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Clearing the air

Days after the ’84 Bhopal gas leak, a native of Bhopal recorded several hours of footage of the disaster’s aftermath. Tanul Thakur writes about the making of Bhopal 84, a documentary born of that footage, which casts new light on the world’s worst industrial disaster.

TANUL THAKUR  13th Dec 2014

A Union Carbide [Corporation] banner being burnt at the protest rally in Bhopal on 3 December 2014. | Photo: Giles Clarke.

On 3 December 1984, at an hour sitting precariously between late night and early morning, 14-year-old Nadeem Uddin woke up to commotion outside his house. Hundreds of people still in their pyjamas were scurrying on foot, bicycles and scooters. Some were hauling old parents on bullock carts. Almost everyone was coughing and sputtering. Uddin lived in a government-allotted house in South T T Nagar, on the outskirts of Bhopal, around 15 km from the heart of the city. He didn't know what to make of the mayhem. Uddin's 17-year-old brother, Salim, went out to the street to find out. "Woh factory mein tanki phat gayi hai (the tank has exploded in the factory)," came the reply.

That "tank", or rather, those tanks — E610 and E611 — hadn't exploded; they still stood tall, as they had since 1979, when the Union Carbide Corporation's Bhopal plant added a methyl isocyanate (MIC) production unit. The tanks were central to the operation of this pesticide factory, established in 1969. They stored MIC, a colourless and flammable liquid, which reacted with 1-Napthol to produce the factory's end product, Sevin, a pesticide that would benefit Indian farmers.

But the chemicals used to produce Sevin were hazardous — phosgene gas disrupts the lung's air-blood barrier, causing suffocation (it had earlier been used as a chemical weapon in World War I); methylamine, a colourless gas, causes chemical burns to the respiratory tracts when inhaled; MIC, too, severely damages lungs and skin, and also reacts violently with water. So safety systems were installed to counter the MIC leaks. Vent gas scrubbers were designed to spray caustic soda on escaped gases to neutralise them, a flare tower to burn toxic gases, a refrigeration system to keep MIC at a temperature between 0°C to 5 °C so it becomes less reactive, and firewater spray pipes to douse flames and control escaping gases.

On 2 December 1984, at around 10.30 p.m., the routine exercise of flushing pipes running from the phosgene system to the scrubber through the MIC tanks was being carried out. A metallic slip-bind plate had to be inserted into the joints between the pipes so that the leaking valves wouldn't let any water get inside the E610 tank; on that night the slip-blind plate was missing. Water began flowing into the E610, which contained 42 tonnes of MIC, roughly 30% more than the permitted amount. A violent reaction took place between MIC and water. The temperature inside the E610 rose to above 200°C; the reading on the tank's pressure indicator reached its upper limit: 55 pounds per square inch. Thesafety measures should have helped avert a disaster, but the vent gas scrubber couldn't be used because it had been switched off for maintenance; E610 couldn't be cooled with the refrigeration system because it was shut down as a cost-saving measure; the flare tower could have burnt off the gas, but a corroded pipe leading to it had been removed for maintenance and not been replaced. The gas escaped from a 33m-high vent line; firewater spray pipes ejected a water curtain that could only reach 12-15m.Image 2nd

40 tonnes of MIC leaked into the city. Thousands of its people were out on the streets.

The next morning, Uddin got on a scooter with his father to look for his aunts in the city. Strewn across the roads were hundreds of dead cows, buffaloes and birds. The Bhopal Nagar Nigam cranes were lifting the bloated carcasses of cows from the street. The city looked deserted, fractured and lifeless. In the words of Uddin, "It looked like someone had bombed the place." At nearby Jay Prakash Hospital, "hundreds and hundreds of bodies" were bound in white and dumped into makeshift tents in the hospital's backyard. Mass cremation had begun by then, and it looked like it was going to continue for days.

Even today, there seems to be no definitive data for the number of deaths caused by the Bhopal gas tragedy. According to a recent statement by K. K. Dubey, Deputy Secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Department of Gas Relief and Rehabilitation, the government has so far compensated for 5,295 deaths. "But only someone from Bhopal can even come close to telling you the right number. As far as I remember, I wouldn't be surprised if more than 10,000 people died the first night," says Uddin. He is quick to clarify that this number is neither exaggerated nor subjective. This estimate is from people who were selling burial clothes, working at the crematoriums and burying the dead.

