An overly dramatized but nonetheless absorbing account of the most devastating industrial accident in world history.
French journalist Lapierre (A Thousand Suns, 1999, etc.) and Spanish reporter Moro relate the terrible tale of Bhopal, the Indian metropolis devastated by a chemical leak at a Union Carbide plant; in just a few hours, as many as 30,000 residents of the city died of the airborne poison, and perhaps half a million others were sickened. In its early pages, the tale threatens to shape up as one of good against evil, pitting unwitting villagers against greedy capitalists (“Pulpul Singh exploited the economic misfortunes of the poor. . . . With a filthy turban on his head and his dagger ever at the ready, this villain was the terror of small borrowers”), but it eventually takes a more nuanced form. Union Carbide, the American industrial giant, had established a modern chemical plant in India—not to colonize the Third World (as some leftist critics charged at the time of the 1984 accident), but at the invitation of the government, which sought new weapons against “the planetary holocaust wrought by armies of ravaging insects,” as a characteristically exuberant chapter title has it. The well-intended effort was misguided to the extent that India’s farmers did not rush to adopt chemical pesticides, preferring to rely on time-proven methods of predator control. Facing lower than anticipated profits, Union Carbide workers and management took shortcuts in equipping the Bhopal plant with modern safety features and in observing proper procedures for storing deadly methyl isocyanate; Lapierre and Moro refer to a suppressed company memorandum acknowledging as much, one that warned that a disaster could strike at any minute. So it did, and Union Carbide earned much bad press—deservedly, it would seem—for seeking a low-cost settlement with survivors during “four long years of haggling . . . in the absence of a proper trial.”
Though long and sometimes clumsy, Lapierre and Moro’s narrative will draw renewed attention to a terrible event.