Monday, September 05, 2011

Lessons From Bhopal

A sobering read was picked out for the afternoon- Indra Sinha's 'Animal's People'. (Click here for Guardian's review, and New York Times' comments.) It's a clever commentary on the Bhopal gas tragedy on the night of 2 December, 1984, one of the worst industrial accidents in the country. The leakage into a gas cloud (methyl isocyanate) killed thousands over 2 days and causing 15,000 more to be ill for years after.

"I know right away what this is, it's the dead beneath the earth, it's their bones and ashes crying out in rage against their murderers. The dead are shrieking at me that the good earth has been defiled with blood. In thick clots, the blood lies, won't be washed away by rain. The blood cries out for justice. Once the earth has tasted blood it craves more, now the killers must be killed. This is the old and the real law, it's the price that must be paid for murder, the price demanded by the furious spirits beneath the earth. Give us justice, screams the blood. It promises years of disaster, years of illness, if I do not take revenge."

Elli Barber is the young American doctor who arrives in Khaufpur to open a free-clinic, and has to struggle to convince everyone that she isn't doing this on behalf of the Kampani whom everyone blames for the tragedy. She somehow has an ex-husband who's involved in the local hearings for the gas leak because he works for the Kampani. The book does not say that the 'Kampani' is Union Carbide. This little thread here in the subplot speaks of beliefs between 2 humans, and their fundamental differences when it comes down to the crunch. Pragmatism versus idealism; principles versus reality.

Between living, disfigurement and illness wrought by the toxins, the people aren't recognizable humans anymore. 17-year old Animal, as the protagonist, has gone on all fours, his back twisted since he was born. The events in the book are written in relation to this tragedy, as the townsfolk gather the remnants of their lives and try to move on. It's even sadder when we know that Bhopal has been struggling with the aftermath in the slow death and madness of her people.

"Once the secret was out, the deal was dead. The Kampani was saying it was the victim of terrorism, the culprit should be prosecuted and locked up for years, but the jarnaliss took a different view. They said that one stink bomb, however disgusting, could not compare to the terror the Kampani had brought on the people of Khaufpur, plus how could the Kampani bosses demand that anyone be prosecuted while they were themselves refusing to appear before Khaufpur court?"

There were also other matters pertaining the lack of training for the workers at the pesticide plant, as well as insufficient information provided to equip them with the necessary knowledge to carry out their jobs. Safety matters were also debated. In the book, the long-term implications of the gas leak are discussed, along with the Kampani's (Union Carbide) reluctance to accept responsibility and discuss compensation, and how the investigation yielded little effect of bringing those responsible to justice. Of course the politics of the era played a party in how the culprit behaves. Think Reaganomics.

26 years after the gas leak, minimal sentences were handed to 7 Union Carbide employees (1 more died in this time of a 23 year trial!!!). No key US executives were found culpable; there were no repercussions for the Chief Executive Warren Anderson who is now 90 years old. So that was 2010. (Read TIME's excellent summary.) Ironic, considering that the current US President called for the head of BP's Chief Executive after its disastrous oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico that same year of 2010.

I read by the window in the natural light. When I finally set the book down, the sun was a rosy orange hung low on the western horizon. It was time to turn on the lights to chase away the lengthening shadows. A chill ran through my bones. Isn't it so clear that across industries (albeit in different forms and shapes), the Kampani lurks real today.


Corsage@A Dollop Of Me said...

Sobering indeed :( I followed the trial off and on since I heard about Union Carbide. Still get the chills thinking about it.

imp said...

corsage: totally.

bookjunkie said...

this book haunted me as was one of those books where the character remains with you, long after. even more chilling because it's real this time.

imp said...

bookjunkie: exactly.