On Thursday, outside the walled confines of the sprawling grounds where a factory once stood on Berasia Road in Bhopal, the festive spirit is infectious and spreading like an invisible mist. It’s Ganesh Chaturthi and the folks of J.P. Colony, a brick and slapdash slum across the ‘jungle’ that lies behind a long graffiti-covered wall — or in front, depending on your outlook — are testing loudspeakers, getting frisky and checking out each other’s festival clothes.
The centre of attraction, of course, is the pandaal in which Ganesh, looking as healthy as an elephant god in charge of human prosperity should, sits peacefully. Either because I’ve walked too much or because I’ve smoked too much — or because of conducting both activities at the same time — I’m out of breath. But most probably I’m feeling this because my mind is playing tricks on my lungs. Because funtime or not, I’m one of those wide-eyed, short-breathed Bhopal Disaster Tourists (BDTs) visiting Ground Zero.
It’s exactly two months short of 25 years since the fatal dose of toxic methyl isocyanate — or MIC in the Bhopal Gas Disaster lexicon — leaked from a tank in the Union Carbide factory across the wall I’m standing in front of. It killed 3,787 people over 72 hours, if you go by the Madhya Pradesh government figures (or 8,000-plus people if you go by the figure provided by Dr Ingrid Eckerman, member of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal, 1994) and has indirectly affected and killed thousands more since December 2-3, 1984.
I find myself almost choking at the banal, ordinariness in front of me. What I expected — despite reading countless reports and features about the Bhopal disaster, or perhaps because of it — was a Chernobyl-like wasteland, a deadzone still commemorated as a deadzone. Instead, I find a raucous Ganapati dhamaka brewing.
Many residents of J.P. Colony have described to me the horror and panic of that night. Manoj Panthi, who was seven then, tells me, trying his best to look grave, how his mother had saved herself and him from the Gas. His father and brother weren’t so lucky. Manoj’s 11-month-old girl in his arms looks excitedly at the kids scampering around in front of the pandaal.
Venturing inside the old Union Carbide factory grounds is more fruitful for the paid-up BDT. Eerily standing structures lie amid what’s today dense forest land, broken by the occasional tar-covered path. Next to a skeletal tower is a building that looks like a torched structure, window-less and with blackened interiors not unlike those buildings they show in documentaries on the Bosnian war. But where is the notorious Tank 610, Bhopal’s equivalent of Area 51, the top secret US military base central to UFO mythology? Tank 610, for any self-respecting BDT, is the unholy grail, the harbinger of death.
My colleague Satish Bate, armed with his Canon camera, ventures out again to the ‘Carbide forest’ the next day. He comes back with pictures of giant, rusting tanks, tilting like figures in a Dali painting. One such tank spread death the victims seem to have forgotten about. “What’s it with these victims?” I think, the latest BDT in town.
The previous day I had asked Panthi what he makes of the walled-in Carbide museum. “They should build something over it that provides us with better opportunities,” he says. “Something other than ‘chemical’,” he adds.
Last week, Bayer Cropscience, an American chemical company announced that it would “significantly cut down” production of methyl isocyanate a year after two workers were killed in an explosion at its West Virginia plant. In the meantime, Bhopal celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi, eagerly awaiting some solid silver anniversary Gas coverage.