Academic journal article Social Justice

Remembering Bhopal: Voices of Survivors

Academic journal article Social Justice

Remembering Bhopal: Voices of Survivors

Article excerpt

PRESERVING THE MEMORY OF A TRAGIC AND ENORMOUSLY DISRUPTIVE EVENT IN A nation's contemporary history is a political act, and a contentious one at that. Surging immediately are questions like: Why remember? Who remembers? What kind of memories? And whose memory? The answers to many of these questions will not only shape the contours of any memory-making project, but will also determine how the democratic discourse is staged in a country like India about difficult and divisive themes.

On the face of it, the memory of arguably the worst industrial disaster in history in Bhopal--that left 8,000 dead in the immediate aftermath and over 25,000 in following three decades, as well as more than 150,000 with chronic ailments--should evoke general consensus. But remembering Bhopal splits the contemporary Indian narrative like no other because it counters the manner in which the country pursues economic growth in its new twenty-first century avatar as an emerging economy.

The State as Memory-Keeper

For the last 30 years, the state's imagination on remembering Bhopal has been strictly around the anniversary each year. On every anniversary the Indian Parliament and the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Legislative Assembly observe a two-minute silence. The MP state government observes a city wide holiday in Bhopal. It also organizes a commemorative ceremony in the form of a Shradhanjali divas (commemoration day), where state officials pay tribute to the dead and address the media.

A survey of the State Assembly proceedings (1985-2010) reveals that after the disaster the members of the MP Legislative Assembly raised the demand for erecting a memorial several times, particularly around the anniversary (Sharma 2011). There was no disagreement over this demand; in fact, there appears to be an in-principle agreement between different political parties over the need for building a memorial even if demands for a memorial never became discussions about the vision for it (ibid.). The implicit assumption was that the state was the custodian of public memory of the disaster, with a corresponding vision that relied on experts but omitted survivors (ibid.). The memorial plans remained on paper until the twentieth anniversary.

Between 1985 and 2005, the major point in discussions of proposals was the location of the memorial (ibid). In 1987, it was proposed that the state memorial be built at Idgah Hills, but no action followed for the next nine years. In 1996, when Union Carbide (UC) had left India, the premises of the UC factory were suggested as the memorial site. The matter was again stalled for the next eight years. Only in December 2004 did the state government finally decide to build a memorial. In December of the following year, it submitted a proposal to the Indian government for a $25 million memorial, to be built within the factory premises.

Also in 2005, the MP state government organized a nationwide competition for the design of the memorial. A New Delhi-based architectural firm, SpaceMatters, won the competition. That firm later was also awarded the contract to build the actual memorial complex. Their proposal sought to address "aspects of healing, remembrance and deterrence" (Joshi and Ballal 2011). Since then, SpaceMatters joined the survivors to emphasize the need for preserving the factory structure as a crucial part of Bhopal's heritage (ibid.; Ballal et al. 2011).

Four years later, in November 2009, the MP government submitted another proposal to the central government to construct a Bhopal memorial with an estimated expenditure of $19 million (Rs. 116.18 crore). It was advised to request the required funds directly from the Planning Commission. Earlier, the commission had sanctioned a one-time additional payment from the federal government of $ 1.6 million (Rs 10 crore), to be provided during 2006 and 2007 to the MP government to construct a memorial. For this, the state government moved an application before the MP High Court, Jabalpur, in Writ Petition No. …

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