Years later, Uddin met two such people — Jagdish Nema, who ran a cremation ground in Bhopal days after the disaster, and Musharraf Ali, who recorded Nema cremating the dead bodies on video. Their stories affected him so much that he felt compelled to document them. This documentary, however, has had a journey of its own. It is only coming to fruition now, 30 years after the disaster.

1,800 unclaimed dead bodies cremated at one cemetery in the first five days. And, 30 years since the disaster, only 5,295 deaths have been officially acknowledged.

Man with a movie camera

Musharraf Ali confesses with quiet pride that he was the first man in Bhopal to own a video camera. It was a Panasonic VHS, bought in 1982, when Ali served as a staff sergeant in Oman's army. He had come to Bhopal in the month of November in 1984 on a five-week holiday. He lived in Ibrahmipura, a neighbourhood in Bhopal's Old Town, less than 3 km from the Union Carbide factory. On the night of 3 December 1984, Ali heard a knock on his front door. His coughing neighbour didn't waste any time, he said urgently, "Run!" Ali looked around his house, stuffed as much money into his pockets as he could and grabbed both his three-year-old daughters and two nephews while his wife hurriedly packed all her jewellery. They all fled on his scooter. Ali figured that he would be safe if he raced in the opposite direction to the Union Carbide factory. So he drove his family till Bhadbhada Dam, where a few veiled women offered them water and dupattas to cover their faces. The air near the dam felt fresh. Suddenly Ali realised that he'd left his camera behind. His house was open, what if it got stolen? "The purchase of that camera was registered on my passport," he says. "Without it, I would have been denied entry to Oman." Instructing his family to stay put, Ali raced back to go get it.

Over the next three days, Ali recorded about three hours of footage of the aftermath. That footage was to become, as Uddin puts it, "the purest document of the tragedy". Ali wasn't a journalist; he had no method — or intention — of creating a narrative. This was documentary filmmaking stripped down to its core — press the record button, and let the events tell their own story. "You have to understand that this man [Ali] had no sense of censorship," explains Uddin. "He was recording what was really happening."Image 3rd

Eventually, word spread that a man had on tape the fallout of the gas leak. A week later, over a dozen Japanese journalists turned up at Ali's house, wanting to buy his work. They offered him some Rs 20,000. Ali refused. He didn't want to "sell confidential information about the country to foreigners". Besides, he was also worried that his camera, which he had managed to get past the Indian customs with great difficulty, would get confiscated forever if the officials found out what he had used it for.

But what did Ali really see through his camera that made him so paranoid? Ali, who otherwise tempers his answers with a tinge of humour, doesn't take kindly to the question. "See the video for yourself," he replies, his face suddenly dark. "I won't be able to tell you what I saw."

Buried stories

Jagdish Nema, who'd never had a job in his life, used to spend most of his time at a local temple. On the morning of 3 December 1984, the head of Solah Vishram Ghat, the cemetery closest to the Union Carbide factory, spotted Nema and his friends there and said to them, "There is no one to cremate the abandoned dead bodies, and you are just sitting here like this?" Military trucks and ambulances had been dropping off unclaimed bodies to the cemetery for hours. No one had volunteered to perform their last rites, so Nema and his friends stepped in.

Hindu customs require that each body be separately cremated. So they prepared a funeral pyre, and cremated one corpse at a time until they realised that there were more than they could keep track of. So they made a 40-foot-long pyre, which accommodated 22 dead bodies, followed by one that fit 40 bodies. The longest one they made, Nema remembers, was able to fit 127 corpses at once. The worst was having to bury children — there were about 250 of them. Most looked blissfully asleep, so he gently shook each one before burying them, just to make sure.

Nema didn't go home for the next five days. "We must have cremated and buried around 1,800 bodies," he recalls. "And, you have to remember, all these dead bodies were unclaimed. The others were being cremated separately by their relatives inside the cemetery."Image 4th

1,800 unclaimed dead bodies cremated at one cemetery in the first five days. And, 30 years since the disaster, only 5,295 deaths have been officially acknowledged.

Chance encounter

On 5 December 1984, Nema saw his childhood friend at Solah Vishram Ghaat. He was recording the workings at the cemetery on his camera. Both these men had spent their childhood in the same locality; their houses were separated by barely 100m. Hence, the sight of that man with a movie camera barely surprised Nema.

