Nov 27, 2014

The Ghosts of Bhopal - Part One

Part One: Wedding Season 

Nadir Khan
The night was black as batwings and the winds were growing colder as Nadir Khan clocked out of his job at the Union Carbide factory, strode past the security guard station, then through the front gate and headed for home.

Sunday, Dec. 2, 1984. The date carried no significance when Khan commenced his shift at 3 p.m. It was a Sunday like any other. Eight hours later, as he returned to his rough shanty in the bustee of Jaiprakash Nagar, there was little to remark upon. Or at least little that was known to Khan.

It was wedding season in Bhopal, the lake city of Madhya Pradesh, the state that lies in the very heart of India. If a bejeweled white stallion had cantered along Berasia Road that December night and disappeared like an apparition into the wind, no one would have batted an eye, least of all Nadir Khan. Baraats, or wedding processions, reach their peak in the winter months and Khan had come to know this as a seasonal commonplace.

To see Khan that night would be to observe a 35-year-old, slight of build, medium height, with a full head of dark hair and a pencil moustache that arced dashingly above his plush upper lip. He walked south on Berasia, then east along what had come to be known as Union Carbide Road. He was not the type to hurry his walk.

While he had received no schooling, Khan had been a dutiful provider to his wife, Nafisa, and their three children and was well respected in the community. Since the mid-’70s he had been an hourly rated worker at Union Carbide, first on month-to-month contracts, and later as permanent paid staff. Khan’s wage initially bobbed around a single rupee per hour — less than 10 cents in 1977. By the summer of 1984, according to a pay stub he kept from that July, he was compensated at a rate of six rupees per hour.

Any job was a marked improvement over making beedi — the rolling of tobacco in tendu leaves, the tying of impossibly scanty string, was meant for nimbler hands. Sometimes he had humped sacks of wheat to Mangalwara Market as a miserably paid day labourer. Union Carbide offered relative salvation, providing more or less steady work for close to a decade. Even as Khan grew worried that the plant was unsafe, that escaping gases were dangerous, and even fatal, he was comforted by the simple fact that the pay was good.

It came as no surprise that the promise of regular employment with the mighty American corporation had lured hundreds and then thousands of hopeful job seekers. The government lands surrounding the factory were transformed into instant colonies, a daisy chain of hope suddenly sprung up in close adjacency. None was closer than the hutment of Jaiprakash Nagar. The community quickly became known as J.P. Nagar, a collision of kacha houses, made not of mud but thin wooden slats, the rudimentary construction of which allowed the sun to slant through, the dust to invade, the dry winter winds to stir.

The home of Raees Quereshi and his family. The house is made of wood slats which offer no protection to airborne gas.
The rooftops of the shanties were slung low, topped by torn pieces of tin held in tentative place by stones or cast-off bicycle tires. Sometimes a roof was nothing more than empty jute sacks or rough thatch. The lanes were mud, though dry in the winter season, and the intimate domesticity of such tight quarters was constantly on display: the scrubbing of babies, the brushing of teeth, the hanging of laundry on every possible surface, the defecation of toddlers along the slumways. The squatters prayed that one day the Indian government would formalize their status and grant them patta, or land ownership.

To the south of J.P. Nagar, the Hindu cemetery commanded a vast grounds ruled by a banyan tree heavy with tendrils. The women of the neighbourhood avoided this land when seeking privacy for their pre-dawn ablutions, for it was deemed too ghostly.

Looking to the north, the factory sat in bas-relief against the horizon, risen on the old Kali Parade grounds. The Union Carbide name was boldly displayed on its trademark hexagonal blue background, the corporate marque instantly recognizable in the industrialized world. The outline of the taller structures could be sharply seen, including the plant’s flare tower, which was designed to burn off excess gases accumulated during the production of chemicals. The chemicals themselves were formulated into the insecticides aldicarb and carbaryl, marketed under the Union Carbide trade names Temik and Sevin. A so-called vent gas scrubber was another safety measure, a tower designed to neutralize leaked gas with a caustic soda solution.

What could not be seen from J.P. Nagar were three 57,000-litre stainless steel tanks, each 12 metres in length, positioned on their sides like lowered oxen. Partially buried, the topsides of the tanks were encased in a cowl of concrete to protect against external disruptions and to help insulate the vast amounts of MIC, or methyl isocyanate, that were stored inside. Highly volatile, highly toxic and highly reactive to water, the chemical was a key agent in the making of both Temik and Sevin, which were themselves the key, or so local farmers had been told, to transforming insect-ravaged crops into India’s bounty.

Nadir Khan had held a number of jobs at the factory. For a time, he worked as a pesticide bottler — “Like how you take out beer,” he would offer by way of explanation, tugging on an imaginary draft pull and describing the granules of Temik that would fill the bottles. At other times, he packed the bottles into boxes. Occasionally he worked with powders, the names of which he did not know.

