The Bhopal2011 Workshop explored the project of modern heritage from a number of fascinating perspectives and approaches that were adopted and rigorously followed to arrive at insights and directions for action.
The first Unit, which combined two units because of the commonality of the theme, addressed the ‘Authenticity and interpretation of heritage sites as urban resource’. The overall conclusion by the Unit was that the Union Carbide site required careful interpretation from different subjective and objective perspectives, such that the multiple layers of meaning that are assigned to the site as artifact can be given due importance. Their diagram showing the process of ‘formation of heritage’ illustrates the complex matrix of informed judgments that qualify the site as heritage. A psycho-social analysis of this kind certainly supports the conclusions that are reached by the experts; however, it does not become a vehicle for the extension of the argument into the public domain.
The central question addressed by the Unit – whether the site qualifies as heritage – cannot be restricted to the realm of interpretation alone. It benefits greatly from detailed analysis of the inputs from the local population, which helped to engage with the question with greater effectiveness. An inquiry into the contemporary perception of the site by local communities, along with the interpretation by experts, yielded important insights about the ways in which citizens view heritage and the act of remembering.
The structure of the workshop was such that the learning was accretive. An issue that was outside the scope of one Unit was addressed by another Unit. Thus, while one Unit dealt with the issue of interpretation, the other handled the issues of management, which follow after the site has been recognized as heritage. The Unit that dealt with ‘Heritage management of sites with painful pasts’ was able to extend the idea of interpretation by analyzing the various actions that could be undertaken in order to memorialize the Union Carbide site.
The issue of heritage management for the Union Carbide site requires the entire cycle of activities that apply to most heritage sites, involving multiple stakeholders in a coordinated manner, and moving towards a set of anticipated outcomes including a museum or multiple museums, citizen-led awareness drives, and ameliorative and commemorative activities initiated by the government.
The peculiar phenomenon that was revealed by the research of the Unit is that the local community became, in one sense, the exhibits themselves. The survivors of the gas tragedy are as much the ‘subject’ of management as are the victims. In fact, it would seem that the entire city and its citizens – if not the world itself – are stakeholders in what happens in Bhopal.
The universalization of the issue of heritage management in Bhopal is perhaps the most alluring aspect of the workshop. This is captured particularly well by the Unit titled ‘Bhopal March- Landscapes of Regeneration’, where the participants became active observers of the current reality of Bhopal, especially the areas surrounding the contaminated site, and traced their journeys of discovery on mappings of the site and surroundings. The pathways that were created by the participants were tracked using a GPS devise and added as a layer to the existing site information. Because the Unit focused on studying the daily lives of the urban poor, it also reinforced the insight that the tragedy of Bhopal was sustained in everybody’s lives, as people have to deal with the industrial economy and its failures on a daily basis, with the shortages of drinking water and electricity, the mishandling of solid waste, and the lack of shelter for all. In this sense, the excesses and shortages of the industrial age were palpable on every exploratory walk taken by the participants.
Continuing with the theoretical approach that emphasized daily life and the negotiations and tactics that citizens adopt for dealing with pain, loss, suffering, memory and destruction – collectively and individually – another Unit pursued art and creative engagement as a method for healing and dealing with the past. They created an ‘Urban Photo Rhizome’ to capture ‘Expressions of Memory Through Art’. The photo ‘rhizome’, referring to Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the term, revealed the outcomes of healing itself. It reinforced the idea that life itself is a process of constant healing and negotiation with the past on a constant basis.
The tragedy of Bhopal may not be evoked in every conversation by the local residents, however, it lingers in the background whenever citizens speak about their own pasts. The gas tragedy is a marker in space as well as time, and the healing is embedded as a process because there is no option but to try and heal. The use of photography becomes a rebellious act, as it asserts the present (and the future) as the main concern for the collective. It is significant that the Unit’s project, pithily called ‘Click and Connect’, places the onus on the outsider, the stranger to the situation, to connect with the past through interaction with the present lives of those affected by the tragedy. The burden of guilt or loss becomes a universal burden, and it is a duty of all who are concerned with Bhopal to make the effort to protect the present and future of those who have already suffered.
Healing was contemplated as a creative and, possibly, an affirmative act. The images created through photography were converted into postcards that were addressed by participants and local residents to be sent to all parts of the world. Thus, the ‘photo rhizome’ became an act of rebellion, asserting that tragedy and grief did not have to overpower the lives of future generations but could be overcome through the exuberance and hope that is felt by the child who goes to school every morning and gathers knowledge, the mother who protects the family from hunger, the father who toils to bring home enough to sustain their lives. By ‘connecting’ with the world, these images immediately render Bhopal as a collective and global heritage.
Whereas for the members of two Units, photography and walking became metaphors for engagement with the ‘heritage’ of the site, another Unit explored the potentials in the act of design to provide opportunities for dealing with memory. Choosing the title ‘Shadow Boxing- Space as Container for Memory’, this Unit worked out a method for designing a memorial, or multiple memorials, for the site, involving Site, Event, Context and the final act of Design. It followed a systematic approach whereby the site and the event were studied to define a context for the design. The outcomes were spatial and formal interventions that could provide direction for dealing with the Union Carbide site and surroundings.
The mAAN Bhopal Workshop brought together a large number of stakeholders from India and abroad. While it seemed peculiar at first that people from foreign countries could treat this site as their heritage, it became clear that the site and the issues attached to it were global in nature. All participants were able to identify and understand the excesses and oversights of the early stage of industrialization in India, which was state-led and driven by the so-called ‘foreign hand’ of international companies like Union Carbide, which were given license to produce chemical fertilizers to fuel the country’s agricultural growth, a bubble that has taken more than four decades to burst. The ‘green revolution’ was less a revolution than a succumbing to the forces and pressures of free-market capitalism in the developed world, which treated weak and emerging states like India as willing accomplices for a style of development that left widespread destruction in its path. The memory of Bhopal is the memory of all the excesses that have been perpetrated across the world by transnational capitalism, which finds ways to evade responsibility and to erase authenticity.
The workshop revealed the tricky nature of a memorial: it may perpetuate the loss and grief associated with the tragedy, and it may also assist the healing of the collective consciousness. The workshop also explored the fact that memorials have a solemn role to play in society. They stand as reminders of the past. The idea of preserving the buildings and artifacts that were abandoned by Union Carbide is reinforced by the fact that the site can be activated by every successive generation of citizens as their attitudes towards our ways of doing and our ways of seeing are changed by time and circumstance. The factory stands as a constant throughout, and it thereby performs the role of a memorial.
The workshop also revealed several significant aspects of ‘heritage’ and ‘conservation’ that are highlighted at the Bhopal site. First, the memory of the tragedy is a collective and global memory, as it is a tragedy of industrial society, which rested its faith in the powers of mechanization and artifice and conflicted with a more gentle and preserving instinct towards society and nature that has been the tradition in all societies. The destruction wrought by the Union Carbide factory is not a local phenomenon alone —the suffering was local but the healing has to be global.