- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

Dominique Lapierre, co-author of a book on Bhopal, a city in India and the site of the world's deadliest industrial disaster, still finds the magnitude of the 1984 explosion at an American pesticide plant there unbelievable.

"There's no doubt that it is an incredible chapter in human history. Do you realize that at least five times as many people died at Bhopal as did in the World Trade Center catastrophe of September 11?" he asked in a recent telephone interview with The Washington Times.

"Yet no one has been convicted for the destruction of human life in India's largest state."

Warren Anderson, the last chairman of the now-defunct Union Carbide Corp., which ran the plant, dropped out of public view after India issued a warrant for his arrest.

Mr. Lapierre was in Washington this month, one of his stops on a U.S. tour to promote the work, "Five Past Midnight in Bhopal," co-authored by Spanish writer Javier Moro.

The destruction in Bhopal has yet to be definitively quantified, but estimates of the number of people killed range from 16,000 to 30,000.

"It happened in the dead of night, and the deaths were spread out over time," Mr. Lapierre said.

The book, published this month by Warner Books Inc., is a translation of the original French work published last year. It is based on "hundreds of eyewitness accounts" and as many characters, woven together in classic docudrama style.

It has sold a million copies in Europe, with half the proceeds going to aid the victims. Mr. Lapierre also has set up a gynecology clinic in the town, because the tragedy "struck particularly hard at women."

The work carries a drumbeat of highs and lows as it moves toward its climax. The cadence of impending tragedy reminds one of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," which depicts how the serenity of a family in the western Kansas wheat fields came apart the night two men bent on crime fired "four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives."

The Union Carbide story opens in a village in Orissa state on India's east coast, 59 hours by train from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh state, which is roughly in the center of the country.

There lives the landless family of Ratna Nadar, whose Adivasi tribal roots date thousands of years to a time before the Aryans invaded India.

In that village, the authors tell us, the family lives through the predictable tragedies that befall people who live on the edge of an economic precipice.

They lose a preteen son in an accident at a cigarette-and-match factory. They are "compensated" by officials with a cow to produce milk for their nourishment, which it cannot do because the feed for its sustenance is destroyed by field insects, causing it to waste away.

The threat to crop production turns out, in this instance, to be a chilling harbinger.

Suddenly, the Nadars are recruited to work in Bhopal on expanding the railroad station there a seemingly heaven-sent opportunity to escape poverty. They readily agree.

At this juncture, the authors cut away, movielike, to the rise of the chemical industry in the United States and the spectacular growth of Union Carbide. When the insecticide DDT was outlawed for agriculture, the company set up a research lab that created a substitute Sevin the pesticide that caused the loss of human lives in Bhopal.

Back in Bhopal, the Nadar family settles in a neighborhood a ghetto, really populated by immigrants from Orissa. Oriya Bustee, as it's called, is a place where people speak Oriya, one of the languages of Orissa.

Enter the Union Carbide's pesticide plant.

The company is introduced to India's rulers and its rural population as an exercise in idealism. U.S. technology would provide prosperity to the Third World, while pesticide sales raise corporate profits.

The Indian villagers are initially thrilled, as is the Indian government, by the prospect of up-to-date technology aiding low-yield village agriculture.

But when drought, a frequent scourge of India, reduces villagers' plantings and, as a result, their pesticide purchases, Union Carbide decides to pull out. It puts everything on hold, including plant maintenance, to cut costs.

Tragedy comes to Bhopal without warning, at five minutes past midnight, on Dec. 3, 1984.

An explosion spews a cloud of the toxic methyl-isocyanate gas, used to produce Sevin, from the plant, and poisons the city and its inhabitants.

"Eighteen years later, the ruined factory still stands, the groundwater is contaminated and some 150,000 survivors are plagued with cancer, birth defects, breathing difficulties, immune disorders, and cannot work or feed their families," the authors write.

"Yet, through sleight of hand and an out-of-court settlement, the people of Bhopal get little in the way of help," said Mr. Lapierre.

The book seeks to remedy that in two ways.

"Half the proceeds from the book are going to the victims of this disaster," Mr. Lapierre said in the interview.

The second, and larger, hope is that it will teach governments to resist corporate arguments that the need to cut costs justifies less government regulation and reduced spending on safety.

"This theme goes to the heart of what happened at Bhopal." Mr. Lapierre said.

Union Carbide was acquired by Dow Chemical Co. in a merger completed last year.

In the United States, the Bhopal disaster prompted legislation that requires companies operating here to disclose hazardous-material leaks. In 1986, Congress passed an Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which set up a checklist of hazardous chemicals and required industries to disclose how much of each chemical listed they were releasing into the environment.

Since September 11, however, U.S. agencies are attempting to suppress this information lest it fall into the hands of terrorists, the Wall Street Journal said in a May 30 front-page article on publicizing chemical risks.

Among the agencies seeking to cancel these safeguards are the Justice Department, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.


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