Bhopal: December 3, 1984, 9:00 am. Nagar Nigam (Bhopal Municipal Corporation), Central Store, Sadar Manzil, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
Shankar Rao was on emergency duty in the central room store of Bhopal Municipal Corporation located in Sadar Manzil. Storekeeper workers are the lowest in the municipality hierarchy. Rao was the one who was alone at that moment after several of his colleagues complained fatigueless and not capable of resuming duty following a gas leak from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal last night that killed several people and animals.
Rao (with swollen eyes and coughing due to exposure to the gas leak) had to attend the emergency duty and hence had a lot of work to do in the absence of colleagues. Instead, he was expected to deliver more and more to overcome the crisis perhaps following orders from their seniors. It is natural under such circumstances to depend on the available staff in such moments.
There are conflicting words for how many hours and days Rao had to work. However, according to his son, Dinakar Rao, his father spent more than 70 hours working in the store room. His mother, complaining of breathlessness, and burning eyes, had to attend the office, work at home and feed the three siblings who too became a gas victim. In a shocking atmosphere, no one thought about them, other than many workers and their family members.
The stressful hours they endured took a toll on their health, and the couple was unaware of the extent of the damage. Something that should not be expected in a country whose Constitution finds a sacred place for Labour. Under the Constitution of India, Labour is a subject in the Concurrent List where both the Central and State Governments are competent to enact legislation subject to certain matters being reserved for the Centre. This has happened despite provisions in Article 23 (1) of the Constitution which says, that traffic in human beings and beggars and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable by law.
Like many others, the Maharashtrian couple had worked hard to secure a future that guaranteed work, income, and mobility for their children. For them, children becoming educated is a matter of great pride. All this rudely interrupted. The two became weak, and sick and were caught in the web of several illnesses. There was immediate horror and indignation all around the three brothers and a sister till they (parents) left for another journey to another world in 1986 (father) and in 1998 (mother).
Parents of Furqaan died almost the same way many others died in Bhopal, several parts of India, and outside India, including Swedish photographer Claes-Göran Bjernér.
“Claes-Göran Bjernér died on June 17 this year. The lungs were damaged during the trip to Bhopal, India, and eventually gave up. It cost to document the gas leak in Union Carbide & factory in 1984 that took over ten thousand lives,” says Sweden’s leading magazine on global issues Omvarlden, edition dated October 26, 2015.
According to Ingrid Eckerman, Swedish retired public health doctor (MD) and writer of The Bhopal Saga: Cause and Consequences of the World’s largest industrial disaster writes, “On Swedish TV, I find an interview with Claes-Göran Bjernér, a Swedish photographer. A team from Swedish TV arrived in Bhopal on the first-morning flight on December 3, 1984. The gas was still there, birds were falling to the ground. They went to the most affected area, in the valley, where the gas was most concentrated. Families were lying dead in their beds. It was completely silent, except for the cough. People were walking slowly, choked and blinded. The doctor in the film could not save a single child. Those who were sent back as little affected came back a week later, drowning. The photographer himself got seriously affected (emphysema, chronic obstructive lung disease) and now has 20 % lung function. – Interesting is that the figures used in the TV program are not the official, but the ones from The Bhopal Saga: 8,000 dead and 100,000-200,000 dead.”
There is currently no comprehensive database of these deaths and injuries. Shouldn’t there be a state, central, and unified database of Bhopal gas tragedy victims?
Some relief came when the elder brother and sister replaced their parents on compensatory grounds and began working in the same offices. Dinakar Rao (now Mohammad Furqaan) started devoting much of his time to work among the gas victims. Some of it is understandable because of the loss of parents and the fallout of gas victims feeling insecure.
But there was a lot at stake for him. Dinakar and several other gas victim children, women and others (the majority of the gas victims are from poor economic sections) painstakingly devoted days, months, years and years to bring the sufferings of gas victims before the eyes of a global audience.
In between a bevy of activists made their way to the national and a few before the global audience. Here, they pressed the blame on UCC, demanded harsh measures against the culprits and asked for dollars, and pounds to support life and care for the survivors of the Bhopal Disaster. Very much all to a script. However, their (victims’) efforts and work got ignored for unknown reasons once bodies were formed.
“It is a problem not only on the local stage but at every level in the world,” said Furqaan adding that we need more people like Jabbar Bhai (Padma Shri awardee, late Abdul Jabbar was the convenor of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan and Jayprakash Jee (Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sahyog Samiti) in this victim v/s government v/s court v/s administration v/s political parties v/s hospital v/s healthcare workers battle.
Furqaan, his brothers, a sister and many others like them deserved better. Both from the outside world and from the activists working among the Bhopal Disaster survivors. This will require drawing on social-economical welfare expertise and also support from people living among the survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Most importantly, there should be a prompt move to evaluate whether such survivors of the Bhopal Disaster can sustain themselves and to ensure that there is no substantial disruption to their (already) precarious, painful lives. In hindsight, ignoring the pain of the victims of the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster could be one of policymakers’ biggest mistakes.
Anup Dutta is a fellow of Vikas Samvad Constitution Fellowship 2022.