Bhopal, the BBC, and Film
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the biggest industrial disaster, the gas leak at Bhopal. Killing about 7,000 people immediately, 15,000 people eventually, and grievously making chronically ill or maiming around 100,000 more, the leak of methyl isocynate gas from the Union Carbide plant in 1984 also left behind a wreck of a factory that is still oozing and dripping toxic waste into the surrounding city. (Rediff.com's timeline
The plant was a venture more than 50% of which was owned by Union Carbide, an American corporation. This corporation struck a deal with the Indian government for $470 Million in exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution. Only half of this money has been disbursed to victims, but even if all of it were, that would work out to only $4700 per living victim, without addressing the environmental harm*. In 1999 Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical for $11.6 Billion
Needless to say, this situation has become a touchstone of modern Indian activism
, yet its full scope is little known in the United States. Yesterday, the BBC ran an interview with a Dow Spokesperson announcing that Dow accepted responsibility for the victims at Bhopal, and was going to liquidate the Union Carbide subsidiary to set up a relief and clean-up fund, only to announce hours later that they (the BBC) had been deceived
by a pair of protest-pranksters
. (MSNBC & WSJ articles.) Many people might have dismissed the story as yet another example of a news company making a really dumb mistake. But here's the view from one filmmaker who was standing in front of the factory with activists and victims during the commemorartion:
Fyi, I can tell you no one believed it at first, but then the local BBC reporter made a call to London and confirmed it, and it still seemed unbelievable but now other reporters were asking for reactions.
I got on my computer, hooked up my cell and a crowd huddled around me as I tried to accesses the BBC, PRNewsWire, Dow and other sites.
My perception of the afternoon was that the victims and activists went through a very cruel emotional process.
For several hours, the people who've kept up a fight for 20 years went from thinking of Dow as the opponent to trying to consider a new future -- only to have it all pulled away.
I personally have never seen the activists so emotionally wounded.
Journalism is powerful stuff.
This also builds evidence for my general theory
that some activist stunts are really unhelpful to their seriously needy causes, contrary to the arrogant attitudes of those carrying them out
I met the filmmaker quoted above, Zachary Coffin
, at the South Asian Journalism Association
conference in New York this last June. (He sent the above in an email to SAJA's founder Sree
, who has set up a great website tracking the Bhopal coverage
.) He is producing a feature film about the disaster
, and recently announced that the incomparable Aishwarya Rai will star in it
. Zachary emailed me about some of the hard work he's putting into making this a successful film, and I'm hoping his efforts will renew global awareness about Bhopal.