As Khan made his way through the warren of shanties in J.P. Nagar that Dec. 2, the wind was blowing strongly to the south. He would not have known that at approximately the same hour a plant field operator on the factory grounds reported a leak of MIC near the vent gas scrubber. Worries about the lack of safety measures at the plant had grown among the workers — a local journalist had written articles forewarning that the factory was unsafe, and a leak of phosgene, a deadly gas used in the synthesis of MIC, had killed one worker on Christmas Eve, 1981. Two years later, a leak had sent three workers to hospital.

As the hour advanced to midnight, Khan settled to bed. J.P. Nagar slumbered, or attempted to.

Jebur Nisha
Neighbour Jebur Nisha was restive, her pregnancy weighing heavily upon her. Earlier in the day, her husband, Mohammed, had boarded an express train for Gwalior to check on an ailing relative, leaving Jebur to care for the couple’s two children. The early evening had unsettled her, for a beggar dressed in priestly black had swept through her door, insistent. “Give me money and give me wheat flour,” he implored. “In the name of God, something bad is going to happen, but if you do this, you will survive.” Jebur, a handsome woman with worried eyes and a lustrous plait of well-oiled black hair, paid a precious rupee.

Vishnu Bai
The chill had caused Vishnu Bai to swaddle her 3-month-old son, Anuj, drawing him close to her lean frame for warmth as they settled on a sleeping mat. Vishnu’s sister, Savitri, was mother to three boys far too old to be cocooned in this way, and so they lined up on the floor in soldier formation, side by each. There were no windows to close; no proper door to shutter.

One street over, Parvati had urged her son, Mukesh, to sleep. A bright and able student, Mukesh was already in the fifth form though he was barely 9 years of age. Just the day prior, he had posed with his family for a first-ever photograph, proud as a peacock wearing the red sweater of his school uniform, his hair slicked into place. Parvati called her dutiful son Babloo, a common endearment. He would often make his mother a cup of chai — she liked it sweet and scalding — and was attentive to his younger brother, Suresh, who was just 10 months old.

Raees Quereshi
Raees Quereshi, then a handsome young teenager with flashing eyes, had finished his day’s labours selling chai. Late nights often meant hanging out with pals, but on this night he arrived home before his neighbour Nadir Khan, who lived two houses over. Raees would often listen to Khan when his elder, like an uncle, held court on an adjacent piece of barren land where no one had yet built a home but where, instead, a flag of India had been planted. This small plot had become a gathering place for the community, and Raees would have passed it as he walked toward his hut. Home, he ate a small meal before finding his place on the floor alongside his three brothers, the wives of the elder two and his widowed mother.

Across Union Carbide Road, the workers at the factory were an hour into the night shift when a control room operator noted rising pressure in one of the MIC tanks, number 610. The control room was perhaps 12 metres by eight metres, with the instrumentation panel running along the longer wall. From here, an operator could monitor the pressure indicators, the temperature indicators, the flow of steam to the Sevin facility.

Earlier in the day, tank 610 was at two pounds per square inch (about 14 kPa), a reading that corresponded with that noted on Dec. 1 and which was on the lower end of the tank’s average pressure. The night shift operator, however, observed a markedly different situation: the psi in tank 610 had quintupled. A reading of 10 psi was not cause for extreme alarm in and of itself, but the speed of acceleration was. Quickly, the pressure then tripled, before popping to the top of the scale at 55 psi (380 kPa). The tank contained 41 tonnes of MIC.

A Union Carbide report would later record that the psi reading spurred the operator to run from the control room toward the tank. As he did so, he heard a rumbling, a screeching and the sudden sensation of heat radiating. Turning, he retreated to the control room. As he sprinted across the winter grounds his footfall was accompanied by the sound of concrete cracking.

Jebur Nisha stirred. Was someone cooking chilies in the chula at this hour?

Nadir Khan too was awakened by a burning sensation in the eyes. The air was smoke filled. Barefoot, he hurried from his home, looked skyward, and uttered a cry. “Run,” he yelled. “The gas has leaked. Run.” He hurried to the makeshift town square and shouted as loudly as he could. “Run! Run!”

A white cloud, vaporous and heavy, swooped across the factory grounds, lowering as it travelled southward, ferried by the winds that blew the noxious and ghostly haze through the porous kacha houses of J.P. Nagar.

Nafisa ran with her husband, vomiting green bile as she held her youngest son to her breast.

Raees Quereshi heard Khan’s cry and ran, his eyes stinging as if washed in acid, his throat constricting.

In a swirl of saris, Vishnu and Savitri joined with their younger sister, Rajkuman. Together the three sisters ran, bangled bare feet on hard pack mud. Baby Anuj was carried in his swaddling. His older cousins ran to the south, enveloped by the cloud.

