Did the rains ditch Bhopal for a reason?
“Even God wanted to teach us a lesson, or why did it not rain?” mumbled a gentleman seated behind me even as he got up to go. His reaction to the movie Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain startled me. The movie has nothing new to tell, more so because the disaster has lived in the memories of people for a good thirty years and, maybe, already under layers of oblivion’s dust.
But the movie definitely leaves a sense of anger, not just sadness, over what happened. Then and thereafter.
I could not resist asking this man why was he so religious about it all. He responded, “What else could have been the reason for so many innocent people dying and that too at the hands of their own men? You cannot blame the Americans completely when your own systems are at fault. Why did you in the first place allow them to go on with substandard protocols? Why were they allowed to continue the set up and the whole thing after the incidents of gas leaks had happened and workers had died and had protested and struck work? See madam, this is our mentality. We do not value life, we only value power and money. But you see the problem does not end there. It is larger than what you saw in the movie”.
I was quiet, still trying to free myself of the faces of those thousands who had struggled to live and had been suffocated to death.
The artists have succeeded in bringing that night to life on the silver screen. The doctor Dr. Chandra (Manoj Joshi), the journalist Motwani (Kal Penn) and the workers Dilip and Roy (Rampal Yadav and Joy Sengupta) are able to convey the utter helplessness, the doubt and the dilemma that tore through them. Warren Anderson (Martin Sheen) must have been no less ambitious and cold-hearted.
The struggle for hope and the sheer helplessness had the potential to leave a strong sense of resentment in the spectators as the lights turned on after ninety six minutes.
The gentleman continued, “Forty two tons of MIC, something which you do not know anything of, is allowed to be stored in the heart of India. With whose permission? The government’s? The people who knew not ‘the ‘s’ of ‘science’ and the ‘c’ of ‘chemistry’? I know there is no use of screaming and venting your rage now—after all it was long ago, yet it is not that long really. And madam, you cannot understand because you did not see it yourself, you are just seeing a movie. How old are you?”
He was waiting for the answer. “Not old enough”. Hearing that, he looked at me and his face changed, “See this is the problem, you will not relate to the disaster because you were not there when it happened. None in your family suffered. So you will never understand the seriousness of the issue. And something similar will happen again. The government should, the lawmakers should, but they will not because they have more serious issues to address, like vote banks and election funds.”
“Things have changed, it is not the same anymore” I tried to be reassuring. “You only imagine that. Nothing has changed. Our own people let that man escape. We only let that plant stay active despite alarms and strikes.” I interrupted him, “I agree. Bhopal may have never got justice, but at least now things have changed, now laws are stricter.”
He smiled and continued, “You seem very confident of the change! Why? Is it because of the new government? Or is it because of English speaking ministers and those Hindi speaking ones who are ready to chat with children and teachers.”
“No, that is not what it is. You have a general mistrust towards the system. But you must also concede that things are changing for the better. The last few years have been the worst for the pharmaceutical companies investing in India because the law now protects its citizens and we have made it very clear that we will no more be guinea pigs for any experiments.”
Still he found no satisfaction in that answer too.
“Do you think the only threat we have is foreign investors and pharmacy companies? What are you going to say of the incident that happened in Chhattisgarh where those women died for no reason? What are you going to say of the incident in Gurdaspur where people lost their vision after the cataract surgery simply for the unhygienic surgical conditions? I am not here to blame the world for the problems of my country. I have only myself to blame. We have only ourselves to blame. We are still fixed in our old ways of following good-for-nothing, bad-for-everything people in governments. Imperfection is a word we do not acknowledge. We are either too scared to point out the mistakes or too comfortable with our own lives to notice what goes wrong.”
He was interrupted by a cinema attendant, probably a housekeeper, who prompted us to step out, bringing our conversation to an abrupt end.
As we walked to the parking, thoughts clouded my mind—of the pilot who flew Anderson away, the ministers who fled Bhopal that night, the people who died, the people who survived to bear themselves and to witness in others the terrible suffering, and the people who even today live in unmitigated pain. What must have they gone through! I shuddered.
No compensation could have been enough. And what validated the amount of compensation, there was no clue. The reaction of Anderson to the news of the disaster, his indifference to the loss of life, the apathy of Indian ministers who paved a free and easy passage out for him and who could sleep over it all then and for the years to come— all this was deeply disturbing.
“All I know is that we do not need Union Carbide or some Anderson for Bhopal to happen again. Rain and the Gods ditched Bhopal for a reason that night, they wanted us to learn a lesson of safety and standards and questioning and doubting. Nobody will answer questions after something goes wrong, nobody is worth unconditional trust. Habits must be changed, questions should be asked and everybody made answerable”, he walked off without waiting for me to respond and did not look back.
Had he lost one of his loved ones to that disaster or was he the rare to find, normal, responsible and questioning citizen? I wonder.