Indra Sinha’s Man Booker shortlisted novel, Animal’s People (Simon & Schuster) which won the 2008 Commonwealth Prize for ‘the best novel from Europe and South Asia’, is to be filmed. Director Michael Anderson has commissioned Sinha to write the screenplay with filming expected to begin in November 2009. Although the novel was a moderate success, the film could well bring the whole ugly story of Bhopal to prominence again. The disaster remains largely a forgotten tragedy. On the night of 2-3 December 1984 a gas leak at the Union Carbide plant spewed 40 tones of methane isocyanate over the city. According to the Bhopal Medical Appeal’s (BMA) website www.bhopal.org , half a million people were exposed to the gas and 20,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site. The BMA asserts that Union Carbide and its owner, Dow Chemical, which is based in Midland, Michigan, continues to deny responsibility for the poisoning and refuses to clean up the site.
Sinha, who is of British and Indian descent, made money in advertising and has now devoted his life to helping those affected by the disaster and in trying to make Dow Chemical take proper responsibility for the tragedy. He wrote in the Guardian: ‘Under the ‘polluter pays’ principle enshrined in both Indian and US law, Union Carbide is responsible for cleaning up the contamination and compensating the thousands whose lives have been ruined. In buying Union Carbide's assets, Dow also acquired its liabilities. Dow set aside $2.3bn to settle Union Carbide's US asbestos liabilities. How then can it refuse to accept Union Carbide's Indian liabilities?’
The legal arguments and claims and counter claims have been batted back and forth for the last 20 years, and one could spend weeks on the Net reading them. All the while of course, people who have no access to lawyers, who are dirt poor, who aren’t sophisticated, well-off westeners, who aren’t glamorous in any way, who do not have any ‘importance’ in the eyes of the world, continue to suffer.
The whole sorry mess has something of Erin Brokovich about it. Sinha's campaign is admirable and it will be fascinating to see what effect the film has.