Bhopal2011 workshop and symposium took place between 23rd January and 4th February 2011. The academic event brought together eighty odd students, professionals and researchers from 15 countries, most of whom were new to the city of Bhopal. The primary focus of our work was the erstwhile Union Carbide factory site and its tangible and intangible value for society as a site of the Tragedy. We sought to investigate and question its role in a rapidly shifting context of Bhopal, stuck as it was in time – contaminated, abandoned and neglected. It was also an exploration on whether the revitalisation of the physical site into a site for remembrance and a resource to society could generate discussion and create awareness on the issues of the tragedy – issues such as contamination, lack of rehabilitation, lack of accountability and urban degeneration that still exact a toll on Bhopal. This was the point of departure for Bhopal2011, which sought to combine research with action for positive change. The organisers of the initiative present here, the objectives and process of Bhopal2011.
The exchange between the mayors of Bhopal and Hiroshima, both cities defined by their struggle with man-made disasters, captures the core belief that drove Bhopal2011–that Bhopal speaks to communities across the world. Forging these connections aids not just social catharsis, it can also contribute to strengthening initiatives that can turn around the cycle of neglect and continuing disaster that Bhopal has been stuck in since 1984. Keeping this in mind, Bhopal2011 was designed to be a multicultural, multidisciplinary platform, open to all stakeholders. The event was divided into two parts, a workshop and a symposium. This section briefly describes the aim, mode and method of our work.
Bhopal2011-Requiem & Revitalization International Workshop & Symposium looked at the possible protection, decontamination and rehabilitation of Union Carbide Factory site in Bhopal as a site of commemoration, its potential to revitalise the precinct and the neighbouring communities and to explore the possible approaches and mechanisms of doing so. The city of Bhopal is steeped in history, with a rich and varied legacy of the times when it had been the capital of various princely states for centuries. Yet, most people across the globe associate the city today primarily with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The relevance of 1984 Bhopal disaster and its aftermath concerns questions of power, justice and sustainability – social and ecological, not just for Bhopal but also globally. When it was set up in the late 1960s, the Union Carbide factory was considered a magnificent structure, a symbol of ‘modern’ India. It was the largest alpha-naphthol plant of this design anywhere in the world. The factory produced agricultural pesticides for a ‘greener and better India’ and held great promise for a fledgling nation struggling to find self sufficiency in food production. The plant used hazardous chemicals like phosgene, chlorine and methyl iso-cyanate that lay stocked in abundance at the site. Many smaller, yet hazardous accidents and warnings prior to tragedy went unheeded. On the night of December 3, 1984, deadly gases escaped, catching a city unawares, snuffing out life with silent efficiency. It is difficult to imaging the fear and desperation that would have gripped the people of Bhopal that night. It is also just as difficult to comprehend that even by 2011, more than twenty-six years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, almost all related issues, from its causes to its fallout and legacy, remain unresolved and contentious.
The site of the tragedy itself, the former Union Carbide factory is contaminated; its structures fast disintegrating, faced with neglect and imminent destruction. In 2010, tenders were floated for the dismantling of the factory following a high court order for the clean-up of the site. This was done without an expert study or public debate on whether dismantling would be the most effective way to address the pollution, with no real reference to the larger de-contamination of the soil and ground water on the site. The dismantling of the factory structure also played into the view held by those who perceive the factory precinct as a grim reminder of an unfortunate tragedy that Bhopal is best rid of. This dilemma can be placed in the context of the potentially contentious role of heritage conservation in many settings where industrialisation has left behind a dubious and antipathetic legacy.
Yet the survivors believe that “the plant structures are the physical heart of the [survivor] movement to preserve the memory and lessons of the tragedy for future generations.” (Survivors’ letter to UNESCO director, 2009, ref. pg. xxiv) Bhopal’s tragedy has also bequeathed the city a legacy that is of enormous significance to the global discourse on balancing development with equity and ecology. Its relevance concerns questions of power, justice and sustainability – social and ecological. The site is a repository of history that remains undocumented and stories that are yet to be told. Whether it is to be retained, dismantled or saved in parts, a structure of its tangible and intangible importance calls for professional assessment and public discussion on its future.
As the site where the Bhopal Gas Tragedy originated, the Union Carbide factory complex was chosen as the site for the memorial commemorating the tragedy. Almost 20 after the tragedy, the state government floated an open national competition for the design of the memorial in Bhopal with the Union Carbide Factory site chosen as the memorial site. Beyond this, the competition brief was open ended leaving the architects free to develop appropriate design interventions for the memorial. The winning proposal for revitalisation of the site by the architectural firm Space Matters, sought to physically, notionally and functionally reconnect the site with the city fabric. It aimed at communicating a meaningful and relevant narrative to its visitors by addressing aspects of healing, remembrance and deterrence. The programme elements included livelihood generation, public spaces, museums, archives and research facilities as instruments that engender their own evolution guided by time and process. The factory structures are preserved in the proposal as the heart of the memorial complex, constituting valuable heritage and legacy. This characteristic visual domination of the precinct by the factory buildings was retained in the intervention with the new buildings on site being mostly subterranean so as to not compete visually with the factory buildings (ref pg 113, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Memorial).
