Joseph Malone: Bhopal—a constant reminder

In the summer of 2010, fresh from my 3rd year of medical school, myself and another student chose to take a six week elective in Bhopal, India. Our motivation to choose the capital of India’s most central state? An opportunity to learn first hand about an ongoing industrial disaster—the biggest in history.

This came about after meeting a UK investigative journalist who was the first to cover the story in the UK. Following this, we were put in touch with a Brighton based charity that funds a primary healthcare centre, which provides free medical care for gas victims. The scale of the problem, in a city with a population of almost two million, shook us to the core and left us determined to try and highlight this issue in someway.

The “green revolution” was sweeping across India in 1969. Union Carbide, a chemical company, decided to establish a pesticide factory in Bhopal to manufacture Carbaryl. The process of production also formed Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas, a compound twice as heavy as air. Should a leak occur, this would create a deadly blanket of gas, smothering all in its path.

The city of Bhopal was an ideal location as it provided easily available cheap labour in the densely populated slums, which helped to boost profit margins. Despite regulations stating MIC should be kept a safe distance from populated sites, the factory was built in the centre of an overcrowded shanty housing area.

Poor safety measures and a multitude of overlooked minor accidents at the site led to an enormous gas leak at midnight on 2 December 1984. It is estimated 3000 people perished in the darkness and confusion. 15 000 died in the week following and figures today suggest 150 000 to 600 000 are still chronically ill or injured.

Suffering continues due to polluted ground water in an ever expanding radius. Currently it stretches 3km from the factory site and affects 15 different colonies. This “second disaster” in fact pre-dated the gas leak due to the poor disposal of chemicals in the land surrounding the factory.

A situation remains in which almost every Bhopali family has suffered the loss of a family member or friend: grandparents, husbands, wives, and children. The effect on health is widespread and multigenerational, yet the research into the long-term effects was stopped abruptly in 1994, by the Indian government. This was to protect the interests of prospective multinationals thinking of investing in India.

We decided to make this 20 minute documentary as it felt the most effective method to explain this forgotten story to the current generation. The entire project was off our own back, without any formal film training.

We felt truly inspired by the astonishing work of groups such as the Sambhavna clinic, as you may glean from our film. Despite all the injustice in Bhopal, the dedication and respect shown to victims by the provision of this integrated healthcare service sets a real example for the spirit that community healthcare should encompass.

Bhopal is a real lesson in the consequences to be faced when the price of life is neglected in the pursuit of profit.

  • The film will be shown as part of the West Midlands Human Rights Film Festival run by the Birmingham International Film Society on Saturday 22 September 2012

Joseph Malone is a fifth year medical student at the University of Liverpool and a Public Health Research Assistant at Imperial College London.

Lotte Hardman is a fifth year medical student at the University of Liverpool and graduate of the MSc in Humanitarian Studies at the Liverpool Tropical Medical School.

This film was made in conjunction with the Bhopal Medical Appeal. Funding was provided by: The Vodafone World of Difference Scheme, IdeasTap, Liverpool Medical School, Institute of Medical Ethics, and Eleanor Rathbone Trust.