Kailash Pawar killed himself on March 24, 1989. Choosing to die by fire, he left a statement that he was immolating himself to remind a forgetful world of the continuing suffering of gas victims in Bhopal. It was a month after the ‘settlement’ with Union Carbide.
Kailash Pawar, in his early twenties, was one of the thousands living around the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, who were caught unawares by the lethal gas that spread around them on the night of December 2-3, 1984.
The silence from Union Carbide about the source and nature of the leak was so total that Kailash’s mother Jiyabai, thought it was tear gas, fired by the police to quell a riot somewhere in the city. Afraid for her son, she closed the door and sat outside, to stop him going out and anyone else coming in. The gas, however, entered through cracks and crevices in the flimsy structure. Kailash’s wife found her eyes burning intensely, he felt breathless and unwell. Opening the door, he found his mother unconscious on the doorstep. On his way to get help, Kailash fainted. He came to consciousness hours later, to find himself on a truck among a pile of dead bodies being driven to a mass pyre. The dead had bulging eyes, swollen faces, twisted limbs and sunken heads. For years they would come to him in nightmares. By then he wished he had burned.
His mother died the same day. Embittered by her loss, his father, totally disabled and unable to breathe without coughing, shut himself away and became a recluse.
Kailash Pawar was the victim first of MIC, then of the lack of knowledge about MIC (compounded by Carbide’s withholding of what knowledge it did have) and then of society’s failure to meet the needs of the victims of the world’s biggest industrial disaster. Overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of gas victims, doctors in Bhopal had to find cures for something they knew nothing about: the systemic devastation caused by MIC.
Like so many others, a series of treatments were tried out on Kailash Pawar. He was regarded initially as a star witness to the efficacy of sodium thiosulphate, because he showed an improvement after the injections. But it was short-lived. There were a series of hospitalisations, and frequent bouts of acute illness, mostly relating to his burnt-out lungs. In his interviews we hear the same notes of pain and helplessness over and over again.
‘My body is the support of my life. When my breathing is normal I feel like living. But when it becomes heavy, the thinking stops and absolute pain takes over. . . When my breathing becomes worse in winter, I take up to six injections a day. I have become worthless.’
His mother had lost her life trying unsuccessfully to save his. For what? His sense of worthlessness and his knowledge that his pain placed a strain on his wife preyed upon him. ‘My wife inspires me to live,’ he said. ‘She too must be tiring of me sometimes. But I am helpless.’
Many victims make up this one being: the man with the burnt-out lungs; the man for whom no treatment worked; the man who himself could no longer work; the man who was a burden on his family; the man for whom his mother lost her life; whose hopes were constantly raised and dashed. Redress is surely due on each of these counts.
Kailash’s wife: how many victims are in her person? She had to find a job to feed the family. The only work she could get was sewing, at Rs. 200 a month. With her MIC-injured eyes, sewing must have been agony. The gas leak imposed a triple burden on her. Her domestic housework doubled as she was the only woman left in the family; she had to earn; she had to nurse her husband and give him the will to live; she lived with the dreadful worry that even the subsistence needs of her children could not be met; and after her husband’s death, with the bitter knowledge that she had not been able to save him from the fiery pyre which had haunted his nightmares, and was his destiny.
Adapted from an article in The Hindu, March 26, 1990