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Bhopal gas tragedy: The man who tried to expose Union Carbide and the warnings that were ignored

Dec 08, 2014 10:59 AM IST India India

New Delhi: Journalist Rajkumar Keswani shot into fame in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984. His passionate stories in 1982, warning of the disaster waiting to happen were ignored. Keswani was so convinced about the threat the pesticide plant of UCIL posed to Bhopal that he wrote to the then chief minster Arjun Singh, all the members of the Legislative Assembly of Madhya Pradesh and even petitioned to the Supreme Court and yet nothing moved. Keswani's was a solitary voice that was ignored. The Bhopal gas tragedy struck six months after Keswani wrote his last article. Speaking to CNN-IBN's Rupashree Nanda, Keswani revists some defining moments of the world's worst industrial disaster:

Why did the Bhopal gas tragedy happen:

It happened because of the greed of corporates like Union Carbide to make money, it happened because we live in such a corrupt system where the government works hand in hand with big corporate houses and helps them to violate the laws. Had they followed all the safety systems provided by the law as required, this would not have happened. Why is not a question, why was it allowed to happen is the question? Our political bosses in the country are more concerned about their own well being than of people. They can sell people. Human lives have no value. They are more concerned about themselves, their families and their party.

Warnings that were ignored:

In 1978, there was a fire in the Union Carbide plant and it was in the Naphthol store. At that time people had no idea. A large crowd had gathered and even I was one of those in the crowd. This company was better identified with the torch cells, Eveready batteries, not with the kind of chemicals they were using and not with the kind of products like sevin and temic. It was known to people dealing with agriculture but not to the common man. The UCIL had a great reputation in Bhopal because it was the only multinational operating here and, those who were working with Carbide (UCIL) were treated with utter respect. Hence, there was little scope for doubt about Union Carbide. There was a question. The sky was covered by dark cloud. There was a bad smell. In 1981, a friend, Mohammad Ashraf who was working with Union Carbide got exposed to Phosgene and died. That was the alarm (for me) from where I started working on it. It was tough because I had no science background. I found 2 persons who were fired - Bashirullah and Shankar Malvia. They helped me to get a foothold there. With all manuals and confidential reports, it was nine months before I could write my first piece in 1982. After going through all information, one basic fact stuck with me was that Phosgene and MIC were heavier than air and something which is heavier would come down and settle down. When I found that such huge quantity is being stored and there were three tanks, then I wrote my first piece saying, "Bachayiye huzoor, is sheher ko bachayiye" (Sir save the city), giving all the details I had.

But when I did that, it went unheeded. There was no response from government. As an afterthought, I feel that people could not believe it because there has been no precedence of this kind. Even my circulation was very limited. It did not have an impact. I wrote another article with an alarming and sensational headline, "Bhopal sitting on top of volcano". I attempted another time because lives of people were at stake. I was angry with myself. I had seen from inside that all safety norms had been bypassed. Even pipelines were not in very good shape. That was dangerous. I did my second piece on October 1 and on October 5 there was a small leak inside the plant. Methyl IsoCyanate (MIC) did leak. That was controlled within limits. But it did impact nearby population and people had to escape to save lives. But, because it was contained so quickly, police did not register a case, there were no complaints. If at all it was investigated, it was investigated by the factories inspector. It was not a big deal, it was not even reported in the local media properly. So I did my third piece on October 8 and I narrated the story of what happened that night. I said this is an indication of things to come - I wrote a headline, "Na samjhoge to mit hi jaoge" (If you don't understand, then you will be wiped out). Everyone would try and convince me that what you say will never happen. You are wrong. We know better that you. The factory inspector suggested if I had any problems with Carbide (UCIL) I could talk. I wrote a letter to the then chief minister Arjun Singh to constitute a committee and to save the city. I went to members of state assembly and I persuaded them to raise it in assembly and it was raised. The concerned minister informed the house that he had visited the factory, (and assured the house that) there will be water curtains that will contain the gas leak if it happened. When some members insisted why not shift the factory? Someone said it was not a piece of stone! Then I sent a petition to the Supreme Court in 1982 itself and just got an acknowledgement. I left Bhopal for a year.