Yet, despite its semiotic cultural value as the physical site of the tragedy, the factory precinct today, already in a serious state of disrepair, is under constant threat of being demolished. Moreover, there is no framework in place for involving and including different stakeholders in the process of commemoration to realise the latent potential of the site and transform it from an urban blight to a cultural resource for Bhopal.
After the competition, there was increased awareness on the heritage value of the factory as well as the state of disrepair and imminent threat of dismantling it faced. In February 2009, survivors of the tragedy along with representatives of concerned civic action groups, the architects of the memorial and heritage experts met Minja Yang, the then Director of the UNESCO office in New Delhi, to seek advice on the possible nomination of the tragedy site for inclusion in the World Heritage Sites List. (ref. pg. xxiv) In 2010, Space Matters joined the International Coalition for Sites of Conscience to include the Union Carbide site at Bhopal in the list of 240 like-minded historic sites around the world that advocate and fight to preserve places of memory and use them to spur discussion on the legacies of the past.
There are few sites in the world that match the level of complexity of the Union Carbide site. The issues it raises include brownfield remediation, participatory planning, disaster management, heritage conservation, commemoration processes, architectural design, museum design, cultural resource management, conflict management amongst others. The significance of the Union Carbide disaster extends well beyond Bhopal. The importance and challenge of Bhopal also lies in the fact that it forces both researchers and professionals to work in a multidisciplinary and inclusive manner. In isolation, each discipline falls short in contributing, and could even complicate matters further. Moreover, Bhopal requires a combination of action and research, as research in isolation, without proactive measures to contribute on ground, falls short. Finally, the existing scenario of the contaminated Union Carbide site, despite available resources and technology, indicates that technical solutions cannot succeed without a transparent governance processes and social engagement. The rift between the ‘State’ on one side and the survivors as ‘people’ on the other has been a troubling legacy of the tragedy.
Discourse forms an integral part of reaching any form of mediation in a situation as entrenched in conflict and controversy as the Bhopal gas tragedy. Bhopal2011 provided the academic environment conducive to discussions and productive solutions. Organized by Space Matters, modern Asian Architecture Network and The International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage (India), Bhopal2011 was thus conceptualised to be able to explore the potential of the Union Carbide site and its remediation. While the focus was on the tangible artefacts of the tragedy – the site, the Union Carbide site , memorial etc., the intention was to study these issues holistically from a physical as well as socio-cultural perspective. Bhopal2011 firstly aimed at raising awareness on issues facing the site – both in Bhopal and outside. Secondly, providing a multidisciplinary and open platform for different individuals and institutions that had the expertise to contribute in Bhopal, we hoped would help forge a network and initiate possible long-term engagement with Bhopal. Finally and critically, the initiative was an experiment to test whether a positive legacy could be salvaged for Bhopal for the decades of pain and trauma, by forging connections and exchanging experiences.
To achieve this, Bhopal2011 maintained an open door policy for any of the stakeholders involved with the Bhopal gas tragedy issues to interact with the participants who were given a broad view of the situation. The participants were encouraged as researchers to come to their own assessment from multiple and opposed claims that they were presented, and interact with as wide a cross-section of society as possible. Debate and disagreement was encouraged, so was consensus building.
The Bhopal2011 event used the disaster and its legacy as an opportunity to be self critical. At the same time, the notion that heritage or commemoration must be a solely a territory of trained professionals had to be displaced. Not only the content but the language, location and structure of the conference’s engagement had to redefine the concept of ‘inclusion’. The conflict that Bhopal embodies, presents an opportunity to generate templates and approaches with which the various conflicts and challenges of the site can be negotiated. This can contribute to our greater understanding of issues relating to sites with marginalised and conflicting historic narratives. In exploring key issues linked to the emergence of the Bhopal gas tragedy site as a cultural heritage site, the aim was to set the ground for collaborative effort, where disciplines of cultural heritage, architecture, urban design and applied arts could form alliances with those of culture sociology, global studies, culture geography and development studies. Within a collaborative framework, the workshop and the symposium explored three main themes.
