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Enduring Effects of the Bhopal Disaster

Rahul Mukherjee

06 May, 2016

Benign Buffet:  Courtesy of International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal

On Nov 28, 2009, women survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy organized the "toxic lunch" performance, called Benign Buffet, to show their intimate albeit forced relationship with chemicals like napthol tar and sevin tar whose chronic toxicity had affected their own bodies and the lives of their children. The harmful chemicals they used in their buffet had been judged benign by the government and scientific authorities.

In an article recently published in Science, Technology, and Human Values, I interpret this performance in terms of embodied knowledge and the representation of risk. The study examines Bhopal gas survivors’ embodied relations with chemicals as it intertwines with activism against Union Carbide/Dow Chemical. Stacy Alaimo and Iris van der Tuin have offered insightful readings of Karen Barad for material feminisms and ecocriticism; in my piece, I explore how Barad's “agential realism” can help re-theorize materiality of chemical publics taking into account both posthuman and postcolonial concerns.

In this research, I encounterd numerous ways that the Bhopal disaster continues to shape Indian environmental politics and everyday life. Consulting my fieldnotes, I remember how Rachna Dhingra (of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action) at Sambhavna Clinic (where Bhopal gas survivors receive medical care) would take time off from our conversations to write referrals for gas affected patients coming with health complaints so that they could be treated in other specialized hospitals of Bhopal. The groundwater is contaminated in places close to the erstwhile Union Carbide factory. Recently, the government has been supplying piped water, but the water supply is at times inadequate and unaffordable. Another generation of children born in Bhopal are affected by chemicals, but in the absence of long-term studies, the effects have been difficult to gauge.    

The lessons from the Bhopal gas disaster are often invoked by various campaigns. In 2012, concerned citizens in urban areas of India demanded stricter regulation of cell antenna signals. In July 2013, I attended a housing society meeting in Mumbai where anti-radiation activist Prakash Munshi explained that cell towers were ubiquitous and that multinational corporations (read: cellular operators) were trying to deliberately sabotage any research on harmful emissions from the antennas. Citing the example of what Union Carbide did in Bhopal, Munshi contended that multinational corporations were always running after wealth and could not be trusted to be concerned about the health of the citizens of India.

As I was listening to Munshi’s presentation in Mumbai, I remembered the Greenpeace campaigns where the environmental NGO had identified a thousand toxic hotspots in India and the world over, which were slowly moving towards a Bhopal-like catastrophe. Munshi was suggesting that whether it is a chemical company like Union Carbide or a cellular operator such as Vodafone, all of them could be made to fit into the greedy multinational corporation category. At the same time, many of the upper-middle class urban residents that Munshi was addressing were themselves working for multinational corporations.

Chidren playing cricket in the vicinity of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal (source: film Bhopali)

The links between the advocacy of survivors battling the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster and the anti-nuclear movement in India and particularly the agitation against a nuclear reactor in Koodankulam (a place in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India), are more organic than the former case. Established political parties cite Bhopal in their opposition to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and the lack of stringent regulations against foreign nuclear equipment suppliers in the Nuclear Liability Bill discussed in the Indian parliament.

Other translocal connections between activist groups have emerged. Women survivors of Bhopal, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, who were at the forefront of the two-decades-long campaign for justice in Bhopal, received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004. The proceeds of the prize money went towards building the Chingari rehabilitation center in Bhopal where children of Bhopal are treated. Part of the money was also allocated toward instituting the Chingari Award. Chingari, translated from either Urdu or Hindi, means “flames.” “Flames” are emblematic of the hard-won battles of the Bhopali women survivors against Dow Chemical and Union Carbide, and the Chingari award is given each year to courageous women and communities in recognition of their fight against injustices of environmental disasters.

Chingari Trust Award Ceremony (source: DiaNuke.org)

On Dec 1, 2012, around the 28th anniversary of the disaster, the Chingari Award was given to the women of Idinthakarai and Koodankulam for standing up to both the nuclear establishment and “a nuclear supplier lobby comprising of multinational companies who see the entire Indian market shutting its doors to them if the Koodankulam struggle were to succeed” (Excerpt from Prize Citation). The award’s symbolism cannot be underestimated, as it is offered from one disaster survivor to a potential disaster victim who is boldly struggling to avert another such disaster. The award citation’s explicit reference to foreign suppliers is another reiteration that the lessons learned from Bhopal just cannot be forgotten.

Rahul Mukherjee is Assistant Professor of Television and New Media Studies in the Cinema Studies program (Department of English) at University of Pennsylvania. Combining science studies, media theory, and cultural studies, he researches mediation of environmental controversies as a way to conceptualize materiality of technoscience publics. His essays have appeared in New Media & Society, BioScope, Media, Culture & Society, and the Sustainable Media collection. Rahul's recent collaborative projects deal with use of memory cards and memory sticks as part of mobile media assemblages affording circulation of vernacular music videos in India.

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