In a truly democratic setting, dialogue and discourse must form an intrinsic part of engaging with the heritage of a site with painful associations and conflicting stakeholder expectations. This process needs to provide space for mediation, being inclusive of dissenting voices and varied opinions. In many post-conflict societies, it is this very exchange of varying opinions and grievances that is integral to the process of healing and civic engagement. Bhopal2011 provided an open, multidisciplinary forum for professionals, students, survivors, activists, citizens of Bhopal and at times representatives of the government to put forward their perspectives and concerns in a neutral setup. Though sporadic and unstructured, these discussions provided a glimpse of both the range of opinions on several issues in Bhopal as well as the need, potential and challenges of providing a space where different voices on the disaster can be heard. Given here are some excerpts from the panel debates and workshop discussions that raised some questions as well as proposed certain ideas. These excerpts from transcripts of longer conversations during Bhopal2011 are reproduced here, not with the intention of promoting certain viewpoints or as conclusive statements. Rather, these excerpts depict the challenge inherent in the process of presenting varied viewpoints and interpretations. The following individuals were participants in the presented conversations –
Shalini Sharma, Phd Candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies, London. India co-ordinator ‘Students for Bhopal ‘ (SFB)
Vishakha Kawathekar, Assistant Professor, School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal
Arti Jaiswal, Architect and Planner, Assistant Professor, School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal
Satinath Sarangi, Activist, Bhopal Group for Information and Action
Moulshri Joshi (Organising committee) Founding partner, Space Matters, Assistant Professor, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi
Meera Dass, Conservation Architect, member of National Monument Authority of India
Pawas Bisht, PhD Candidate, Department of Social Sciences, Culture and Media Analysis Research Group (CAMARG), Loughborough University
On the politics of the site
Excerpts from panel discussion during Bhopal2011 Seminar, Day 12 on the Theme ‘Possibilities, potentials and challenges for regeneration of the Bhopal gas tragedy site’
Shalini: While the site is one, there are two separate issues around it– the gas disaster and the water contamination. The water contamination predates the gas leak. In both the cases, Union carbide has been responsible as it chose a faulty design and dumped the toxic wastes within the factory premises. Later on, as they started affecting the factory site, they continued to dump it outside the factory site. It is not as if they were ill informed of its hazards either.
While Industrialization in India paved way for progress, the industrial horrors it brought along have not stopped. India is facing similar conflicts at different places. Therefore, the memorial is so important because it is not about the site anymore; it is about India now and then. I think it is a huge responsibility for all the planners and architects to not let mitigate the lesson from Bhopal and understand what healing means. There are these layers of information stored only in the memories of the people here which are of no value as many don’t have the required documents. For instance, the widows of the victims can’t get the widow pensions; all the medical treatment documents have been burnt on the funeral piers, as the last rite which was actually a part of the healing process– to burn the documents with the dead husband to cast away the painful memory.
It is really important that memorialization should have the people’s voice in it– to depict what Bhopal has become, what Bhopal ought to signify, and also to give credit to the activists who are actually not talking about just the compensation issue, which even the Union carbide has interest in because it is an easy way to manage the tragedy by just paying the money and moving on. The compensation is not what the fight is aiming at; it is about corporate accountability and liability and in this regard, presence of the pesticide as judicial evidence is very important. Therefore, I don’t think we can decide on the memorial ourselves. Solutions can’t be arrived at till we can decide what will happen to the factory site, how they will clean up the place, when they will clean up the place and who will take the responsibility of cleaning it up. Once this is sorted out, then we can start talking about a memorial.
Vishakha: If you look at the 2021 Bhopal Master plan, the area around the Carbide factory has been designated for commercial activity, where the evaporation pond still exists which is still contaminated. The reports say that the water is not contaminated; so, sometimes when you take a scientific approach, you might have to fight the political system as here, even scientific investigations are being politicized.