When you light a fire, or draw on a beedi, the smoke swirls in a clear direction. This is the thought that careered through Azaad Miyan’s mind. The Union Carbide employee put a wet cloth to his face — this he learned at work — and frantically ran not with the wind, but against it, calling to his neighbour Bano to accompany him. Bano’s husband, Inayat Khan, reached for the couple’s two children and sped the other way.

Mere minutes passed, the neighbourhood explosively atomizing.

Parvati swaddled the infant Suresh. Like the big boy he was, Mukesh ran at her side. Insidiously, the toxic cloud, which spared the factory itself, had drifted above the Kali Parade grounds before lowering to the height of a child as it insinuated its way through dwellings and along pathways.

Nadir Khan’s father, all but blind, quickly became lost in the melee. Raees’s mother, Kaneeza, had also become separated from her family. As children were falling on the roadway, as men, women and oxen collapsed, Kaneeza was seized by a terror: she was wearing a sari. Should she die, would she be mistaken for a Hindu and burned on a pyre? Jumman Khan was wearing a kurta pyjama, and with his long beard even those who did not know him would identify him as Muslim. So Kaneeza tied her sari to Jumman’s kurta, consoling herself that should she fall dead, she would at least be seen to be a dead Muslim. Together they ran, as if a married couple.

A Hindu bride and groom swooshed by Nadir Khan. The bride’s ghunghat was like a gossamer veil pulled back from her face. Khan registered the white gopi dots decorating the bride’s brow on what was meant to be the most beautiful of nights.

Thirty years pass.

On a blue sky morning, Vishnu Bai’s turquoise bracelets dance on her wrists as she smacks balls of roti dough between her floured hands. She rolls the dough into expert rounds and places them on the chula. A squawking parakeet keeps interrupting as the events of that night are recounted. At the ghostly graveyard with the banyan tree, her three nephews collapsed, coughing, vomiting, their bowels evacuating. They “poohed in their pants and died.” This Vishnu remembers.

On Dec. 3, Vishnu and her two sisters took a seat in a van that was to ferry them to Hamidia Hospital. Sorrow was laid at their feet. Three dead schoolboys. Vinod, aged 15. Sunil, 12. Sanjay just 10. The details of those lost lives are so slender. Vishnu struggles to bring the boys to life. “Vinod loved us the most,” she offers. “Sunil was good at games.” His head wasn’t much into his studies, she adds. Of Sanjay she says nothing.

Baby Anuj, whose face was covered, survived.

Azaad Miyan reads the morning paper, seated outside on a plastic chair amid the bustle of a J.P. Nagar morning. His eyes are rheumy and yellow behind his glasses. He searched for Inayat Khan’s body after the disaster. It was days before he found his neighbour, and when he did, his body was so hard, he says. “Like wood.”

Jebur Nisha smoothes oil across her face. Her hair is heavy and wet and she brushes it as she speaks. She gave birth to a baby girl the day after the disaster, though Jebur was unable to open her gas-stained eyes to witness the moment. The baby was named Shaheen.

Shaheen stands in the doorway of her parents’ home in J.P. Nagar. She is still as air, dressed in a pink and yellow sari that ruffles in the breeze of a fan. The month after the birth, Jebur says there was something black coming from her daughter’s mouth. As a young girl, Shaheen was unable to advance in school. Her eyes are weak. She says nothing. Jebur studies her daughter, as if mystified. “She is lost in her own world.”

A short distance away, Parvati offers hot, sweet tea. The morning of Dec. 4, Mukesh was in grave distress, coughing and seized with diarrhea. Yet he managed to make the chai before he was taken to hospital. He died the same day.

Mukesh's first-ever photograph.
Parvati, graceful and soft-spoken, dries her eyes with the turquoise hem of her sari. She had forgotten until days after the tragedy that a photograph had been taken. It hangs on the living room wall, now plastered and painted. A red tilak running down Mukesh’s forehead has been applied to the glass. Parvati clasps her hands in front of her, reverentially. “Time has gone,” she says. “And time should not show that time again to anyone.”

The Indian Council for Medical Research placed the number of dead within 72 hours at 2,000. The count of immediate deaths would rise to 3,800, though the precise number remains unknown. What is uncontested is that the world’s worst industrial disaster unfolded during those midnight hours 30 years ago.

Hundreds of thousands were gas affected. Out of a population of 830,000, 60 per cent of Bhopalis were found to have suffered some degree of inhalation toxicity. More than 30,000 of those cases were deemed acute, suffering lung inflammation, fibrosis, lesions constricting the airways.

Drip by drip, certain details would emerge: that the vent gas scrubber had been on standby mode; that the flare tower had not been operating; that the refrigeration system had been shut down; that a safety inspection in 1982 had raised concerns about a possible runaway chemical reaction. Those are some of the facts. Still being sought is a conclusion, a proper ending.

Part Two: Building a New India

Part Three: Post Mortem

Part Four: Mass Tort

Story by Jennifer Wells. Photos by Spencer Wynn.

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