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The Times

Books: Time to call a corporate criminal to account   April 10, 2002

Five Past Midnight in Bhopal
. By Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro. Scribner, £17.99; 402 pp. ISBN 0 7432 203 4X

It is commonplace to describe the Bhopal disaster as a tragedy. It is less usual to call it a crime. But, as the authors of Five Past Midnight in Bhophal establish beyond reasonable doubt, a US conglomerate called Union Carbide, in a conspiracy of greed and neglect, caused the death in agony of up to 30,000 people in the space of a few hours and the maiming of scores of thousands more, many of whom still suffer dreadfully but who survive now without hope of redress. Indeed, no one has yet been called to account for a horror that — in 1984 — momentarily shocked the world.

The bare facts of what happened are straightforward, though the lessons are of transcending significance. In 1980, Union Carbide, under licence from the Indian Government, opened a chemical plant in Bhopal to produce a novel insecticide, Sevin, which they promised would open a new era of progress for India’s poverty-stricken farmers. Unhappily — though Union Carbide was at pains to conceal the fact — Sevin contained a volatile chemical, methyl isocyanate, which was lethal to humans.

Against the persistent advice of its most qualified engineer, Union Carbide insisted on placing the fertiliser plant in the crowded heart of the poorest part of a poor city in one of India’s poorest states, Madra Pradesh. But far from asking what might happen if something went wrong, Bhopal rejoiced at the arrival of a saviour in the form of this great American company: the plant would mean jobs and unimaginable prosperity. “To work for Carbide,” one Indian employee said later, “was to belong to a caste apart. We were known as the “lords’.”

But there weren’t many jobs and they didn’t last long. By 1983, a drought meant that India’s peasant farmers could not afford to buy the new insecticide. Demand for Sevin crashed. Back at company headquarters in Charlottesville, the Union Carbide bosses ordered that their faraway Bhopal plant be put on a “care and maintenance” status. To this end, they also ordered that the principal safety systems used to monitor the temperature of the tanks which contained MIC should be switched off. This was a fatal and, in the light of all known evidence, criminal decision.

The impeding disaster was not without prophets. An enterprising local journalist, basing his information on private conversations with despairing scientists and engineers from the plant, repeatedly raised the alarm with articles under headlines like “Bhopal On The Brink Of Disaster”. He was ignored, not only by Union Carbide but also by the local political leadership, which had invested much vote-winning capital in the plant. There was no excuse for what was to happen.

Five minutes after midnight on December 3, 1984, one of the MIC tanks exploded. Within moments, a green fog of stinking, lethal gas was drifting through the crowded bustees and Bhopal had become a charnel house of dead and dying humanity.

Dominique Lapierre and his co-author Javier Moro (in a fluent translation from the French by Kathryn Spink) write without hyperbole but with a compassion which is all the stronger for being understated. Five Past Midnight in Bhopal is peopled by heroes and villains, whose lives are woven into the fabric of a book which switches frequently and tellingly from a technical but gripping analysis of a mega-disaster to a vivid and informed portrait of day-to-day life in the bustees. In the best traditions of what has become an almost defunct form of journalism, the evidence is meticulously sifted and assembled in a narrative which is detached but profoundly disturbing.

And there are lessons: all those apologists for global capitalism who argue that “a light regulatory touch” is all that is required to ensure universal prosperity and justice should be forced to read this book from start to finish. Unless they are like the guilty and evidently shameless men who ran Union Carbide (which has long since been gobbled up by an even bigger predator) they will emerge from the experience chastened.

I hope so. Otherwise, the next avoidable Bhopal will provide the excuse sought by extremists to vindicate their own hideous acts of revenge against the next symbol of “global capitalism” which they hold responsible for the ills that assail humanity on our fragmented and embittered little planet.