Bhopal refuses to flip the page

After more than 17 years, thousands of Indians still suffer from the lethal gases that leaked from a

A rusting maze of pipes and girders still marks the site of one of the world's worst industrial disasters, which has caused the deaths of around 20,000 people in the central Indian city of Bhopal. The tank that leaked deadly methyl isocyanate at the end of 1984 stands in overgrown grass, resembling a beached antique submarine. All around, the ground contains what Greenpeace has described as "hot spots of severe contamination", caused by dumped heavy metals and organic pollutants.

This forlorn pesticides plant was once the pride of the US-based company Union Carbide - and of Bhopal, capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Employees who worked there in the 1970s and early 1980s even had a prestigious status in India's arranged marriage market. But a deadly blend of big corporation hubris and managerial incompetence led to the lethal leakage on the night of 2 December 1984. The gases swirled across the ground into nearby bustees (slums), killing Bhopal's poorest inhabitants in their sleep, burning the eyes and lungs of survivors, and causing nearly two decades of deaths, injuries and ill health.

Estimates of the number of people killed on the first night range from an official figure of 3,000 to as many as 7,000 or 8,000 (partly based on the number of kafans, or shrouds, ordered by religious organisations for wrapping the dead). Since then, at least another 10,000 to 15,000 of those affected have died.

When the bestselling French author Dominique Lapierre and I toured the site two weeks ago, we walked through piles of contaminated fibreglass insulation, broken glass and twisted rusting steelwork. In the control room, the floor was strewn with broken furniture and glass, and old, fading documents. One handwritten sheet of paper, presumably torn from an old report, bore ominous sentences such as: "The pressure drop across the softener bed was high and organics fouling is suspected . . . organic fouling of resin is quite possible."

Such disasters tend to fade in the world's memory as time passes; but in Bhopal, the cloud of suffering and misery persists. It has been estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people are still in bad health. Children born since 1984 are also affected, although the government refuses to accept this. Independent reports say that boys born to those who breathed in the gas are showing abnormalities such as small craniums and shorter height, while girls are inheriting their mothers' menstrual problems. The immune systems of both sexes are weakened.

The world's attention is about to be refocused on this continuing tragedy by Lapierre and his Spanish co-author, Javier Moro, who have chronicled the story in Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, to be published in Britain by Simon and Schuster on 2 April, and then in the US a month later. The book is already a bestseller in France, as well as in India.

Lapierre, who is a passionate crusader and fundraiser for causes linked to his books such as the India-based City of Joy and Freedom at Midnight, spent three years putting together the history with Moro. They have produced a partly fictionalised version of events which successfully dramatises the appalling story.

The plot starts in Orissa, in eastern India, where a poor family's fodder crop is hit by pests. The family, including Padmini, a young girl who becomes the heroine, emigrate to Bhopal to lay railway tracks. They live in a bustee alongside what is to become the Union Carbide site and greet the arrival of the Americans with glee. As these events unfold, chapters alternate between India and the US, where Union Carbide is planning its showpiece with little understanding of the market. "At the beginning it was a fairy tale to give efficient pesticides to Indian farmers that would use the high technology of the west to kill pests that were attacking their crops," says Lapierre. "But within seven years it had become a Titanic."

US construction and safety standards are not applied in full. An operator is killed by a phosgene gas leak in 1981, just two years after the plant starts full operations. The following year, nearly 39 workers are injured by another leak. A safety audit in 1982 warns of around 60 safety hazards, half of them major and 11 dangerous - but no action is taken. Demand drops for Union Carbide's Sevin fertiliser, produced at the plant. Experienced senior managers are moved out, costs are cut and safety precautions reduced. By early 1984, the plant is losing millions of dollars, and Union Carbide decides to sell and get out. But before it can do so, a chemical reaction starts during a long-delayed cleaning operation and causes the lethal leak - on the night of Padmini's marriage.

There, the main part of the tale ends, with only a 14-page epilogue to cover the failings and miseries of the past 17-plus years and the current unsolved problems. That has led to some criticisms in Bhopal, where people are inevitably more concerned about sufferings after 1984 than about what happened before.

The book is a warning of what can happen when a powerful and respected multinational corporation runs out of control and its local management fails to maintain safety standards. The pressure generated by international interest in the book - and a possible subsequent film - might kick the lethargic Indian government into action over both the toxic site and the plight of those affected by the disaster.

Little has happened since US courts passed claims for compensation back to India in the mid-1980s. Presumably bowing to US pressure, the Indian government failed to pursue Union Carbide through the courts - and instead struck a cosy deal in 1992 on the company's criminal and civil liabilities. That produced just $475m compensation for the victims, who have so far received an average of £400 each. An Indian warrant for the arrest of Warren Anderson - the US-based chairman of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster - has not been pursued with extradition proceedings, and there has been no attempt to prosecute senior and middle managers responsible for the collapse of the plant's safety precautions and standards.

The plant itself is a blot on the landscape, wrecked partly by the passage of time and weather, and partly by vandals. It is sealed by India's legal authorities to all but a few visitors. A growing problem is that the surrounding area and water supplies are being contaminated by discarded chemicals which are sinking deeper into the earth, but so far it has not even been decided who should clean up this toxic waste.

Union Carbide apparently left chemicals and by-products in drums on the site, instead of using secure landfills, and there are at least 40 tonnes of tar residues and 60 tonnes of pesticides waiting to be cleared. A Greenpeace International report three years ago said that there was "severe contamination of land and drinking water supplies with heavy metals and persistent organic contaminants", both inside the site and in surrounding areas. Yet the government has only just started to build a piped water system to supply nearby bustees.

Estimates of the number of people still suffering ill health because of the disaster vary from a government figure of 40,000-60,000 regular medical patients to 150,000-200,000, according to Abdul Jabbar, the leader of one of the victims' main pressure groups. People complain of chest pains, numbness and stiffening of limbs, lack of appetite, brain damage and psychiatric problems, in addition to the menstrual disorders and birth defects.

Union Carbide persistently refused to hand over information about the composition of the leaked gas, claiming that it was a trade secret - a stance maintained by Dow Chemicals, which has taken over the company. The Indian government suddenly cancelled an inquiry into the health risks in the mid-1990s, without any explanation. Doctors have consequently been unable to prescribe specific remedies, and independent reports have suggested that many prescribed drugs are doing more harm than good.

Lapierre, who is donating half the proceeds of his book to Bhopal charities, thinks the site should be kept intact as a memorial and a warning to other chemical companies not to repeat Union Carbide's mistakes. The state government talked once about building an amusement park, but is now thinking of building a memorial site like those at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, with one part of the plant maintained as a symbol, plus a museum, disaster training institute and children's centre.

That, however, is a long way off, and the people need to be helped first. Lapierre says that when he first met Digvijay Singh, Madhya Pradesh's chief minister, he was told: "We would like to flip the page on this tragedy." Singh and others in Bhopal want their ancient city to be known for its successes, its Islamic architecture and the gentle sloping hills that surround a vast lake - not for the gas leak. But it is government inaction that is preventing the page from being "flipped". Sathyu Sarangi, who runs the Sambhavna clinic that Lapierre supports, says: "If the gas had swept through a well-off area instead of the bustees, this would all have been different, but these people are regarded by the government as expendable."