Memory is treacherous territory – a constant, subconscious process of filtering our past, which we struggle to grasp. What we choose to remember or forget might be affected by external circumstances but is rooted deep in the psyche of an individual. What then of public memory? The focus of this publication is the site where the Bhopal gas tragedy originated. Tangible remains comprise rusting metal, crumbling concrete, dense overgrowth on acres of soil, laboratories with the chemical bottles, files, signs and dangerous chemicals left behind as they were on the on the night of the tragedy, seemingly frozen in time. Yet, time has passed, more than 26 years of it. In that time the site has some to be associated with not just of the tragedy 1984 but of the ensuing struggle for justice that still continues. It has become a reminder the dangers of the reckless pursuit of development, with little heed to consequences and little understanding of what ‘development’ signifies and for whom. Some people see the factory as the physical anchor of any future commemoration efforts. It has also become an eyesore for people who believe that the city is best rid of this rusted reminder of a terrible past. They would rather their city be remembered for its beautiful lakes, forts and palaces than industrial disasters. Public memory is closely linked to cultural identity. This merits exploration on whether the uncertain future of the tragedy site is to some degree a consequence of the popular understanding of heritage as that which celebrates legacies of our past achievements but fails to include narratives of injustice, discrimination and past mistakes. Is the attempt to eradicate such symbols, effectively a selective overwriting of history in order to construct a more appropriate cultural identity? Both memory and landscapes shift with perspectives. How the physical landscape of the site is viewed has much to do with how people wish to remember the tragedy. The Union Carbide site thus becomes an important case to help understand how to engage with public memory, both its tangible and intangible aspects, in a manner that is inclusive and constructive.
At the concluding session of Bhopal2011 Requiem & Revitalization International Workshop & Symposium researchers presented their findings after an intensive ten-day workshop that focused on the legacy of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984. A cross section of Bhopalis in the audience, including survivors, activists, government officials, artists, former employees of UCIL, journalists, scholars and other citizens, participated in the proceedings, often engaging in impromptu debates. This may seem unremarkable unless one takes into account that 26 years of struggling with the tragedy and its painful, unending aftermath has impacted the city, leaving it fragmented, increasingly locked into unyielding positions – angry, defensive, fatigued or alienated.
Over the years, discourse on the tragedy has become increasingly limited in scope as it became a distant memory for most of us – from global tragedy, to a country’s onus, to a city’s burden and now a conflict between ‘perpetuators’ and ‘survivors’ of the tragedy. This myopic view pushes the Bhopal narrative to the fringes of popular consciousness as an inspiring yet depressing saga of the endless, quixotic struggle of unfortunate victims against immensely powerful forces. In doing so, it exempts the rest of the society from the crucial debate on the global socio-political hierarchies that precluded the tragedy and that have done very little since then to contain its fallout. On one hand, this leaves the victims vulnerable and isolated in their struggle for justice. One the other it compromises the legacy of the tragedy and the lessons we can derive from it. The political and social divides around the issues relating to the tragedy – and a resistance to view sites with contemporary, painful pasts as heritage – need to be addressed as part of the process of transformation of the site into a publicly accessible site for remembrance and empowerment for the local community. Bhopal2011 provided a platform for discussion, debate and dialogue towards this end by expanding the discourse and contextualizing the tragedy within the shared heritage of Bhopal. Bhopal2011. Landscapes of Memory being a documentation of the workshop and symposium builds further on the themes that were the focus of Bhopal2011 and is a means to create further awareness on the issue.
The workshop was structured into five units; each of which dealt with a certain theme that was significant to the Union Carbide site yet had a broader theoretical and contextual scope, which the multicultural and multidisciplinary participants could engage with. The themes were Union Carbide site as heritage and resource, landscapes of regeneration, space as a container for memory, inclusive heritage management and expression of memory through art. Together they looked at evaluating the heritage values of the Union Carbide site, seeing how its rehabilitation can contribute to overall urban regeneration of the surrounding underdeveloped precincts, how the site can be interpreted as a future memorial, how inclusive management process can protect the legacy of the site and the interests of different stakeholders and finally looking at the role that creative expressions can play in communicating the essence of the tragedy that transcends its different, sometimes conflicting narratives. The symposium involved presentations of paper and panel discussions on related issues.
The book does not present the unit work and papers as different sections but rather organizes them thematically. This is done so that the book reflects in tone the twin focus of action and research that defined Bhopal2011. Moreover the variety of cases and perspectives in the papers help put the work of the units, which centred on Bhopal into a larger global perspective. The first chapter Prologue establishes the context of Bhopal 2011, introducing the reader to the unfolding narrative of Bhopal gas tragedy. An opening essay by Raajkumar Keswani, which is a transcript of his opening talk at Bhopal2011, describes evocatively his personal experience with the tragedy, right from the time when as a young journalist and activist he made many futile attempts to warn the city of the impending disaster at Union Carbide. The graphic essay ‘Timeline of an unfolding disaster’ by Jan af Geijerstam and Swati Janu helps summarize the key points in the decades-long narrative of the tragedy. A copy of the exchange of letters between the survivors and the then Director of UNESCO India, Minja Yang, on protecting the threatened legacy of the Union Carbide site and its urgent need for rehabilitation sets the tone for the chapter Discourse and Dissonance which describes in detail the context, concept and process of Bhopal2011.
