Lalit Shastri: Author of Bhopal Disaster-An eyewitness Account

Newsroom24x7 Desk

Lalit Shastri (R) being honoured by The Hindu
Lalit Shastri (R) at the Service Recognition Award Ceremony organised by The Hindu

Lalit Shastri left a corporate job and spent more than a year studying the causes that led to the poisonous gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal in December 1984.

Lalit’s findings, based on primary sources, were published in a book form in 1986. Lalit investigated the causes leading to the Bhopal gas disaster, moving from ground zero to the city hospitals from December 3, 1984 onward and travelling all the way to Institute in West Virginia, USA to compare and see first hand the difference in the level of safety provided in the Bhopal and the US plants. He also did exclusive research at the level of WHO and ILO in Geneva–a process that stretched for more than a year.

President Zail Singh released the book "Bhopal Disaster-An eyewitness account"
President Zail Singh released the book “Bhopal Disaster-An eyewitness account”

Lalit’s book “Bhopal Disaster-An eyewitness account” was launched by the then president Giani Zail Singh at Rashtrapati Bhawan in 1986. It has been listed in the U.S. Library of Congress catalogue and is a reference volume in libraries across several international Law Schools. Shortly after his book was released, Lalit became a full time journalist with The Hindu, India’s leading newspaper.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) is a non-governmental organisation devoted to promoting the understanding and observance of the rule of law and the legal protection of human rights throughout the world. It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and has many national sections and affiliated organisations. It enjoys consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the African Union. The ICJ maintains cooperative relations with various bodies of the Organization of American States.
The 1984 Bhopal gas disaster involving Union Carbide provoked a marked shift in perceptions concerning the conduct of corporations in India, leading to the enactment of stricter laws, emergence of new legal principles through the judiciary and development of enforcement mechanisms. This ICJ has underscored and brought in public domain a crucial pointer by Lalit in his book on Bhopal disaster.

Lalit with the desolate parents of a little child that lay unconscious in a hospital after the poisonous gas leak (Dec. 1984)
Lalit is seen with the desolate parents of a little child that lay unconscious in a hospital after the poisonous gas leak (Dec. 1984)

When Lalit was conducting investigation and ground level survey for his book on Bhopal gas disaster, two leading members of a Swiss charity organisation (Sentinelles), including it’s founder Edmond Kaiser, met him in Bhopal (October 1985). During a meeting at their headquarters at Lousanne, a few days later, they offered him $2 million to organise a relief initiative for the Bhopal gas victims. Edmond Kaiser even tried to convince Lalit to drop the idea of writing a book on the gas disaster. Lalit did not pay heed and went to the US to investigate various aspects linked with the gas tragedy. While in the US, he learnt from a brochure passed on by a US attorney (Gerald j Williams, Attorney at Law with Slap, Williams and Cuker) when he met him in his chamber – Suite 960 – One Franklin Plaza, Philadelphia, PA 19102 in the fag end of 1985, that the huge sum of money he had been offered was actually  given to Sentinelles by the US multinational Union Carbide Corporation. This was quite an eye-opener and before returning to India Lalit made it a point to meet the Sentinelles’ attorney in Geneva, where he returned the air passage paid to him earlier by Sentinelles at Lousanne. Lalit took this step as he did not want to touch a single dollar linked to Union Carbide especially since he wanted the US multinational to be tried for mass homicide.

This letter by the then Secretary General Indian Red Cross Ajit Bhowmick to the Chairman Madhya Pradesh Red Cross Brig. K.P. Pandey, MVC, reflects the prevailing state of affairs vis-a-vis the media and the Medical Relief Gas Victims’ Project when Lalit took over the Red Cross assignment.

During 1987-1988, while serving the Indian Red Cross Society as Public Relations Officer for the Medical Relief Gas Victims Project especially launched for more than 100,000 victims of the Union Carbide gas disaster, Lalit had played a leading role in maintaining transparency and a robust dialogue with the media, including international television News channels. The job also involved one-on-one interaction with top American Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) functionaries as well as Government of India and State government officials. Lalit helped in building the image of the Red Cross project for the victims of Bhopal disaster and this paved the way for continuous flow of funds including the second installment of US $ 5 million from American Red Cross for the special hospitals built for extending medical relief to the gas victims. This became possible especially after a CBS 60 minute hour long episode, the most-watched television news magazine in the US, gave full marks to the Red Cross efforts for the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, especially the Red Cross hospital facilities inaugurated by then President of India R. Venkataraman. This programme was based on an on-the-spot coverage by a CBS team that included the legendary award-winning American journalist, Ed Bradley, famous for his work on the CBS News television program 60 Minutes. Others in his team were Barry Lando, Canada, and Ms. Harris, USA.  A lot of credit for the positive coverage should go to Lalit, who was engaged in a prolonged session with the CBS team leader who had a marathon sitting exchanging notes with Lalit before his departure from Bhopal, India. When the CBS team had finished interviewing the Red Cross bosses, including the State Governor and Chairman Madhya Pradesh Red Cross unit, the doctors at the medical facilities and also the gas victims and he was in the process of packing up for the day, Lalit had introduced himself as a Public Relations Officer with Indian Red Cross Medical Relief Gas Victims’ Project and sought an appointment with the team leader later that evening. His response was a “big No” but when he was told by Lalit that he had authored a book on the gas disaster that had been released in 1986 by the then President of India, the meeting did take place at Jehan Numa Palace Hotel and it went on till the wee hours of the morning. The rest, vis-a-vis the Red Cross Medical Relief Gas Victims’ Project, is history………..