Bhopal: Swaraj Puri was the Bhopal Superintendent of Police when the deadly Methyl IsoCyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide factory in the middle of the night of December 2, 1984. Puri has faced criticism for safely escorting the then the Union Carbide Corporation chairman and CEO Warren Anderson to a state plane after he was arrested earlier in the day on December 7.
Did the government let down its own people? Where was Puri on the night of December 2 and how did he react? Did Carbide officials share information with local administration about the gas leak that night? Now 30 years later, does Puri regret facilitating Anderson's escape?
Where was Swaraj Puri and what did he do that night?
It happened in the middle of the night. It was a cold wintery night. I had just come home. It must have been 10-15 minutes. I heard a little commotion outside my house. It was a vehicle from the control room and an officer also coming to tell me that something has happened in the city, around the Union Carbide and there was commotion in the town. Since I had just come in and I had little children, I carried a jacket, and boarded a vehicle and moved out. For some reason the telephones were not working that night. So I went to the neighbouring police station Jahangirabad spoke to the control room. The control room had an officer, a sub inspector called Chauhan on duty that night. He told me that inspector Chat Ram Singh had informed that something has happened around the Union Carbide factory, people are moving out, he himself was not feeling comfortable. When he told me this, I decided to go to the Carbide and see what is happening. I went to the Carbide and checked what was happening. By then the exodus had begun, people had started moving out, somebody carrying a blanket, somebody carrying a quilt, moving away from Carbide. I reached Carbide and saw one security man there. I asked him where were the officers? I could see gas, like a plume it was coming out. I asked him what had leaked? He did not know, he was an ordinary security person. I asked him, "Can you take me to the place where it is happening?". He said, "I can't because I can't leave my place of duty." So I made another attempt. I saw another security man. He said, "Sir aap wahan mat jayiye, wahan kaam chal rahi hai (Sir, don't go there as some work is going on)." So I thought let me get back and see what is happening to the town. I went to the hospital - by then my own eyes were burning, I had started to choke, I was not feeling comfortable. I met one doctor Khan, and after meeting doctor Khan and telling him to get himself ready medically, I went back to the control room. And when I was coming to the control room, things were not good. This must have been an hour or, hour and half or so, then I started telling people. The primary aim was to manage the exodus that was happening. There was total panic, I could see. So we mobilised all the vehicles. By then all officers had come out - magistracy, police officers, municipalty. We informed Mr Nagu who was looking after Union Carbide's security, we mobilised vehicles. As far as seeing or meeting the ministers was concerned, I did not personally get to meet them that night. I only met them in the morning. I met the chief minister the next day and the home minister also.
Did he see dead bodies that night?
People were dying was known only at about between 3.30 am - 4 am in the morning because we started picking up information that some people had been brought to a hospital known as Barahsau Pachas. The initial information was that an elderly person with two small children had been picked up from somewhere near Arera hills and they had been brought to the hospital and they were frothing in the mouth. Then I rang up Dr Hiresh who was the forensic expert to tell him that this is what has happened, these are the symptoms, and these people have come there. Somebody said it was accident, somebody said it was poisoning. Seeing the dead bodies, I did not see them, but I did get to know and reacted by asking Professor Hiresh. Professor Hiresh was the first one to tell me that the leaked gas was Cyanide. "Swaraj yeh Methyl IsoCyanate hai (Swaraj this is Methyl IsoCyanate) , cherry red blood is coming , it is some kind of cyanide," he said I wrote it down. It was about 4.30 - 5.00 am in the morning. By the time it was morning, somebody said 60 dead, then 70 dead and then the numbers just went berserk. I did not know what was happening; by the time so much was happening.
Was there a siren that night warning people of gas leak?
I was told that there was a siren for their own people. I did not hear it. Some people in that area told me 'siren baja tha (there was siren)', beyond that I don't know anything. I agree with you, they (Carbide) should have told what has happened, how it happened, what to do and what not to do. That did not happen. Nothing of the kind happened. I told you I had gone to the Carbide factory myself, and I was not able to meet anybody who would have be able to tell me what was happening. And when I did get some information, there was an officer from the Carbide who came to the control room at 3.30 am in the morning and even he did not know exactly what the gas was and what was happening. He just said that the leak had stopped. So I asked him, "Please let me know, what do I tell the people", and he just said that he did not know anything more than that.
In hindsight, they should have done some kind of mock drills, co-ordination exercises with the people of that area if they knew what they were doing. I don't think they did any such thing.
Did he escort chief minister Arjun Singh to safety?
No, where was the question of my meeting chief minister? I was inside the area. I only communicated with their staff. There was an IAS officer called Mr Chacko. I told him that there is panic here, this is what has happened, please tell the chief minister. I did not get to see the chief minister till morning, I met him only in the morning.
I would not like to talk about it, the government has appointed a commission. It is in the fitness of things that I don't discuss this now.
People were let down by their own governments, both central and state:
There is a gross mismatch between expectation and reality. I am at a loss to understand as to how Indian lives are less dear, less costly even vis a vis the lives of guinea pigs in western world. I really wished that people who were sitting in the higher echelons of Carbide, I really wished one of them should have been here that night and shared our concerns, our injuries and then probably waited for them and see how they would have responded and reacted. As far as the government is concerned, I don't know how to react, you read so many things. The Bhopal Memorial Hospital does not have doctors, does not have medicines. People with TB have multiplied manifold and are suffering. In the first 10 years you had young expecting mothers having birth to deformed children, losing their children and suffering a lot. All this would have been better organised, managed if there had been a higher degree of sympathy for the victims. I would blame the Carbide itself because it was the company's burden, The Company was the beneficiary of what was happening here, and it was the one which let it happen and should have taken care of it.
I am at a loss to understand why we were not able to take our case to the American courts and to be able to contest it in a way that the standards of compensation and care were the same for the Indian victim as for an American victim. Ultimately it was an American corporation.
Question: It is a fact that you escorted Anderson out. Thirty years later do you regret it?
Swaraj Puri: I do but I complied with the orders of the government. That is all I can say.
Question: Did you resist?
Swaraj Puri: No comments.