When I returned, once again I started working on same story. After six months, I did a longer piece for Jansatta on the June 16, 1984. The Editor Mr Prabhas Joshi gave it a great display. That was just six months before the disaster. Even after that when nothing happened, I felt that this is the most that I could have done. Before I could think of anything else, came the illfated December.

When Warren Anderson visited Bhopal:

When Warren Anderson arrived and was arrested, he was taken to the Union Carbide guest house at Shamla hills. A large number of journalists had reached and I was one of those. There was a huge wall and no one was allowed into the guest house where Anderson was. I climbed the wall to look into the Carbide guest house. I was just trying to look inside, I think it was Mark Fineman from Philadelphia Inquirer who said, "Rajkumar come down, come down. Anderson is already gone, I just spoke to American embassy and they have organized it." Anderson was received by the district magistrate and the superintendent of police at the airport, and midway he was politely informed that he was arrested. He started shouting, he was taken not to the police station not to the court but to his guest house. From there he made a call to the American Embassy. The American Embassy got into action and someone (name not clear) at the Ministry of External Affairs was contacted, then the Home Ministry, then the PMO. Rajiv Gandhi was then campaigning in Harda for elections and Arjun Singh was with him. Arjun Singh left instruction with local administration and was gone. When Rajiv Gandhi returned, Arjun Singh got instructions to release from the PMO because there was lot of pressure from the American embassy. Hence they provided him a state aircraft and he was sent back to Delhi the very same evening. When Anderson reached New York, he held a press conference and he said, "I was treated with utmost courtesy and respect, they were very nice to me, I have no complaints, it was done for my safety!"

Listen, the PMO cannot act on his own without the PM's consent. Because, in absence of the PM, they did not pass on any instructions. Only after Rajiv Gandhi reached Delhi, the instructions passed.

Justice Kochar Commission yet to submit report, Anderson dead:

In 1985, a commission was appointed which was headed by Justice NK Singh. It had been working for a year but once the state government found out that it was going to nail their guilt they abandoned it midway. Again, after a long gap, another commission was set up. But the cases are already decided, the main accused are dead. When Anderson died, people were saying one accused has died. Call me a cynic, nobody is going to be punished now. Mr K who was representing the victims has died, Justice Deb who passed an interim order died, KB Rai Choudhury died, thousands of victims have died, lawyers, judges and even Keshub Mahindra is an old man. By the time the case comes to a conclusion and a call is made from this court, there will be no answer because everybody would be dead. I am sure they will all die a natural death. Our legal system is such that you can make it go merry go round. Puri saluted Anderson while he was leaving!

Collective failure:

It is not A, B or C who has failed. We have failed collectively. Judiciary if it cannot decide a case involving half a million lives, what do you say about this? What do you say about CBI which could not properly investigate and represent? What do you say of political bosses who helped Carbide get away? They asked for $3.3 billion and accepted $470 million! Look at the medical fraternity. In those areas the quacks have become rich because real doctors never attended to the victims. Even properly qualified doctors had no clue. Everyone over here has flourished and prospered except the gas victims.

We simply fail to learn. Just one example - 25 years after this disaster, in 2010, I was working on a documentary for ESPN on playgrounds around Union Carbide where children play. They get diseases and no one is bothered. Had you learnt any lessons, this would not have happened. They entered into a settlement with a figure of 3000 deaths when by their own admission, they had acknowledged 15,000. Now there is a case is pending in front of the Supreme Court that looks for more compensation because the money that was actually meant for 3000 death cases and 1.5 lakh injury case - was actually distributed among 15,000 death cases and half a million people. Learning is not in our culture. We just talk of learning, but we don't learn.