tully spoke in Hindi. People began booing the secretary.
Constant presence in the gas-affected area affected my health as well. I had ocular infections and throat related problems as well. Although the eyes got better, the discomfort in the throat could not be alleviated despite a lengthy period of treatment.
Something stuck with me from those days. Tully had said that the wounds the people bore in Bhopal were deep and would not heal for a long time.
Zakhm gehara hai bahut ise bhul pata nahin
Sadiyan bit jati magar zakhm bhar pata nahin
Hai garibi sab gamon ki ek vajah
Zulmon sitam se ladane ka phalsapha dhundh pata nahin
(The wounds are deep, and hard to forget,
Generations go by but the gashes do not heal
Poverty is the heart of all sorrows
For it bars us from finding the path to fight injustice).