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Mequon Teen's Film Focuses on the Legacy of Bhopal Disaster

A Dogra

The world's worst  industrial disaster took place on December 3, 1984, when a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.

More than a lifetime later, a Mequon girl is trying to bring awareness of the ongoing issues in Bhopal into the public consciousness.

16-year-old Megan Sai Dogra's short film, Assist Bhopal, took root last year at the start of her freshman year of high school.

A UW-Madison professor visited Dogra's school and lectured about issues facing India.

The lecture intrigued Dogra.  She wanted to learn more and dig deeper.  The inquisitive student unearthed information about a devastating event that took place in central India back in 1984  - a chemical accident at a fertilizer factory in Bhopal.

“MIC on its own is a liquid, but when when mixed with water it turns into a hazardous gas. The valves were all broken and the water flowed backwards and went into a tank on MIC and when it mixed it was released into the atmosphere,” Dogra says.

The resulting cloud of toxic gas quickly spread, affecting a half-million people in the poorest parts of the city. Megan learned that 20,000 people perished, “and the worst part is, the damage didn’t end there – today 200,000 people continue to suffer from chronic illnesses.”

Dogra continued digging for information starting with her own parents. Both grew up 450 miles from Bhopal.

“My parents grew up in Delhi and I asked them ‘ do you remember the tragedy ‘ and so many people I talked with who were in India at the time faintly recall it and that’s one of the major problems is that since it happened 30 years ago, it’s such a dead cause that people aren’t the least bit aware of the damage that it continues to cause in the lives of Bhopal’s residents today,” Dogra says.

She learned that their ground water remains tainted, “and residents of Bhopal are still drinking that contaminated water.”

She came across information about a center, called Chingari, that provides therapy and support for children who’ve been harmed. There’s a long waiting list - hundreds, at least.

The founders of Chingari told Dogra there is no definitive count of impacted children, but it is believed “pretty much any child born in Bhopal has some sort of issues – may not have the resources for access to clinics.”

Dogra convinced her parents to allow her to visit. They had to take precautions, “I couldn’t eat anything or drink anything and had to be very careful,” Dogra says.

The trip inspired Megan's film. She dug up archival materials and wrote the narrative. Her own photos and footage give a glimpse of what she experienced.

“The mothers especially, meeting them was probably the most touching experience – they themselves were toddlers at the time, lost their parents and families and now 30 years later, they try to move one and they have a child born with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism – it’s very heartbreaking,” Dogra says.

The film also features the story of Dr. Pradeep Rohatgi.  Today, Rohatgi is a Distinguished Professor and Director of the UWM Centers for Composites and Advanced Materials Manufacture.  But in 1984, Rohatgi was director of the Advanced Materials and Processes Research Institute in Bhopal.  His laboratory hosted the response teams from around the world who came to Bhopal in the wake of the disaster.

"It was a trauma," Rohatgi says, "but at the same time, I must say that it was very gratifying thing - how people came out - without any concern for their own safety against the residual gas - and were helping each other."

Like Dogra, Rohatgi believes more must still be done to assist the survivors of the disaster and their families.  "I believe, if Union Carbide and Dow [which now owns Union Carbide] is not doing anything, it should be done by private charity or the governments, because it continues to harm people," he says.

Meanwhile, even though she is only in her sophomore year in high school, Dogra has plans to study medicine - pediatrics, then return to Bhopal.

“They’re actually in need of doctors to help to give proper diagnostics – because the therapists can only do so much, but they’re not professionally trained to treat these children. So that is what I hope to do in the future,” Dogra says.

Dogra has set a more immediate goal – to raise $13,000 a year. By her calculations, that would provide 200 children at the Chingari center one healthy meal a day.

“Chingari itself in Hindi means a spark and when I was there, one of the sayings they have kids repeat is 'my one spark can light up the whole world,'” Dogra explains.

The sixteen year old hopes her film is a start.

WUWM's Susan Bence talked with Megan Dogra before the premiere of her film at the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Megan Sai Dogra is a sophomore at University School  of Milwaukee. Her short film Assist Bhopal premiered the Milwaukee Film Festival's youth show this fall.  It will screen again Wednesday night at an event that also features remarks by Pradeep Rohatgi. 

Credit A Dogra

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.