No freedom from that fretful midnight March 13 2001

The page of the Bhopal gas tragedy should never be turned, says Dominique Lapierre, in an article written exclusively for The Times of India

A few days ago, Digvijay Singh, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, told a group of European journalists who had come to Bhopal for the inauguration of my gynaecology clinic that his government believed "that the page of the Bhopal accident should at least be turned". With all the respect I owe to the eminent man who today leads the destiny of Madhya Pradesh, I must state that I totally disagree with this opinion.

I think that the Bhopal gas tragedy should, on the contrary, never be forgotten. At least for two reasons. One, because what happened on the night of December 2 to 3, 1984, in the capital of Madhya Pradesh is not one of these tragic fatalities that shake the world permanently such as the earthquakes which recently hit Gujarat or Salvador, or the floods which devastated parts of Bengal or central China some time ago. The Bhopal tragedy is the apocalyptic fruit of man's megalomania, greed, incompetence and negligence. The second reason is the large number of victims who still fight for their survival 16 years after the disaster.

On March 15, I shall launch in the presence of 400 international journalists, publishers and booksellers assembled in Paris the new book which I just co-wrote with Spanish author Javier Moro, titled It Was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal. That same evening, France's public TV channel will air a 31-minute programme on the causes of the tragedy and the condition of the victims today. An audience of 7 million is expected to watch the programme.

This new book is the result of three years of painstaking research in India and around the world. One of its many revelations is the fact that the Bhopal plant was extravagantly oversized simply because the US engineers who were in charge to design it were paid according to the magnitude of the installation they were conceiving. The system was known as Hay's points. As a result, the plant was designed to produce at least twice the amount of pesticide that the Indian market could absorb. This meant that huge quantities of highly toxic gas were to be produced and stocked in the plant itself to manufacture the pesticide, instead of being imported in small quantities from the US to meet the market demand.

Our book reveals also the desperate fights that Union Carbide's American representative in India, Eduardo Munoz, had with his superiors in New York to force them to take into account the peculiarities of India's climate which dramatically affects the sales of pesticides. But nobody in New York listened to Munoz's appeals. We reveal also why the Bhopal planning commission was irresponsible enough to authorise Union Carbide to build their plant in the heart of such a densely populated area. As for the tragic cost-saving policy engaged by Carbide when the plant began to lose money, and which finally led to disaster, we discovered an extraordinary document which gives one of the reasons why Carbide let the plant slowly become a potential new Titanic: Four months before the tragedy, the US multinational decided to dismantle its Bhopal installations to relocate them in Brazil and Indonesia.

But, to me, it's above all the fact that some hundred thousands innocent victims still suffer from the consequences of man's insanity that should keep the Bhopal tragedy in everyone's conscience. That fatal night, the wind blew from north to south. This accounts for the fact that the toxic cloud first hit thousands of poor people living in the bustees and slums built alongside the walls of the plant. And it's a well-known fact of our arrogant societies that the voices of the poor are not worth very much. The result is that today, 16 years after, thousands and thousands of men, women and children are still suffering from respiratory illnesses, precocious blindness, cancers and so many other related ailments for which they receive no adequate treatment.

On January 27, I opened a gynaecology clinic for destitute women. The clinic treats 80 patients a day. If our book is a success, I will soon open two community clinics under the auspices of Sathyu Sarangi and the Sambhavna Trust. Then, I will attempt to bring permanent drinking water to a community condemned to drink the water of a well still polluted by Carbide's toxic effluents. I have drunk a mouthful of this water. For the following four days my mouth burnt with an intolerable taste.

If our book is a success, I will use the royalties to do more. But I know that whatever I'll do can only remain a drop of water in the ocean of needs. When I met Mother Teresa in Calcutta, she used to tell me: "Dominique, don't get discouraged, the ocean is made of drops of water." The martyrs of Bhopal deserve that we never forget them. It Was Five Minutes Past Midnight in Bhopal will contribute to this passionate objective.

(Dominique Lapierre is the author of Freedom at Midnight and the City of Joy.)