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Most English dailies stuck with the conservative estimates of the death toll, ranging between 350 and 410, while Hindi newspapers put the number of dead at 500 and above. Photo: India Today Group
Most English dailies stuck with the conservative estimates of the death toll, ranging between 350 and 410, while Hindi newspapers put the number of dead at 500 and above. Photo: India Today Group

Bhopal Gas Tragedy | The media’s role in the aftermath

Mint analyses reports in English and Hindi newspapers in the first week of December 1984

In the 30 years since the Bhopal gas leak disaster, Indian media has not minced words in pinning blame for the continuing plight of the survivors. But what about the media’s responsibility? What role did it play in reporting the events and what effect did it have on the outcomes?

As part of its current series on the world’s worst industrial accident, Mint analysed reports in English and Hindi newspapers in the first week of December 1984. (The disaster occurred on the night of 2-3 December 1984.)

At the time of the gas leak, the English-language press commanded all the influence on the national stage; the Hindi-language press was nowhere near the force it is now.

To put the event in context, 1984 was the year anti-Sikh violence erupted in Delhi and other parts of India, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Her successor Rajiv Gandhi, a political novice, was grappling with the fallout of the assassination—one of the worst political crises in independent India—when 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from Union Carbide India Ltd’s Bhopal plant.

The scale and nature of the event—the perpetrator was the local unit of a multinational company and the victims were workers living in slums around the plant—caught the Indian media unprepared. This was the first time they were covering an industrial accident, and the magnitude of it was clearly beyond their grasp.

An analysis of the first week’s coverage shows that most English dailies stuck with the conservative estimates of the death toll, ranging between 350 and 410, while Hindi newspapers—interestingly, sometimes from the same media houses—put the number of dead at 500 and above.

For event orientation, Hindi newspapers consistently compared the gas leak to the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima and pralay (end of the world), while the English dailies were reluctant to go beyond daily reporting or question the politics behind different safety standards, and the industrial policies that had allowed a multinational to compromise on safety standards.

This year, by contrast, when news broke on 30 October that Warren Anderson, who led Union Carbide Corp. during the Bhopal disaster, had died, all national newspapers unanimously held the Indian government responsible for failing to punish him.

Interestingly, The Times of India (TOI), which called Anderson “Bhopal’s tormentor" in death, had carried an editorial soon after the gas leak, describing his arrest as a case of “Inexcusable Bungling". The edit blamed what it called Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh’s “election gimmick" for “sullying" the nation’s image internationally. As Anderson flew out from Bhopal to Delhi and then to the US, the English media remained silent.

By contrast again, Navbharat Times, the same media house’s Hindi newspaper, ran an editorial piece comparing the Bhopal accident to the Vietnam war and asked, “Should the company and the government, under whose watch our skies have turned poisonous, be treated the same way as war criminals? Tomorrow, due to some negligence, if an atom bomb explodes in America, will the matter be put to rest with the arrest of the lowest rung of administrators?"

The English media obediently repeated the company’s claims about not compromising on safety standards (Hindustan Times, 4 December) and reports on “human failure" (The Hindu, 5 December). Barring the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s publication Organiser, which questioned the government’s policies, the majority of the English-language media covered Bhopal with a myopic lens, repeating graphic images and eventually dropping the story altogether.

Through the month, the general election of December 1984 was the main focus of newspapers, with Bhopal remaining an event-centred news. In the English media, the events unfolding in Bhopal were consistently represented as an “unfortunate accident" caused due to the leak of a “killer gas" in a society known for its “departures from the strictly laid down rules of an industrial society". (TOI, 4-7 December)

This was the English media narrative: the casualties were accidental, the technology was well-intended and any argument against it was portrayed as being at the cost of progress.

Repeated ad nauseam, this fostered a public opinion which the judiciary, government and Union Carbide could exploit to actively deny fundamental human rights when it came to compensation, access to best medical aid, decontaminated environment, safe drinking water and a fair chance of rehabilitation. Truth is, while the Hindi media was asking the tough questions, the English media was being pliant stenographers.

Thirty years on, what is clear is that the media failed the Bhopal victims just as much as the judiciary and the government.

While Bhopal has been a study in failures in emergency management, government response and media narrative, the most tragic aspect is that India has still not grasped the enormity or relevance of industrial pollution.

In Patancheru on the outskirts of Hyderabad, toxic effluents are directly discharged into the surrounding fields and water bodies. In Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, local residents are exposed to poisonous gases after regulators allowed chemical industries that use poorly maintained plants to manufacture pesticides, pharmaceuticals and bulk chemicals.

According to a report by the Energy and Resources Institute released last year, as of February 2009, more than six million tonnes of hazardous waste was reported in India; Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra were the top three contributors.

Whether we realize it or not, we all live in Bhopal.

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