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    « The Pope, The Condoms, HIV & Rise Of Catholicism In Africa | Main | The Korean Peninsula: Aftermath Of The 'Sunshine Policy' »

    'Five Past Midnight In Bhopal': By Dominique Lapierre & Javiar Moro

    Next week December 3rd will mark the 26th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy - the worst industrial accident in the history of the world. On that fateful night in 1984, in Bhopal, India the Union Carbide factory leaked forty tons of deadly methyl isocynate (MIC) to it's unsuspecting half a million residents. The accident killed tens of thousands of innocent people and has devastated hundreds of thousands more. I have already written about the Bhopal gas tragedy and also about Dow Chemical's shameful track record (Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001). 

    French writer and journalist, Dominique Lapierre is widely known for his earlier book 'City of Joy' (based on the slums of Kolkatta); which was later made into a movie by the same title. He is intimately familiar with India, especially the parts of India that even many Indians would rather not acknowledge or have to deal with.

    Half of the royalties from his book sales go towards his City of Joy Foundation, that provides help in the form of medical care, education, basic necessities (like clean drinking water), to some of the poorest Indians. When he first visited Bhopal (after the gas tragedy), he was shocked by what he saw. He said, "What I found there gave me what was probably one of the strongest shocks of my life". 

    'Five Past Midnight In Bhopal: The Epic Story Of The World's Deadliest Industrial Disaster', by Dominique Lapierre and (Spanish writer) Javiar Moro published by Warner Books is a 396 pages long monumental literary work on the Bhopal gas tragedy. The title refers to the time when the MIC gas started leaking from the Union Carbide plant on the night of December 3, 1984. This review refers to the English translation by Kathryn Spink of the original work published in French ("Il était minuit cinq à Bhopal"). The book is available as hard cover, paperback and also as an e-book. 

    The authors begin by tracing the history of the beautiful city of Bhopal (frequently called the 'City of Begums' in the book), of the Union Carbide company and it's poor victims, mostly slum dwellers who unfortunately and unknowingly lived too close to the Carbide plant for their own safety. The book is masterfully written, and reads very much like a great fiction despite it being based on reality. It builds the tempo slowly, as it acquaints us intimately with the people who unbeknownst to them, are about to be mercilessly gassed.

    Readers know the end already and yet despite of it - or may be because of it - as we get to know these poor people's small, finite joys and innumerable sorrows and hardships - how they rejoiced when Union Carbide first came in the area and announced the new factory, how hopeful they were that they'll get to work for a sahib (an American boss) and earn rupees 20 (less than few cents) per day (which was beyond the wildest dreams of those people who frequently went to bed hungry) - it is absolutely, unequivocally heart breaking and devastating. Page after page, we witness helplessly as the tragic history unfolds. 

    Here is a moving excerpt from the book. What is described here is a harrowing scene on that ominous night in Bhopal's slums, just minutes after the MIC started leaking. It was the beginning of the end:

    "The vapors that reached the areas closest to the factory poisoned at random along the way, but the smell of boiled cabbage, freshly cut grass and ammonia covered the entire area in a matter of seconds. No sooner had Belram Mukkadam spotted the cloud, than he felt its effects. Realizing that death was about to strike, he yelled, "Bachao! Bachao! Get out of here!"...

    For Bablubhai, it was already too late...Bablubhai bent over to grab his child. A gust of vapor caught him there. It paralyzed the dairyman's breathing instantaneously and he was struck down in a faint over the body of his lifeless baby...Awakened with a start by all the yelling and shouting, those who had been asleep rushed panic-stricken out of their huts...From out of all the alleyways came small carts laden with old people and children. Very soon, however, the men pulling them suffocated and collapsed. Unable to get back on their feet, they lay sprawled in their own vomit...

    In the fetid, stinking darkness people called for their spouses, children or parents. For those blinded by the gas, shouting a name became the only way of making contact with their loved ones again. Time and again Padmini's name resounded through the night...She, too, was almost blind. Carried along by the human torrent, with her bells jangling around her ankles, coughing blood, Padmini did not hear the voices calling out to her.

    And soon the calling stopped; people's throats had constricted from the gas and no one could utter a sound. In an effort to relieve the dreadful pains in their chests, people were squeezing their thorax with all their strength. Stricken with pulmonary edema, many of them coughed up a frothy liquid streaked with blood. Some of the worst affected spewed up reddish streams. With their eyes bulging out of their heads, their nasal membranes perforated, their ears whistling and their cyanotic faces dripping sweat, most of them collapsed after a few paces. Others, overcome with heart palpitations, dizziness and unconsciousness fell right there in the doorways of the huts they had tried to leave. Yet others suddenly turned violet and coughed dreadfully. The sound of coughing resounded through the night in sinister harmony."

    Streets of Bhopal were littered with thousands of corpses and animal carcasses within just a few hours after the gas leak. Many corpses were seen floating adrift on the nearby Narmada river, eventually eaten by crocodiles. Even today almost twenty six years later, people in Bhopal are still paying the price for this industrial catastrophe, while Dow Chemicals has shrugged off all responsibility. Union Carbide left behind 390 tons of toxic chemicals, which over the years have slowly but surely leaked into the soil and the water supply. Studies have shown levels of mercury in places around the abandoned Union Carbide plant, to be 6,000,000 times higher than the norm. The Times of India reported last December that, more than two and a half decades later, on an average, 6,000 gas victims in Bhopal still visit hospitals daily seeking medical care, (that's about 2 million hospital visits per year). The nightmare of MIC is not yet over, not even by a long shot.  

    The Indian government was a 22% stakeholder in the Union Carbide company at the time of the accident and has not done nearly enough to address the victims' concerns and needs. For years leading up to the accident, the Indian government ignored repeated warnings given by many people (including Carbide's own employees) about blatant violations of safety standards at the Carbide plant. Since the accident, New Delhi and the chemical giant, have pretty much played 'pass the buck' game, with each trying to hold the other accountable.

    In 1989 when the Indian government reached a settlement with Union Carbide behind closed doors, on it's own without any representation from the Bhopal victims, for a paltry sum of $470 million in exchange for Union Carbide accepting  only 'moral responsibility' for the MIC leak, it essentially sold out the Bhopal victims. According to some experts, had the company been forced to compensate the Bhopal victims at the same rate that the asbestos victims in the US had been paid, then the damages would have exceeded $10 billion. The fact that not all of the $470 million (supposedly held in a special account by the Indian government) ever even reached the actual victims in Bhopal is even more appalling. 

    While the people of Bhopal are still drinking poisonous water, and inhaling toxic air, the Indian government continues to do business with Dow Chemicals. Dow India employs more than 1,100 people in India. Dow Chemicals has just last month announced it's third quarter earnings for this year, in which it proudly declares generating cash flow of $1 billion. 

    It is deeply saddening to see the Indian government have the funds (to the tune of several hundred million dollars) to stage the pageantry of the Commonwealth Games but it can't be bothered to take better care of the Bhopal victims and it won't hold Dow's feet to fire, for fear of missing out on 'economic growth'. Victims of Bhopal gas tragedy, who continue to battle with cancers, birth defects, blindness, mental trauma, neurological, endocrine and respiratory illnesses on a daily basis, have unfortunately become an anachronism in their own country. The rest of the country has moved on with the new found economic prosperity, with other - apparently more pressing and interesting - matters on it's agenda, while for many of them, their clocks have stopped at five past midnight, December 3, 1984. 

    ~ Gauri

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