When Bhopal became a gas chamber

Subodh Varma, Times of India, December 3, 2006
NEW DELHI: Twenty-two years since the leak of a deadly gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal killed over 15,000 people, relatives of the victims and over 5 lakh survivors are still battling for compensation.
And it isn’t just the hapless victims who have been kept waiting for all these years; those who heroically put their lives in danger to save others have fared no better. Brigadier N K Mayne and his wife Asha’s is a case in point.
On December 2, 1984, Brigadier Mayne was woken up from his sleep by a call from the Bhopal district commissioner that something terrible had happened and people appeared to be collapsing due to ammonia-leak. Mayne rushed to the area next to the pesticide factory of Union Carbide. His doctor-wife Asha saw him almost 12 hours later — lying unconscious in hospital. Mayne recalls seeing hundreds of people rushing out of their homes, choking and vomiting, and complaining of burning eyes and stomach pain.
Many collapsed, unable to breathe. His wife, who now lives in Noida, says he immediately started calling up army units in and around Bhopal, asking them to send vehicles to the affected areas. Army jawans helped people into vehicles and transported them to nearby hospitals. Mayne worked in the poison-laden air for hours. Finally, with burning eyes and difficulty in breathing, he was rushed to the hospital.
Meanwhile, several suffering people came to his house, knowing that Asha was there. She says, “I didn’t know what to do. Nobody knew what gas it was. It was not ammonia, because people don’t start collapsing like that. I gave them water and got a few oxygen cylinders for those who were choking. But it didn’t seem to help.” By 8 in the morning she went to the government dispensary at Shahjahanabad where she worked.
The sight there was terrifying. “The whole street was full of people – some were lying on the road, unable to go further. I and another doctor distributed antacids and eye drops, and used up the oxygen. But the stream was endless.”
Finally, in the afternoon, news of her husband reached her and she rushed to his side. Brig Mayne apparently recovered miraculously, though the recovery was to prove to be short-lived. Life soon became hard for the Mayne family.
They were transferred to various places, the two kids were growing up, the son had to miss his NDA exam – but these were just the normal kind of problems that other middle class folks face regularly. The main problem was that Brig Mayne started suffering from symptoms of what became established as MIC poisoning. He developed pulmonary oedema (water retention in lungs), muscular weakness, and severe gastritis.
He was in and out of hospital all the time. Finally, on July 2, 1989 he succumbed to the poisoning and weakening of his body. Dr Mayne’s practice became the only source of income for the family apart from the pension. She says she had to visit Bhopal 3-4 times every year till as recently as last year in order to pursue the compensation claim.
All of 21 years after the tragedy and 17 years after her husband died, she finally got the second of two instalments in 2005.

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