Monday, March 29, 2010

World's Worst Industrial Disaster Remembered in the Bay Area

Are you looking for a powerful metaphor that would highlight the clash of personal and corporate greed with the public good? A metaphor in which the greed would ultimately win by putting the dispensable, no-good public in a gas chamber? We already got one. It is called Bhopal. In the middle of the night on December 3, 1984, a poisonous cloud, emanating from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, slowly enveloped the vicinity of the factory and started killing and maiming people. Over three thousand people died within hours of this tragedy—those who survived, after being exposed to the deadly gas, lived and have been living a life of agony. The current death toll related to the gas leak stands at over 20,000.

Twenty-five after the disaster, a closure still evades the suffering people of Bhopal: the decrepit factory stands to this day—a constant reminder of the triumph of corporate bottom line over community interest; old chemicals, still present on site, continue to pollute the underground water reserve; and the survivors of the tragedy still wait for the day when they would be properly compensated.

On the 25th anniversary of the world’s most gruesome industrial accident, several groups of the San Francisco Bay Area came together to highlight the lingering Bhopal issue and raise awareness about the legal battle people of Bhopal are fighting with Dow Chemical (owner of Union Carbide). Two programs were held: a staged reading of ‘Bhopal’ a play by Rahul Varma, and a screening of the movie “The Yes Men Fix The World.”

The play was performed at the CounterPulse Theater in San Francisco on Friday, March 26. The main force behind that program was Vidhu Singh, a veteran artist and the director/producer of the play; Ashok Malani acted as the production manager. The staged-reading of ‘Bhopal’ was a sold-out program--in fact, people were turned away because of lack of space. ‘Bhopal’ did a great job in educating the audience about how the tragedy unfolded. The play starts with the Karbide’s CEO (Mick Laugs as Warren Anderson) sending Devraj Sarthi (Muder Kothari) to India; Mr. Sarthi promises to increase the production of company’s facility at Bhopal. In Bhopal, a Canadian researcher (Caroline Wampole as Dr. Sonya Labonte) is at odds with the state machinery (Abhishek Das as Chief Minister Jaganlal Bhandari) because her research is exposing the harmful effects the pesticide making factory is having on the community. Izzat Bai (Nidhi Singh) is one of the slum dwellers—her pregnancy is being deleteriously affected because of her exposure to the chemicals. On reaching Bhopal, Mr. Sarthi strikes deals with the state government for the expansion of the factory operation; he also buys out from the community evidence of ill-effects of chemical exposure. As the operation of the factory is ramped up, problems multiply and even Mr. Shustri is affected by them: Shustri’s lover (Palak Joshi as Madiha Akram) loses her child. And then there is this explosion that brings to fore the dirty secrets Karbide Inernational and Mr. Sarthi were trying to hide.

The effort Vidhu Singh and her team members put in the production bore fruit. Even though the play was a staged-reading most actors seemed to have memorized their lines. Nidhi Singh, Abhishek Das, and Caroline Wampole gave stellar performance. Jaysi Chander, as the hollow-eyed angel of death, performed a particularly haunting rhythm (Choreographer: Roko Kawai) at the end of the play--the dance supported by glum vocals (Leslie Schneider) and tabla (Esther Adams) created a chilling atmosphere of morbidity and despair.

Around forty people showed up for the Saturday program at the ICC, Milpitas—the event was organized by the Friends of South Asia (FOSA) and Association for India’s Development (AID). A partial screening of the movie "The Yes Men Fix the World" was followed by an eyewitness account and a thorough discussion on the 25-year history of the Bhopal tragedy. Sudarshan Suresh of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), Anu Mandavilli, and Ramkumar Sridharan answered audience's questions.

Whereas most of us are still shocked at the Bhopal disaster, a relevant question—given the uneven fight between powerful corporate greed and powerless, naïve communities living under corrupt administrations—is: how come such disasters are not taking place more often? And perhaps the answer is: industrial accidents, harming people, are still happening all over the world; helpless communities are still being taken advantage of, left and right, it is only a matter of scale. If there were no explosion in Bhopal, the Union Carbide factory would probably still be functioning, insidiously killing more people over time than it did the night of December 3, 1984.