This week at Media Voices, we have the trailer for Bhopali, Max Carlson’s new documentary on the ongoing aftermath of the most horrific industrial accident of all time. We also have an interview with Max. Bhopali is about the efforts of the survivors to get Union Carbide, the company that bought its assets, Dow Chemical, and the Indian government to clean up the factory where a gas leak killed many thousands of people in the night between December 2nd and 3rd 1984. Twenty-seven years on, the number of people dying as a result of the accident is still rising. Current estimates put the death toll at 25,000.
How can this be? The answer to this question is the subject of Max Carlson’s excellent and harrowing documentary. MIC gas (methyl isocyanate) – 27 tons of it, as it turns out – escaped from the factory that night and blanketed whole neighborhoods of Bhopal. None of the safety systems worked, having fallen victim to cost-cutting measures. The carnage was almost unimaginable. It is still unclear exactly how many people died that night.
Union Carbide and the US Embassy in India briskly swung into action, trying to limit the damage. Unfortunately, the damage they were primarily concerned with was to the reputation and financial position of Union Carbide (and by extension, the United States). One of the more risible moments in the film comes when Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson gives himself a little pat on the back for flying to Bhopal after the accident. The local police chief promptly had him arrested for criminal manslaughter. Not to worry though. It didn’t take long at all for the boys at the Embassy to fix the thing and get him out on bail. And that was that. Warren Anderson absconded, and the United States has repeatedly declined to extradite him. Which demonstrates a fairly breathtaking contempt for the Indian justice system, among other things.
But what of the damage to the people of Bhopal, their neighborhoods, their water supply, you may ask?
That, it appears, was less of a priority.
Union Carbide abandoned the property, reasoning that since the land was leased from the Indian government, India might as well clean it up. Perhaps the thinking was that the Indian government might dip into the victim’s settlement negotiated behind closed doors in 1989. Want to know how much Union Carbide deemed the many thousands of dead to be worth? $470 million dollars.
There is of course, plenty of blame to go around. In a scathing article in Tehelka last June, “For a Few Pieces of Silver,” Shoma Chaudhury and Shantanu Guha Ray track the whole sorry story of how successive administrations within the Indian government have let themselves get rolled by Union Carbide and its successor company Dow Chemical in order to make India a business-friendly environment, a place where corporations have “all rights and no duties.”
Meanwhile the poisons left behind in Bhopal soaked into the ground. The land around the abandoned plant is now contaminated within a radius of three kilometers. Water from the aquifer killed 100% of fish within 24 hours, according to a secret study undertaken by Union Carbide in 1989. Did the company sound the alarm, evacuate the people living near the plant, undertake remediation? No.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, 50% of babies born to gas-exposed mothers were stillbirths. Ghastly birth defects marked a great number of the babies that lived. The continuing exposure to the deadly chemicals abandoned at the plant means that there is now a second and a third generation of children whose health and lives are wrecked by birth defects and mental and physical retardation. And the deaths continue.
The initial gas leak was an accident, and the charge of criminal manslaughter was appropriate. The silence of Union Carbide following the accident – the full knowledge that failing to warn the people living in the vicinity of the plant would surely result in many deaths – there is a word for that. It’s homicide.
See also the excellent website for Bhopal.org for more information on the accident and the work of the survivors to get the area cleaned up.
Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.