Dominique Lapierre, author of Five Minutes Past Midnight, a book on the tragedy that visited Bhopal in the midnight of December 2, 1984, talks to Sreelatha Menon on the continuing suffering and neglect of the survivors of the Union Carbide gas leak. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan on Monday.
You have written a book on Bhopal and you have continued to visit the survivors since 1984. What is the difference between then and now?
A lot of problems are pending. On May 5, the activists and survivors who went to appeal to the prime minister have got arrested. I think there are a number of questions like cleaning up of the site of the disaster which is absolutely essential.
For lack of cleaning it, the underground water is completely poisoned and people are drinking poisoned water. I think they should be given the right to safe drinking water.
What went wrong? Why has the lot of Bhopal victims remained unaddressed for so many years?
I don't know. It is something to be worried about. Social, health and economic rehabilitation is needed. I have given money from the royalties of my book to build the gynaecological clinic at the Sambhavna Trust.
The trust treats 160 people... free of cost daily.
Yes. These are people who are never diagnosed, people who had only one aspirin tablet for curing their horrible condition caused by inhaling the toxic gas.
This is a very lethal gas. It has gone into the genes of the people. We don't know how many generations would be affected by it. Today, malformed children are still being born, women are getting cancer of the cervix. This is worrisome.
What has been the role of the Indian media?
I am very sad that the Indian media is ignoring this tragedy. When I started doing my research for my book on Bhopal, the media was asking me, 'Why on Bhopal?'. And I was shocked. Had there been a media outcry day after day, no government would let people suffer like this.
Do you think that the issues concerning Bhopal have been neglected because the victims are the poorest of the poor?
Yes. If the rich were involved then the response of the government and the media would definitely be different. On Sunday I was sitting on the sidewalks with the survivors who are camping here in Delhi's Jantar Mantar demanding to be heard by the government. I found that not a line was being written about them in newspapers here.
As you said once that the wind blew that night in the direction where the poorest people were living.
You have equated Warren Anderson of Union Carbide with Osama bin Laden, killing more than the latter did, and remaining a fugitive. What do you think about Dow? Should they take responsibility?
They should assume responsibility of Union Carbide. I am sure of that. They should at least clean the toxic affluent.
They say that Carbide has its own mechanism of dealing with liabilities.
I don't know that. I know that Dow must take responsibility at least for the clean up of the toxic wastes.
Have you spoken to Dow?
No, never. But in the future I may talk to them.
Today you will receive the Padma Bhushan from the government of India which you have criticised for not acting enough on Bhopal.
I am just sad not critical. I have no right to be critical as I am an outsider. If I have a chance I will talk about these people. It is sad the voice of these people is not reaching the government.