By Elliott, John
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4580
A rusting maze of pipes and girders still marks the site of one of the world's worst industrial disasters, which has caused the deaths of around 20,000 people in the central Indian city of Bhopal. The tank that leaked deadly methyl isocyanate at the end of 1984 stands in overgrown grass, resembling a beached antique submarine. All around, the ground contains what Greenpeace has described as "hot spots of severe contamination", caused by dumped heavy metals and organic pollutants.
This forlorn pesticides plant was once the pride of the US-based company Union Carbide - and of Bhopal, capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Employees who worked there in the 1970s and early 1980s even had a prestigious status in India's arranged marriage market. But a deadly blend of big corporation hubris and managerial incompetence led to the lethal leakage on the night of 2 December 1984. The gases swirled across the ground into nearby bustees (slums), killing Bhopal's poorest inhabitants in their sleep, burning the eyes and lungs of survivors, and causing nearly two decades of deaths, injuries and ill health.
Estimates of the number of people killed on the first night range from an official figure of 3,000 to as many as 7,000 or 8,000 (partly based on the number of kafans, or shrouds, ordered by religious organisations for wrapping the dead). Since then, at least another 10,000 to 15,000 of those affected have died.
When the bestselling French author Dominique Lapierre and I toured the site two weeks ago, we walked through piles of contaminated fibreglass insulation, broken glass and twisted rusting steelwork. In the control room, the floor was strewn with broken furniture and glass, and old, fading documents. One handwritten sheet of paper, presumably tom from an old report, bore ominous sentences such as: "The pressure drop across the softener bed was high and organics fouling is suspected... organic fouling of resin is quite possible."
Such disasters tend to fade in the world's memory as time passes; but in Bhopal, the cloud of suffering and misery persists. It has been estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people are still in bad health. Children born since 1984 are also affected, although the government refuses to accept this. Independent reports say that boys born to those who breathed in the gas are showing abnormalities such as small craniums and shorter height, while girls are inheriting their mothers' menstrual problems. The immune systems of both sexes are weakened.
The world's attention is about to be refocused on this continuing tragedy by Lapierre and his Spanish co-author, Javier Moro, who have chronicled the story in Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, to be published in Britain by Simon and Schuster on 2 April, and then in the US a month later. The book is already a bestseller in France, as well as in India.
Lapierre, who is a passionate crusader and fundraiser for causes linked to his books such as the India-based City of Joy and Freedom at Midnight, spent three years putting together the history with Moro. They have produced a partly fictionalised version of events which successfully dramatises the appalling story.
The plot starts in Orissa, in eastern India, where a poor family's fodder crop is hit by pests. The family, including Padmini, a young girl who becomes the heroine, emigrate to Bhopal to lay railway tracks. They live in a bustee alongside what is to become the Union Carbide site and greet the arrival of the Americans with glee. As these events unfold, chapters alternate between India and the US, where Union Carbide is planning its showpiece with little understanding of the market. "At the beginning it was a fairy tale to give efficient pesticides to Indian farmers that would use the high technology of the west to kill pests that were attacking their crops," says Lapierre. "But within seven years it had become a Titanic."
US construction and safety standards are not applied in full. …