- Challenges in recognizing contemporary sites with a conflicting past as heritage: Sites with conflicts and painful associations contain memories of traumas that societies and humans tend to forget or suppress. Thus, they face resistance in getting acknowledged as heritage. In the construct of the Bhopal tragedy and its perceptions in society, questions concerning ethics, socio-politics, neo-colonialism and gender are put to the fore. Can Bhopal find a place in our common understanding of ‘heritage’? The answer was critical in giving us a tool and precedent for identifying and appropriating sites of contemporary and conflicting heritage.
- Challenges in interpreting and rehabilitating sites with conflicting narratives: The process of interpretation encompasses multiple narratives that claim ownership of heritage sites. The legacy of Bhopal is a battleground for various conflicting perspectives. It is a challenge for those entrusted with interpreting such sites to give visual and spatial form and content to complex narratives. There is also a need to address the conflicts that arise between universalistic interpretation of heritage and its local understanding. The workshop and symposium focused on differences and alternative interpretations, along with the role of cultural heritage as a democratic force in the local society.
- Challenges in developing heritage sites for society building: Bhopal’s tragedy and the structures of the plant could be of enormous significance to the global discourse on balancing development with equity and ecology. The site could be of tremendous educational value for future generations. But how can this be made manifest? A strategy for the factory’s protection and revitalization needs to address the conflicting views on the factory’s position in the cityscape and mindscape of Bhopal.
Bhopal2011 was structured in two parts comprising a student’s workshop and a symposium. These were linked to form a continuous narrative that captured ways of examining and engaging with Bhopal by ‘looking at’, ‘looking back’ and ‘looking beyond’. The structure was flexible, allowing participation in one of the two capsules while still being able to take back the essence of the debate. The multidisciplinary and diverse background of the participants added a creative friction to the process that challenged them to question their own interpretations of the tragedy. This method of engaging directly with real-time challenges and issues was strongly influenced by the mAAN methodology. In 2004, together with the Tongji University (Shanghai) and the Shanghai architect office of Deng Kunyan Associates, mAAN hosted a post graduate workshop aimed at producing a master plan to revitalize and transform a factory complex, gone out of business, into a grand-scale design centre. The Great Shanghai Factory Revitalization Workshop(GSFRW), was a 14-day workshop, open to graduate students from all parts of Asia, held on the site of an endangered factory complex. This program was part of the Asian Academy of Heritage Management Program of the UNESCO/Bangkok Office. The impact of the workshop then convinced the Shanghai Urban Planning authorities, as well as government authorities throughout other cities in China, of the importance of identifying industrial heritage developments and seeking unique ways of revitalizing them within the context of their environments. (For more details see: See mAAN.org) Like mAAN, the other organisations that had come together for Bhopal2011, brought specific inputs and value to the process.
The Workshop was the first part of the event. It was spread over ten days at the buildings that formerly housed the Benazir College and was structured along the lines of the past workshops of mAAN, held in Shanghai (2004), Padang (2009) and Singapore (2010).
42 students from different parts of India and other countries participated, including a group of students from the School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal. About half of the students came from India; others came from Indonesia, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Nepal, Norway, Sweden and USA. The unit masters also constituted a corresponding Indian and international mix. Together, the participants included heritage practitioners, urban planners, disaster management consultants, architects, photographers, artists, environmentalists, scientists and social workers. The students, from both graduate and postgraduate levels and from different disciplines, worked in five units of ten each. Two unit masters, with experience and expertise in the relevant themes, guided each group. The five teams of unit masters were each given a theme by the organisers. The unit masters were chosen for their experience in the particular theme and for complementary perspectives that they brought into the unit. The themes related to heritage evaluation and conservation, urban studies, architectural design of memorials, heritage management processes and art as a medium of engaging with the complex past of Bhopal. They each addressed a different aspect of the tragedy site and together provided a layered perspective and study of the site’s issues.
The workshop looked at the practical challenges in the rehabilitation of the Tragedy site specifically from the design, urban regeneration and heritage management perspectives. At the same time, it addressed the larger social implications of architectural design and heritage conservation. As a starting point and for common reference, the different student groups (units) formed during the workshop used the Bhopal gas tragedy memorial proposal by Space Matters that was selected by the Madhya Pradesh state government in 2005, after a nationwide design competition.
A unique aspect of the mAAN methodology is that the unit masters give presentations of their themes after which the students themselves choose the unit that they want to work with. Once the unit work commenced, the team worked to interpret and adapt their theme as per the ground conditions they encountered, making for a dynamic if sometimes unsettling experience. Objectives and outcomes of each unit evolved though their process in this fashion. A group of resource people were also available and delivered lectures during the workshop. In exploring key issues linked to the emergence of the Bhopal gas tragedy site as cultural heritage and at the end of the workshop, the units presented their proposals in the media of their choice. This was repeated during the symposium that followed. Infrastructure in terms of studio space, stationery, internet and printing facilities was provided for the students by the event organisers.