Shalini: As long as the case goes on…which is not only by the activists, but the State Government of Madhya Pradesh and the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, which is a central government agency, are party to it. The state has filed it against Dow Chemicals asking it to pay advance for the cleanup. As long as the case is going on, on paper, and there is a fight with multiple stakeholders in the litigation, it is not possible for the State government or Central government to come up with a 2021 plan for the area. They would have to first come up with some sort of an agreement on the case that is going on in the Madhya Pradesh High court.
Arti: That is why the site is as it is; nothing has been done on it. The proposal is there but the draft master plan has not been confirmed or notified. What happens to the site should be known to us before hand, so that once the site is done with all the litigations, we have a plan for the site because we need to move further.
Vishakha: Both processes have to go hand in hand– you cannot sit and wait for something to get over and then begin planning.
Shalini: Yes I agree, at one level we do need this intellectual engagement, because we need to discuss and engage to decide on what needs to be done on the site and on all the relevant questions. But, while we discuss this, we, as participants of any forum, need to have a perspective on the politics of that site. We cannot come up with a design simultaneously while there is such politics going on the site. These can be two parallel processes at the level of engagement, but at the level of an intervention, they are not parallel to each other.
Engagement with multiple stakeholders in the management of the site’s legacy
Excerpts from panel discussion during Bhopal2011 Seminar, Day 14 on the Theme ‘Engaging with multiple stakeholders in the management of Bhopal gas tragedy site’
Satinath Sarangi: I would like to talk further on what has been presented at the Symposium today – on the idea of value, heritage value. What we need to remember is that value is an artificial construct and this is often arbitrary. There is a story of how an American anthropologist, decades back, goes to meet with a tribe in Africa and is astounded by how much mutuality and cooperation exists in the tribe. So, as an experiment he brings knives for them, which he thinks would be of value to that community. But, instead of bringing a knife for each tribe member, he happens to bring one knife less and he gifts them to the tribe on some ritual. The people of the tribe count these knives and return them. They say that if we accept this then one member in the tribe would not have a knife with him or her and that is why we do not want it. So, the value of the knife is nil for them if it could not be shared.
Another example, which can be called more frivolous, is of an artist in Europe who, after he becomes popular, shits in a can and then seals it and writes on the cover that I certify that this is the original shit of Monsieur so and so, and it sells for several hundred pounds. So, what I am trying is to say is that value is a construct and how something becomes valuable is also important when we talk about memorializing. Throughout history, there have been certain things and events that have been remembered or portrayed, for example, Hitler shaking hands with Mussolini. What was left out was his alliance with the British and the secret pact to keep the Bolsheviks out. Similarly, in the holocaust what was completely left out was how the American government actually pushed back the hundreds of Jews who had reached there for shelter. What is also not there in the holocaust museum is that it was not just the Jews but also the lesbians, the homosexuals and the communists who were massacred in the concentration camps.
So, in the process of memorializing, the victim is the one who gets to keep the memory and that is why we see lots of pictures of what happened in Auschwitz but we see no pictures of what happened in Dresden, where the complete civilization was firebombed and roasted. Except Kurt Vonnegut, probably no one has written about it. What I am trying to say is that we have to see memorializing as something which doesn’t come out of harmony between multiple stakeholders, but from one stakeholder actually over-running and dominating the other.
It is essential to talk about, discuss and critically examine why we want to memorialize Bhopal. As far as I understand, if it has to have meaning for people around Bhopal and those, in whose lives Bhopal plays a big role, then it has to be such that it shows that Bhopal is not an isolated event, neither historically nor geographically. Secondly, we need to ensure that this stops and I think this is one of the central objectives of memorializing. In doing so, we cannot just show something and leave it to an interpretation centre.
There are two things to learn from Bhopal. One is that corporations always put profit before the lives and health of ordinary people, which still continues. The second thing is that the elected governments, irrespective of the political party they belong to, always collude with corporations in committing these crimes. The first act of the government following the disaster was to send vehicles and ensure that all the dead bodies that were there on the street were picked up and dumped into the Narmada River or burnt in the forest so that the death count could be brought down– the liabilities of the corporation could be brought down. This has been continuing for the last 26 years.
