Bhopal: Poor were the worst hit as deadly gas chased lives
For about an hour, the leak of deadly methyl isocyanate on the night of December 2, 1984 didn’t affect anybody in my house in Noor Mahal. All of us — my wife Anita, eight-month-old daughter Indira, son Vijay and maid Omana — were fast asleep. At 1.30 am, Indira woke up crying and coughing. My wife too began coughing. Soon we were all awake. I heard the siren and sensed that there had been a leak from the Union Carbide plant. I knew the factory well as I had a printing press and used to visit the plant every week. I realised that our lives were at risk.
Seensing that the gas had entered the bedroom, I gathered my family in the drawing room, which seemed safe and I sealed all the inlets. Even so our throats were itching and our eyes burned and watered, we waited for a while. And when the gas did not seem to be going away, I decided to ring the highest official of the Union Carbide factory at his residence. His wife took the call.
“Hello, I want to speak to Mr Mukund.” “He has gone to the factory,” she replied.
“There is a lot of gas in our area; we are choking . What to do?” I asked.
“Move to a safer place...All are safe in the factory. You can put a wet cloth over your eyes, nose and mouth,” she advised and put down the phone. We followed her advice and covered our eyes and face with wet cloths helped.
“Let us run away, otherwise our kids will perish,” my wife urged. “Shut up,” I said, “and don’t panic. I have sealed the room. Not much gas can leak in.” Later I too got a bit scared, and went to the kitchen area which had open ventilators. This room had plenty of gas. I came back and bolted the door. “If we go out, we will all perish,” I told my wife. The kids were not coughing now, but our eyes were troubling us badly. I had saved myself but not everyone was safe.
Jaiprakash Nagar colony was about 600 metres to the left of the factory having about 700 huts and a population of about 5,000 people. Most of the men were labourers, cart pullers, junk sellers and some small dairy owners. The gas leak claimed a lot of lives there.
Thousands reached Hamidia hospital, which was least prepared for such an emergency, that morning, hoping to get medical aid. There were a few junior doctors and some nurses on duty, but they did not know the line of treatment. Medicines and oxygen cylinders were in short supply. The main point is that no one knew the antidote for MIC. At that time (outside Union Carbide) no one knew that the gas that was spreading across old Bhopal city contained cyanide.
The mortuary was packed like sardines in a tin. Dead bodies were littered all over the premises of Hamidia hospital. Their foreheads had a piece of plaster with a number — the number assigned to the body.
Thousands of people fled to Indore, Dewas, Hoshangabad, Itarsi and Jabalpur. Many perished there.
Death danced in the city of Bhopal that night. Those who were well off and able run away in vehicles or were sealed in their costly houses, they survived. Those who were poor and lived in hutments or shanties died.
(The writer lived in Noor Mahal locality of Bhopal when the gas tragedy occurred)