CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 9 . . . . December 22, 2006
In 1982, journalist Raajkumar Keswani wrote in the local paper that the Union Carbide plant in his home town of Bhopal, India, could release toxic gases which would result in a disaster. He warned that safety standards were not being met. As his warnings were ignored, he hoped that his predictions would be wrong.
On 3 December 1984, at 12:30 a.m., for reasons still unknown, a toxic gas cloud enveloped the area around the Union Carbide plant and killed thousands immediately and then continued to kill thousands more over time. As the gas attacked the respiratory system, most of the initial victims were children and the elderly. Years later, people are still being afflicted as the next generation is born with high incidences of birth defects.
The first part of Bhopal: the Search for Justice shows the aftermath of the accident. Graphic shots of people with burned eyes and skin along with those struggling for breath and the burial of children show how horrific this must have been. Interviews with survivors are heart-breaking. The film does not dwell on this aspect of the story.
Bhopal is not so much about what led up to the accident, as that is still being debated. The Union Carbide officials said it was sabotage, although no proof of this has come forward. The Indian government signed a deal for compensation with Union Carbide and would just as soon move on. Bhopal focuses on the years after the accident and the work of many who are trying to find out exactly what came out of the tank of escaped gas.
Keswani was at the scene of the gas leak and has taken upon himself the mission of getting fair compensation for the victims. However, until those afflicted know exactly what kind of poison gas attacked them, the issue of compensation cannot be truly addressed.
As the subtitle suggests, this film is about the search for justice, and it shows what a global search this has become. While emotional about this disaster, Keswani knows that without scientific proof, nothing will get done. The government has suppressed information, the site has never been cleaned up, toxic chemicals are leaching into the environment and poisoning the water system. Children are being born with birth defects even though their own parents were still in the womb when the disaster struck. Clearly, the full impact of the gas leak continues today; however, anecdotal evidence needs the support of science.
Some in the film see the Bhopal disaster as an act of terrorism by a multinational company and their anger is evident. Union Carbide distanced itself from Bhopal after the gas leak, and since then, the company has been taken over by Dow Chemical. While Dow is sympathetic, it has not made any moves to provide compensation to the survivors.
The Indian government claims that 3,000 people were killed. Local doctors state that they treated 170,000 patients of whom 2,500 died immediately and as many as 10,000 died in the first month after the leak. Since the nature of the gas has never been identified, any antidote or cure is impossible to develop. What is known is that 22 toxic compounds were held in the vat that leaked. Years later, severe abnormalities appear in fetal development. Keswani believes that the people have the right to know what it is that has afflicted them and how they can receive the appropriate treatment.
Bhopal's cause has been embraced by a number of scientists, reporters and politicians around the world. Keswani travels to meet with some of them. One is working on replicating the gas leak in a controlled environment. As this will cost two million dollars, he is hoping for support from the American Homeland Security which is worried about a terrorist attack on chemical plants on American soil. Another has connected birth defects with the gas and is able to show that the devastation has moved to a genetic level. Others are questioning the practice of multinational companies which establish chemical plants in other countries and follow few, if any, of the environmental laws required in their home country.
Overall, there is a sense of hope at the end of the film that the people of Bhopal are not simply accepting this disaster as something impossible to fight. Children at the end of the film display a determination to continue their parents' fight.
Bhopal: The Search for Justice is a disturbing film on many levels. The disregard for human life on the part of Union Carbide is clear. The seeming collusion of the Indian government is also evident. This film does not attempt to be balanced. The Union Carbide officials, when presented, do nothing to plead their cause - especially the company doctor who, during the gas leak, suggested holding a wet cloth over the mouth as protection. Keswani shows the ability of individuals up against a huge power and that there is strength and hope in unity.
This film could be shown in Business class, especially if the students are looking at globalization, as well as Ethics, Law, Civics, Geography. There is still a long way to go for the people of Bhopal, but even after twenty years, they refuse to be silenced.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.