Most of the participants in the workshop were unacquainted with Bhopal. It always takes time to understand and probe into the deeper layers of a site; not least when it concerns a city such as Bhopal with its rich history, rapid growth and highly traumatic past overshadowing the last thirty years and intermingled with often conflicting interests and conceptions. The tight schedule and lack of familiarity was a big challenge for the participants. At the same time, this direct interaction with the context, without preconceptions, helped them question established notions and offer alternate views.
During the workshop, experts, students and stakeholders involved with the tragedy were engaged in non-hierarchical dialogues and produced schematic proposals addressing the overall site or key concerns related to the site. In this way, the workshop served as a catalyst to establish long term quality, joint research that can contribute to a better theoretical understanding of the underlying issues in Bhopal; and technological innovation and expertise towards its regeneration. The units conducted extensive fieldwork at the Union Carbide site and in the city of Bhopal, took numerous interviews and innumerable photographs, to which only a small part can be given credit in this volume. The process highlighted that the articulation of a society’s ‘shared’ heritage straddles consensus, compromise, contradiction and conflict. Each unit used very different methods, both in the work itself and in the presentation of the results. These will be explained in greater detail in their respective sections further on in this book. The units received structured inputs during the mid term review which was open to the public of Bhopal and generated some intense debates on the finding. The workshop output provided the orientation and stimulus for debate and dialogue for the following Symposium.
The symposium took place at Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya or the Museum of Mankind, one of the most renowned museums in Bhopal over three days following the workshop. Manav Sangrahalaya was an important setting to highlight the available museological resources available in the city of Bhopal, which can be tapped to help create the exhibits for the Memorial in the future. The symposium included many participants from the workshop as well as newer participants. The symposium encompassed presentations of submitted papers as well as extensive panel discussions. Other key inputs were the presentations of and discussions on the students’ work from the preceding workshop. The workshop results were discussed and critiqued in light of the social, urban and ecological legacy of the Tragedy. Debates and discussions between representatives of communities hit by the tragedy, social workers, policy analysts, heritage experts, environmentalists and bureaucrats presented a critique of Bhopal after 25 years of the disaster.
The symposium further investigated the themes previously addressed on the Bhopal2011 workshop adding to this investigation, the perspectives gained from various cases around the world. The main panel themes were the following:
The first theme, ‘Bhopal gas tragedy as event and metaphor’, addressed the intersection of various factors – social, political, ecological, and economic – leading up to the Tragedy and in its aftermath. It explored the underlying themes of the Tragedy and its significance for the global discourse on sustainable development.
A second session, ‘Bhopal gas tragedy site as heritage’, addressed the understanding of the tangible heritage value of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Site. It explored various challenges and resistance to its acceptance as cultural heritage. It, thus, came to be closely connected to the understanding of industrial heritage sites, sites invested with the heritage of marginalised communities and sites with conflicted heritage, in general.
A third theme, ‘Bhopal gas tragedy site as memorial’, addressed the challenges of interpreting and communicating sites with complex narratives. This session critiqued the roles that disciplines such as architecture, journalism, art, literature and heritage management traditionally play in the construct of public memory. It looked at the tangible output of the process of keeping memory alive and how it is arrived at.
The panel discussions were the main feature of these sessions where the workshop participants, local stakeholders and presenters brought together varying perspectives on issues that resulted in heated debates and intense discussions. Again panels did not aim at conclusive discussion, but worked more towards pushing the envelope on the scope and depth of public dialogue on the tragedy. Even when the stakeholders spoke the same language, the dialogue between different background and discipline generated a fair share of surprises, new insights and well as misunderstandings. It brought to light that sustained participatory processes and dialogue do not happen by chance – it requires social will, political commitment and professional input – something discussed further on in this publication in the chapter ‘Process’.
The act of meaning-making at the Bhopal2011 event, where we find multiple narratives of the past, ascribing it values in the present and projecting its use for a shared future, deters the view of memorials as ‘products’. Heritage then becomes intangible, continuous and most importantly promotes engagement. It becomes an ‘act’ with participants rather than a passive object of observation. It is as valuable as the value we attribute to it and it is this process of attribution that determines its continued relevance in the society. By a gesture of commemorating the past, many hope to bury its uncomfortable questions. The challenge lies in embedding and protecting continued engagement with the questions, lessons and legacy of the past into the process of commemoration.
In its edited form, this volume reiterates nineteen of the presentations made during the workshop and symposium of Bhopal2011. While it does not seek to propagate or promote a singular idea or agenda, the aim of the publication is to open up the process of commemoration of the Bhopal gas tragedy to the general public, by providing the documentation of the workshop and the symposium.