The National Catholic Review

At a time when the news is saturated with stories about corporate malfeasance, it is salutary to recall that the corporate quest for profits can sometimes lead to injury and death. In Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro resurrect the story of Bhopal, India, where in 1984 16,000 to 30,000 people were killed and half a million maimed as the result of a deadly gas leak of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing plant. More than a book about the world’s deadliest industrial disaster, the authors have written a dramatic account that elucidates how powerful people use blind faith, neglect and hidden truths against the powerless in order to attain profit and prestige for themselves.

The story begins in the late 1960’s, when Union Carbide developed a miracle pesticide, Sevin, as part of India’s agricultural solution to famine. It selected Bhopal as its site for an offshore manufacturing plant for Sevin. India was trying to join the industrial age, so news that the world’s third largest chemical company wanted to set up shop there created excitement among both the local people and government officials.

Although a smaller plant was originally proposed, senior engineers and planners decided to build a huge and technologically advanced pesticide complex that resembled Carbide’s facility in the Kanawha Valley in West Virginia. This fateful decision very quickly proved unsustainable, because Bhopal lacked adequate water and electrical resources and a favorable climate. Furthermore, India lacked a skilled workforce and market large enough to support Carbide’s optimistic sales projections.

The burgeoning chemical industry at that time was producing everyday products for a growing worldwide market. But because hazardous chemicals were used, Carbide needed a corresponding safety culture. Manuals assiduously outlined operating and emergency procedures and specified provisions for building materials and processes for the plants. As Indian engineers and technicians prepared to operate the Bhopal plant, they spent six months of intensive training in the United States and compiled a 400-page manual. Here at home, Carbide had one of the best safety records in the industry, but when it built offshore, priorities shifted to keeping costs down (using cheap materials) and waiving the usual safety equipment. Its first inspection revealed 80 defects, many of them serious. While Carbide assured everyone that safety was never compromised, Indian authorities told the locals that toxic substances were not produced there, just medicine for sick plants.

One year after the Bhopal plant opened, it claimed its first victim, a conscientious machine operator named Mohammed Ashraf. He was performing a routine maintenance operation when a few drops of a gas called phosgene squirted from a pipe and got on his sweater. Two days later he was dead. The following month a gas leak in the alpha-naphthol unit poisoned 25 workers.

Trade unionists investigated these accidents and protested against Carbide’s noncompliance with Indian labor law and the company’s own safety standards. A reporter from the Rapat Weekly wrote a series of articles about Ashraf’s death, a mysterious fire and irregularities in the allocations of licenses, which implied collusion between Carbide and local authorities. These alarms went largely unheeded, however, as the local people enjoyed the benefits of Carbide’s prestigious presence in their city, especially the sporting events and cultural activities it sponsored. Warren Woomer, head of the plant at the time and a hands-on, no-defects type of engineer, regarded these incidents as the teething pains of a new plant. He remained confident that his well-trained colleagues would work out the defects.

Safety was not the only problem in Bhopal. In truth, the Bhopal plant was a financial disaster, and a new administrator had orders to begin a cost-cutting campaign.

The effect of this campaign was demoralizing to employees. Thirty-five percent of the staff was laid off, and many of those who remained picked up the slack in jobs for which they were not trained. Stainless steel piping was replaced with ordinary steel. Instruction manuals written in English were unreadable to those who spoke only Hindi. Replacement parts were unavailable. There were fewer quality checks on sensitive equipment and chemical substances. The automatic fire detection system was not working. Eventually Carbide ceased production, and workers stopped wearing protective masks, boots, suits and helmets. By then 63 tons of methyl isoryanate sat in three storage tanks.

MIC was such a deadly substance that, rather than store it, the industry commonly used it on an as-needed basis. Tanks were not supposed to be full, yet at Bhopal one tank was filled to the brim with 42 tons, a second tank held 20 tons and the third tank, which was supposed to remain empty to accomodate spillover in case of an accident, held one ton. For more than a month the constantly changing contents of MIC had not been analyzed. The alarm system for the MIC unit was disconnected, and the refrigeration system was turned off. This allowed the tanks to heat up beyond the required temperature. On Dec. 2, 1984, at five minutes past midnight, MIC leaked through the welding of the first tank, caught the wind and spread its creeping cloud toward the city. The engineers and workers on watch that night did not suspect trouble when they sniffed the familiar boiled cabbage smell of the MIC during their card game and midnight tea break. They fallaciously reasoned that a non-operating plant could not be dangerous.

The people of the city were out on the streets that night celebrating weddings, births and tributes to the goddess of poetry. As they inhaled the deadly gas, they were instantly struck with respiratory paralysis that made them cough up frothy liquid streaked with blood. Men, women and children dropped in the streets as they ran in all directions feverishly looking for fresh air. They shrieked and ripped off their clothes from intense fever and sweating and suffered attacks of blindness and cataclysmic suffocation. Lungs burst, people fell in convulsions. [E]verywhere the dead with their greenish skins lay side by side with the dying, still wracked with spasms and with yellowish fluid coming out of their mouths. Eventually so much occurred so quickly that when the crying had stopped, there was nothing left but the dreadful, frightening silence of death.

Carbide was never convicted for the disaster. Instead, the vice president of the agricultural division of Carbide India claimed that the accident in Bhopal had been an act of worker sabotage. Then Carbide lawyers argued that damages to the victims’ families could not be assessed because determining the value of life in the third world was impossible. Carbide ended up giving India $5 million in emergency aid and a settlement of $470 million in full and final settlement to the 548,519 survivors. In turn, the Indian government paid $1,400 for the death of a parent and $700 for serious personal injury.

Carbide never provided Bhopal’s hospitals with information about MIC’s composition either before or after the accident. Consequently, Indian medical authorities could not determine effective treatment. Today, three out of four inhabitants in Bhopal are still affected by the tragedy, with 10 to 15 patients dying each month.

It is ironic that Five Past Midnight ends where it began. Thirty years after Carbide tried to save Indian agriculture from famine with a pesticide called Sevin, Monsanto came calling one day with another agricultural wonder: genetically engineered seeds.

Bhopal is an excellent case study of what can happen when people put belief before concrete evidence, ambition before risk, profit before people and public relations before facts. Lapierre and Moro have done a great service to their readers and the global community, especially the poor. Their book should be required reading for students, scholars, policy makers and all concerned citizens, because it exposes the effects of global capitalism on local communities and reveals the new world we have become.

Olga Bonfiglio is a freelance writer and a visiting assistant professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.