However, in the last 26 years, we have also seen the transformation of a society of victims into a society of survivors which is again unparalleled in history, just as the disaster was the worst disaster in history. This is the longest struggle of industrial victims anywhere in the world. In many ways, we find the toxic empire taking over every area of our life, from the food we eat to the water we drink to the air we breathe to the cosmetics we use to the things that we feed to our babies. We are getting more and more poisoned, becoming victims of the government’s crimes and the Bhopal survivors are showing us what is the way to survive, to struggle, to confront, to resist and to refuse to become mere victims. I think these people have to be remembered and this is something that we have to recognize when we start talking about a memorial.
Moulshri Joshi: Mr. Sarangi has talked about correcting the historical mistakes and learning from them. I believe that so many of us are gathered here together because of a shared sense of responsibility of what has happened and what we could do and we did not do. And, my question to the panel and to the audience is how do we, in our capacity as professionals, as students, as parents, give back and how does this process of participation get taken forward?
Meera: Healing is not a one sided process and there are several aspects to it. Everybody has their own way of reacting to what happens. Finding political meaning is one of them but that is not the only one. There could be an artistic, cultural reaction to it. I would like to quote an American artist who came here for a project called the ‘Crime Post’. Single handedly, he wanted to pay homage to all the ‘Sites of Pain’ across the world. He planted a pole at all the ‘Sites of Pain’ with a beeper on its top which emitted cries of pain. I think it was a very well thought of way of paying one’s tribute.
Political expression is important yet there need to be many other voices. Film making is one of them, architecture is another. Even craft, embroidery or love and affection could be one of them. Everybody must find their voice which has been achieved by this workshop. Maybe one should expand it and the voice of the workshop should reach the government. We need to ensure that all the voices reach out to them. And, it is not just the voice of hate alone but the voice of love should also be expressed. I think we should learn to listen to each other and each others’ expression.
Shalini: In the various sessions in the symposium, we have been hearing that one of the key purpose of this memorial is psychological healing, but how will this purpose be served when the disaster continues. Because rehabilitation itself is the disaster here and it would add to the pain and miseries of the people. And, if the memorial building were to happen, what will it heal? How could it be a healing instrument?
Satinath: I agree with you that just a space cannot provide psychological healing without justice. I am not talking of a retributive justice, I am not saying just because Anderson’s decisions lead to the death of 25000 people that he should be hanged, but we are talking about deterred justice. That justice needs to be done in such a fashion that other corporations in other countries think twice before posing risks on the life and health of ordinary people. An example has to be set so that the consequences are known. Because, the message that Bhopal has given is that if you are powerful, you can actually get away scot free with murder and maiming of an entire city. I think unless that issue is addressed, there cannot be psychological healing.
Moulshri: In this complexity of conflict, what does the field of heritage conservation, as a tool to empower community, present?
Meera: One of the success stories that I have dealt with over the past is taking people for heritage walks of Bhopal. By physically moving through the heritage area, the impact on the mind and body is much more lasting than a book that they could read or any other experience. When the people come out of the memorial, they should experience what the people of Bhopal have gone through. The way they perceive the disaster should be completely different from the time they enter the memorial. It should be for people to sit back and reflect.
Breaking the stalemate
Excerpts from mid term review discussion during Bhopal2011 workshop, Day 8
Shalini: The diagram you are talking about talks about the two extreme positions between DOW and the activists. I wanted to know what is DOW’s position on the memorialization of the site. Dow in the public forum has maintained a position on cleanup, but hasn’t said anything about the site and how memory should be kept or not kept. For them the chapter is already closed. So, how can it be put at the other extreme end to the activists?
Moulshri: Doesn’t that already put them at the other extreme?
Pawas: We have some of the documents which have been acquired through the RTI process and also letters from Andrew Liveris who is the CEO of Dow. So, we know that they actually want a cleanup and are in favour of some kind of a memorial being built up. These are the actual letters to the Indian government and they are willing to contribute to this process. So, to answer if it is a directly opposite position? The answer would be yes, in the nature of the memorial that they would perhaps want there and be able to facilitate. But, the cleanup of the site and the building of the memorial, they are very much rooting for as it would also be a chapter closed for them and to be able to move on.