Academic journal article Social Justice

The Movement in Bhopal and Its Lessons

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Movement in Bhopal and Its Lessons

Article excerpt


AS A PARTICIPANT-OBSERVER IN THE STRUGGLE OF SURVIVORS OF THE BHOPAL disaster, I wish to consider its successes and failures over the last 10 years. This stocktaking is intended mainly to arrive at a general understanding of the initiatives needed to confront other situations like the Bhopal disaster. Given the waves of liberalization sweeping through the Indian subcontinent, the increasing deployment of extremist technologies in the countries of the South, and the growth and spread of toxic capital in most of the "undeveloped" world, the recurrence of Bhopal is a real possibility and the lessons from the movement in Bhopal could help us prepare for such an eventuality.

Many of the shortcomings of the Bhopal movement can be explained, although not justified, by the unprecedented nature of the disaster. The people who found themselves surrounded by Union Carbide's poison clouds and ran in panic in the direction of the wind (instead of against it) were not the only ones to be confused by the shock and suddenness of calamity. As subsequent events have shown, the activists who sought to confront the disaster were as much taken by surprise and equally lacking in direction. It is possible, with hindsight and a conscious distancing of oneself, to identify some of the problems in the activists' response to the disaster.

In the following pages, I present a description of the struggle of the Bhopal survivors, outlining some of the major problems and possibilities in the last 10 years. Recommendations are made by positing "what would have been" against "what has been." For the sake of brevity, details about the disaster and its aftermath have been avoided (see BGIA, 1992; Pearce and Tombs, 1989). Although these observations relate to the particular situation in Bhopal, they are most likely to be relevant to communities in most of South Asia, which share a common social, cultural, and political context and, more significantly, common perpetrators of industrial crimes.


The city of Bhopal (population close to one million in 1984) is divided into three areas. The old city, established during the reign of the Nawabs, forms the northern part; the new city, with government offices, ministers' bungalows, and manicured parks, lies in the middle; the industrial township surrounds a government-run engineering industry further south. These areas are distinct from each other, with so little interaction between them that they could as well be three different cities. The people exposed to the poisons from Union Carbide' s pesticide factory on December 2-3, 1984, were residents of the city of old Bhopal.

A substantial section of the population of old Bhopal is composed of first- and second-generation immigrants, driven out of their homelands in neighboring districts as a result of the introduction of mechanized agriculture to their villages and other "development" projects. Over 75% of the people who were later to be exposed and incapacitated earned their livelihood through daily wage labor and petty business. Women, particularly among the Muslim poor who formed over 35% of the population, did piece-rate work in their homes and were cut off from the world outside their communities and families. A strong sense of community pervaded across religious lines. Considering that at least 100,000 of the people were settled in what the government prefers to call "illegal slums," togetherness in the community was a necessary condition of survival.

During the 1950s, as a part of the then national policy of organizing the geography of the country, Bhopal was made the capital of the newly formed state of Madhya Pradesh. The location of state authority in the city subsumed all political articulation within the language of party politics and generated social interventions toward creation of vote banks by slum-level petty leaders. Compared with other Indian cities, old Bhopal had very few industrial units and a negligible history of militancy among the industrial workers, who numbered about 8,000 in 1984. …

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