Jagdish Nema and Musharraf Ali were to meet once again.

The cost of living

In 2002, Uddin — now a trained filmmaker based out of Seattle — was in Bhopal on vacation when the call for justice for the '84 gas tragedy intensified. The people of Bhopal wanted Warren Anderson, the CEO of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in 1984, to be extradited; he had never faced trial in India, despite multiple attempts by the Indian government. In 1986, the Indian government filed a $3.3 billion lawsuit against the UCC. In 1989, in an out-of-court settlement, the UCC washed their hands off the matter by paying one-seventh of that amount, $470 million (based on the alleged death toll of 3,000). Anderson had resigned from the UCC by then, and retired from public view. In 2001, the Union Carbide Corporation became a wholly subsidised unit of the Dow Chemical Company, which has since denied responsibility towards the gas leak.

Uddin snuck his camera into the factory premises. Noxious chemicals including phosgene were still rotting in the tanks, seeping into the groundwater, making it unfit for drinking. "They hadn't even bothered to clean up the site," he says.

In 2003, he was asked to collaborate with a Canadian TV channel on a documentary for the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Uddin had heard that a man from Bhopal had footage detailing the disaster's aftermath; he eventually found Ali, who was still reluctant to part with his recordings. Since the film he was working on was more of a "scientific inquiry" into the disaster, and could only be 52 minutes long, Uddin realised that he wouldn't be able to do justice to what Ali had shot. Ali's footage, he believed, deserved a film of its own, and he took it upon himself to tell the world the stories Ali had caught on tape.

"In this documentary," Uddin says, "Ali's footage appears and disappears between conversations with him and Nema, who have been witness to three decades of the Bhopal story." The principal photography of Uddin's documentary, Bhopal 84, will be completed next year in February, with a release slated for October 2015.

Uddin invites me to his house in Bhopal to watch this fabled footage. He switches on his laptop, and leaves me alone with it. I quickly realise why Uddin will never get over it: an infant, young enough to be rocked in a cradle, festooned with garlands and draped in red cloth, lies in the arms of a man walking inside the cemetery. The same arms remove the child's clothes, and amidst chants of "Krishna bhagwan ki jai", the infant is lowered into a grave. A hand gently closes his eyes. And as the soil is being poured over his body, a man says, "Bache ko kisi tarah ki takleef nahin honi chahiye."

The camera keeps rolling.

Ali's footage is uninterr-upted, unfiltered, unsparing — a ghastly reminder of the world's worst industrial disaster.

Taking it to the streets

On the afternoon of 3 December 2014, Bhopal's Carbide Road, opposite the UCC's now defunct plant, is jammed with protestors, auto rickshaws fitted with loudspeakers, and Indian and foreign journalists. A blue "Union Carbide" banner is stretched out next to a red one that reads "Dow". Activist Rashida Bee is shouting into the microphone: "[Warren] Anderson is dead. So we are not going to burn his effigy. These people are responsible for destroying Bhopal. You should come forward and spit at the banner. This banner has Anderson's soul."

A few minutes later, I spot two elderly men walking together on the crowded road. I can only see their backs, but it's not tough to recognise them: Ali and Nema. Uddin, camera sitting on his shoulder and a tripod in his left hand, is filming the two from a distance. Nema has come to the protest for the first time in 30 years. "I have only come this year because Nadeem-ji wanted to film me. Otherwise I hate these things. I mean, what are these organisations talking about? People affected by the tragedy are in the same condition as they were 30 years ago. Even worse. Yeh sab sirf naatak kar rahein hain, madarch*d (These motherf**kers are just putting up a charade)."

Nema usually speaks loudly. A small crowd forms to listen to him, from which an irate man suddenly emerges and hands me a strip of tablets: Phenytoin Sodium. ("A medicine that prevents and controls seizures," I found out later.) The man reveals that he can no longer concentrate for long periods of time, or lift anything heavy, and that he suffers debilitating body aches.

Nema gently tugs at my arm. There's a glint in his eye. "So many people have made so many films. There's even one starring Rajpal Yadav. But that's just a movie. But our documentary is real, and when it comes out, the whole world is going to watch it."

The crowd begins to thin at the Carbide road. The Union Carbide and Dow banners have been burnt. There's no activist addressing the crowd either. "That's it," Nema shrugs. "Now no one's going to bother about how we're doing till the next year."

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