The following chapter Artefact explores the link between object and memory. It is also a means to further introduce the reader to the Union Carbide site. The work of the unit ‘Union Carbide site as heritage and resource’ delved into the debate of the intangible values that qualify tangible objects and sites as heritage. Arguing for a holistic valuation of heritage they initiated a mapping of the Union Carbide site based of the framework provided by unit master Bosse Lagerqvist. From the unit’s study taking up the artefacts of the Union Carbide plant site to the various observations and experiences of the authors, the chapter elucidates the role of heritage as resource. While Bosse Lagerqvist’s paper talks of a framework for the valuation of heritage at an international level, the Indian scenario is presented by the other authors – Nalini Thakur throws light on the threats facing our built heritage, and the ground realities in its management; Kai Waise’s photo-essay on the ship breaking yard on the west coast of the country, Alang, along with Moulshri Joshi’s text on the perception of industrial heritage in the country highlights the absence of the understanding of industry as heritage and consequently of the larger implications of industrialization on our society; Aditya Ghosh and Swati Janu’s paper on the potential of the thermal power plants of Delhi for adaptive reuse further elaborates the difficulty in appreciating defunct industrial zones as heritage and resource.
The chapter Context establishes the setting of the site, of the city, and of the Tragedy in time and space. From the rich history of Bhopal to finding traces of the past in a city, the chapter also aims at looking at Bhopal from a perspective not overshadowed by the 1984 gas leak. The unit ‘Bhopal March – Landscapes of regeneration’ attempted a unique way of understanding the site, from outside it. By mapping and observing the daily life of the people living around the site, and those most directly affected by the Tragedy and its aftermath, the participants gained a deeper and unbiased perspective of the ground realities. Norihito Nakatani’s paper further highlights the power of acknowledging hidden traces of the past though his study of Hiroshima. Jeeth Iype shows how careful interventions in the built environment can have social and cultural spinoffs, through his experience in designing a clinic for survivors near the factory in Bhopal. The organizers share their experiences of ‘discovering’ Benazir College – a beautiful, rustic palace, now in ruins – for the Bhopal2011 workshop. Meera Das’ article on the ingenious engineering and planning of the erstwhile kingdoms of Bhopal illustrates the rich history of Bhopal – which is today associated only with the Tragedy and its aftermath, and not its rich past.
The chapter Custody talks of process and product of commemoration presenting the work of the unit that explored what factors memorials should take into consideration. Reflecting on the decision makers and the stakeholders, it throws light on museological and design challenges in memorialisation. Focusing on the design process of a memorial, the unit participants used the SpaceMatters’ design entry for the Bhopal memorial, which is also presented in this section, as a springing point for further explorations. Various creative solutions are presented culminating in an incremental mode of commemoration. Rama Lakshmi’s paper talks of the potential the memorialization process for the Bhopal gas tragedy holds in setting an inclusive curatorial framework for designing museums in the country, which in the present day tend to be pompous and one-sided. Eka Swadiansa’s paper further elucidates the design components of a holistic and democratic model of memorial, based on insightful case studies.
Process presents methods and experiences of authors for remediation of a conflicted site like the Union Carbide factory site. Successful projects rooted in a similar context as that of Bhopal, inform of the various strategies and challenges in the rehabilitation of the Union Carbide site. From shortcomings in the heritage-monitoring framework in the country to challenges inherent in a site with a troubled legacy to solutions for the rehabilitation of a contaminated site with a negative association, the chapter discusses various methodologies and approaches for Bhopal. Maria Greger’s paper on phytoremediation, as an efficient and economic method of decontaminating the Bhopal site, shows the way forward in bringing about positive change.
The chapter Legacy illustrates the links Bhopal shares with other parts of the globe, interconnected with similar sites of pain. Through their shared experiences and spirit of resilience, these places have a legacy that needs to be conserved and in some cases, restored. The chapter presents the many cases that Bhopal can learn from, and lessons from other Sites of Conscience, to bring about the kind of change the city awaits. Björn Ola Lind and Torkel Lindberg, artists from Sweden, talk of their experiences from Marieberg, an industrial community in Sweden, recovering from the effects of dioxin contamination by chemicals from Dow. Constantin Canavas presents the case of the Stoltzenberg plant in Germany, whose remediation has aided in spreading awareness on the decontamination there and other issues of illegal proceedings in the operation of the plant. Shalini Sharma’s paper on the activist movement in Bhopal, the longest struggle for justice in the world, talks of how the movement now identifies with other issues and struggles not just in India, but the world over – interconnected with sites with a shared legacy.
Finally, Reflections presents the various insights the unit masters, participants and organizers gained from the event. I end here with an insight from one of the unit masters Norihito Nakatani on the relevance of their unit’s work “… maybe our unit recording and research will be used sometime in the future if someone needs it. If someone is not concerned about our recording, it will never re-appear. Our activities have many possibilities in the future – our recording will become a memory in the future.”