Gas tragedy victims’ unending ordeal: a survivor recalls that initial reports spoke of 26,000 dead

Ervell E. Menezes, republished from Tribune India
Ompal Sharma or O.P. Sharma as he is better known is 42, has a slight limp but would pass for a normal man. He has worked his way up from a typist in General Accurate Transformers Ltd to General Manager. Clad in a cream safari suit with rimless Gandhi-type spectacles, he has that Uttar Pradesh bhaiya look about him. But what few can tell is that he was a victim of the infamous Union Carbide gas tragedy of December 5, 1984.

Travelling with him in the August Kranti Rajdhani Express from New Delhi to Mumbai, Mr Sharma was pleasant company, a man who seems to have come up in life by sheer dint of hard work. “I started as a clerk on Rs 1,000 a month,” he says humbly and then with an iota of pride he goes on, “now I earn Rs 40,000 with perks to travel and other facilities.” He lives a normal life, has a wife and three children, two daughters and a son. He was on his mobile to his family soon after the train moved out of the Nizamuddin station.
“I have two drinks at home every evening and when I travel or am out of station I like to drink in company, not alone,” he goes on matter-of-factly. But most important is the fact that he is still alive. “The doctors gave me first five years and then another five years which means by the end of 1994, but I’m still around,” he adds, his face beaming in a smile. Apparently, that brush with death has changed his life.
“I don’t believe in Hindus or Muslims but I believe in good and bad; one must live a good life and that’s all. It’s the politicians who do all this like it was the politicians who allowed Union Carbide to set up its factory and manufacture forbidden chemicals,” he goes on and mentions the names of some of the ministers he feels are responsible for the greatest chemical tragedy in history. “And they have all got away unpunished,” he said but then that was the way things go on in our country, calling New Delhi the centre of corruption and flaying most of the present leaders.
It was after a good deal of conversation that one came upon his date with destiny on December 3, 1984. He does not flaunt that tragedy on his sleeve. “I entered my hotel, Mahhuvan Hotel in the Ghoranakhas area around 11 p.m. on December 2, had a couple of drinks and went to sleep. It was 1.40 a.m. that I was awakened by the noise of people running in the streets and shouting. I knew something big had happened,” he adds with retrospective fear in those rimless glasses covering his eyes.
There was chaos everywhere. Mr Sharma opened the door and came down into the street which by then was deserted except for some people lying on the ground. There were cries of help and yelps of pain, suffocation. His eyes burned but he managed to get a three-wheeler and asked the driver to take him out of the city. They drove for 12 km and there the scene was better. Stunned by the enormity of the tragedy, which was yet to fully unfurl itself, he waited there along with the tempo driver. It was only at 3.30 a.m. that the military, which had moved in by then, had asked all the people to come back to Bhopal as things had improved.
“I was then working for Mayur Home Appliances Ltd, a sister company of Accurate Transformers Ltd. At around 6 a.m. we got the news that 26,000 people had died and lakhs were injured. It was a nightmare,” he says with a dazed expression. “It was a black night for India,” he says and recalls how he had left a big amount of money in his hotel room and how when he returned the money was still intact. The gas he claims was methyl isocyanide and it was lethal. The rest is now history.
Why did filmmaker Mahesh Matthai make a film “Bhopal Express” and did all he could do to muster support for the gas victims? But as is often the case in India, little seems to have come out of it. It is 18 years now and like Mr O.P. Sharma there are thousands who have gone without any succour. “Mafia gangs moved in and made money,” Mr Sharma says and we know of the hordes of lawyers who descended on Bhopal from the USA but little seems to have materialised, at least for those innocent victims.
Why does Union Carbide itself seem to have abrogated its responsibility? Where the money went, few people know but then that’s the usual story. When there is a tragedy, very little of the money reaches the deserving. It is siphoned off in between. But that dark night had taken its toll on Mr Sharma. He had no sensation in the lower half of his body. Also when he drank liquor it had no effect on him, it was like drinking water. He also became impotent and was not able to enjoy sex. He was not the same man. Doctors tried to console him but in vain. He was newly married which meant that the tragedy was even greater. Doctors gave him a few years, first five and then another five, but fortunately he managed to overcome this dark disaster.
But there is a look of contentment on his face. Mr Sharma may have gone through hell, but he is now a man at peace with himself. His elder daughter is in college, his son and younger daughter are in school. His father, now retired, stays with his three sons by turns. “Yes, we must look after our old,” he says philosophically. Life goes on happily for Mr Sharma and just as well, but how it must have ended abruptly for so many thousands, in extreme pain! And what’s more most of them have gone uncompensated, which sadly, is even a greater tragedy.
The writer is a veteran journalist.

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