Human side of Bhopal gas disaster underreported

Twenty-six years later, after about 10,000 immediate deaths and 15,000 more over the next two decades, tragedies of the Bhopal disaster still haunt this city in central India.

The leak of methyl isocyanate gas from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide in Bhopal on December 3, 1984, has been termed as one of the world’s worst industrial and humanitarian disasters. And more than two decades later, the effects of the disaster are still visible.

However, the world doesn’t know much about it; the media hasn’t done its part as it should have, a panel discussing the disaster following the screening of Bhopali at The Old Cinema at University of Westminster on Thursday say.

“There was an over fascination of the leak but it limited characters and narratives,” says Pawash Bisht, doing his doctoral thesis in the disaster and the dynamics of memory associated with it at Loughborough University.

Referring to the documentary directed by Van Maximilian Carlson, he says, “This film, while it retains the sense of disaster, it collapses it with continuing disaster of water contamination.”

And as it’s documented in Bhopali, one of the woman characters who witnessed the disaster says, “There are so many memories that living has become a hell.”

Water and soil contamination by the leaked chemicals, the diseases that tagged along and the genetic mutation in the newborn has made the gas disaster “a visible, ongoing problem,” says Meaghan Delahunt, author of The Red Book, a part of which is based in Bhopal on the 20th anniversary of the gas disaster.

But the Indian media lacks the knack of covering these issues, and are primarily focused on the crime-related issues.

“After the media frenzy around the criminal case [in June 2010], the coverage has again stopped,” he says. “Indian media doesn’t have fondness for environmental frame.”

However, with the Western media’s fascination with reporting on health and environment issues, Delahunt says it would help to “get the message across in the West.”

But the question is: How much interested is the Western media in exploring Bhopal?

While media might have its limitations, movies could do the trick, says Tim Edwards, a trustee of the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a UK-based charity supporting medical rehabilitation for gas and water pollution affected people in Bhopal.

He hints about a Hollywood movie, which is in post production now, starring Martin Sheen.

“But it focuses on the causes of the disaster,” he says.

As for Bollywood, India’s film industry, it came out with Bhopal Express in 1999. The movie delved into a couple’s life in the aftermath of the gas disaster, but failed to create any buzz.

Hence, years later, many issues remains unresolved, primarily the health and environmental hazards as the killer site still stands in the city, not only reminding the people of the history but still polluting it. And after all the years, as reported by different media sources including the BBC, Warren Anderson, former chairman of Union Carbide, still refuses to return to India where he faces manslaughter charges.

According to Bhopal Information Center, an Internet database on the disaster, Many cases have been filed against Anderson and Union Carbide in the US, but they have been dismissed. In 2009, when the case was forwarded to US Federal District Court in New York, it declined to order mediation.

But law should be applicable to everyone, says MIT professor and activist Naom Chomsky in the documentary.

“If the US doesn’t enforce it [law], there is no law,” he says. “International law should be applicable to everyone.”

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