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Believe Who? the Bhopal Tragedy

The case of Bhopal

It is an interesting challenge to work out your own position on a controversial issue using the Internet. One great advantage of the Net is the speed at which you can gather information from different sources. But how do you arrive at the truth? Who to believe?

The tragedy of Bhopal occurred in December 1984, and is recognised as the worst ever industrial accident. A gas leak from a pesticide factory swept through the sleeping city of Bhopal in India and resulted in death and injury on a catastrophic scale. Union Carbide, a giant American chemical company had a controlling interest in the plant. Several years after the accident, Union Carbide paid a settlement to the government of India of some $470 million, and in 1995 announced that "Union Carbide's involvement with the aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy is over Although some will continue to citizen any response by us, we believe the corporation has consistently acted in a humane and decent fashion toward the victims over the 11 years since the Bhopal tragedy, and that most people examining the facts will reach the same conclusion."

Last year I did some extensive on line research on the Bhopal tragedy. Like most people who acquaint themselves with the story of Bhopal, I was amazed at the statistics and very curious to learn more. The first web site I tried was www.bhopal.com I was struck by the fact that Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) own this domain name when they no longer have any operations in Bhopal. It was certainly smart of the company to grab this particular domain, as the site is used to promote their version of events in Bhopal, and is no doubt one of the first to be discovered by those wanting to research the tragedy. The site is persuasive in its design, information is presented in short concise paragraphs, the language is simple and relatively free from emotion and supported by statistics. The site succeeds in promoting UCC's position on the tragedy, and one is easily left with the feeling that the company really have done everything possible to manage the effects of the tragedy.

 Of course there are many campaign groups throughout the world who feel that UCC have escaped responsibility for the disaster. Opponents of UCC have marshalled an enormous weight of counter evidence against the company. Of particular note are the two sites run from Bhopal itself, www.bhopal.net and www.bhopal.org These sites are very informative, but lack the sophisticated image of the UCC version. The figures presented by the campaign groups are wildly at odds with those of Union Carbide, in particular concerning the number of deaths, and the aftermath of the tragedy.It becomes increasingly frustrating to research issues like Bhopal, particularly if you are seeking to find answers to the important questions. Why did the accident happen? Who was to blame? What are the actual medical statistics? Have Union Carbide fulfilled their obligations to the victims of the disaster? One has to face the fact that the Internet has not really made a difference in our ability to find answers to questions such as these, however carefully the evidence is evaluated. However in our search for answers, there are a few obvious considerations when looking at on line resources:

  • The domain name itself is no guarantee that a web site is authoritative.

  • The design of a site is no guarantee of the accuracy of the content.

  • Research as widely as possible.

  • Read information carefully. After spending a lot of time on the fact sheet at www.bhopal.com/FactSheet.html I realized that the omission of certain key points was more revealing than the information actually presented.

  • Don't be persuaded by emotional language

  • Don't trust statistics, especially if the source is not made clear.

  • How easy is it to contact the authors of a web site? (Try e-mailing Union Carbide if you can!)

  • Remember that the values and attitudes of people closest to such issues demand great sensitivity. 

To some extent it is possible to evaluate evidence from the different parties involved in the Bhopal tragedy, and reach a kind of compromise understanding, for there are some self-evident truths. A pesticide factory really was constructed in the middle of a densely populated area of a city and many people  died from a gas leak. The company has paid compensation. To progress beyond such general findings becomes increasingly difficult, and puzzling over the conflicting mortality figures for example, is unlikely to be profitable, nor in the end, will the outcome ever be beyond dispute. 

 What is the rationale for continuing to study the Bhopal tragedy? My own opinion is that Bhopal reminds everyone, regardless of age, of the importance of asking questions. Why for example,was the Bhopal plant not protected by the same computer safety systems as the sister plant in the USA? This remains a perfectly valid question for Union Carbide. Had sufficient questions been asked of the company in the early 1980s when it was clear that a number of gas leaks had taken place, the accident may never have happened. In fact local people had become increasingly concerned and vocal about safety standards at the plant before the accident, but at the time their voices were not heard by the international community. By continuing to highlight the profile of the victims of Bhopal, the campaign groups are helping to prevent similar Bhopals in the future.

In a recent book review, Billy Bragg is quoted as saying that "what corporations fear most, are consumers who ask questions" I hope that this web site will stimulate readers to ask questions of corporations, and communicate with and offer support to people whose lives have been adversely affected by them.

 Visit some of the sites below. Ask your own questions.


Reading list: 

Union Carbide's version of events Union Carbide's version of events. This is an important site and I recommend reading it first.

 Union Carbide web site Confirm for yourself the lack of information about Bhopal

 Community.net (Australian-based site - follow "recent news" link to find the letter from Union Carbide to concerned individuals)

 Bhopal.org The Bhopal-based site for the victims A good collection of recent press clippings and reports of the continuing legal case

Bhopal.net Survivors testimonies pictures and information about the Sambhavna Clinic

Corporate Watch  (An interesting selection of Bhopal pages)

 Essential Action (Information on the No More Bhopals campaign)

 Rachel's Environment and health weekly (This interesting article makes reference to the poster link below)

 Union Carbide poster  (a fascinating advertising poster from 1962)

 Poster produced by Bhopal victims (In contrast to the above!)

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