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Bhopal—the true story of a fight to stop chemical company killing

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This radio play relives the horror of a chemical leak in Bhopal, India, through the eyes of a journalist that tried to blow the whistle, writes Yuri Prasad
Issue 2820
A mural on a city street depicts faces choking, people protesting, and the union carbide chemical plant in Bhopal

A mural commemorates the Bhopal scandal (Picture: Axel Drainville/creative commons)

The city of Bhopal in northern India ought to be best known for its lakes and lush green parks. But instead it will forever be a symbol of disaster capitalism.

As midnight approached on 2 December 1984, the giant Union Carbide India pesticide plant let loose a huge cloud of poisonous gas. The noxious mist spread from the factory across Bhopal and beyond.

More than 3,000 people died within the first two weeks of the leak, many tens of thousands were to die later. Today, nearly 40 years on, people in Bhopal are still dying.

Union Carbide India was majority owned by the US company, Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. Within days of the leak, as trees denuded of their leaves perished and dead animals littered the streets, company officials were already trying to wash their hands of responsibility.

But one person knew the truth. Bhopali journalist Rajkumar Keswani predicted the disaster, and repeatedly tried to warn the public. Three years before, he was investigating the death of his friend, Mohammad Ashraf, a plant worker that died on the job in mysterious circumstances.

His investigations put him up against political power—the Indian government and the rich had heavily invested in Union Carbide India—and against corporate money. He wrote his first articles about safety lapses at Union Carbide in Bhopal just months after Ashraf died.

But he soon found that anyone that gave him information, or helped publish his reports was quickly fired or suddenly relocated. Keswani was not deterred because information kept coming.

He even reported a telex exchange between an engineer in India and managers in the US. The engineer questioned whether the materials used to pipe gas around the Bhopal plant were of sufficient quality to withstand the pressure they were under. Management wrote back that the best materials were too expensive for the Indian operation.

This five-part cinematic-style ­documentary at last tells the Bhopal story from Keswani’s perspective. It’s well acted and scripted, and brings the true horror of the disaster to life. And it reminds us of both the wretched nature of corporate power, and the bravery of those that fight to hold them to account.

  • Bhopal starts Mon 5 Sep, 1.45pm on BBC Radio 4 and then on BBC Sounds

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