At Remember Bhopal Museum, histories of those affected by 1984 disaster are preserved against apathy, neglect
The Remember Bhopal Museum actively involves survivors to tell the story of the world’s worst industrial disaster and one of India’s longest-running environmental justice movements.
The Remember Bhopal Museum sticks out amidst the brightly painted houses of the city’s Begusarai Colony: Its once-white façade is dusty and peeling; the protest slogans graffiti-ed on the walls are fading, as is the red and black signboard atop the museum’s entrance. But the museum’s external condition means little to the people whose memories it is a repository of.
Rachna, one of the museum’s two caretakers, narrates a visitor’s experience — a man who broke down on seeing an exhibited photograph. “We asked him what was wrong and he told us that the woman in the photo was his wife. The last time he saw her was over three decades ago, on the night of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. They were separated in the stampede that ensued,” she says.
The night of 2-3 December 1984.
Over 30 tonnes of highly toxic methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, affecting lakhs of people. Unofficial estimates place the number of deaths between 15,000 and 25,000. The effects are felt even by second and third generation Bhopalis, whose ancestors were exposed to the gas.
Thirty-six years after the disaster, whether the tragedy’s victims/survivors and their families have been adequately compensated remains questionable.
The Bhopal Gas Leak Act of 1985 allowed the Indian government to act as a legal representative of those affected by tragedy. Initially, the Indian government tried to have the trial in the US courts, but they were unsuccessful. Their compensation demand was $3.2 billion dollars. Meanwhile, in India, an interim relief case was being heard to address the immediate concerns of survivors. It was during a break in the case hearing that the government signed an out of court settlement with Union Carbide for $470 million — one-sixth of their original demand.
“When the compensation was finally disbursed to families years later, the interim relief payment from the Government was deducted. With the rest of the money, survivors also had to pay lawyers, doctors and municipal authorities who helped them get their documents in order. They didn’t have much left after,” observes Shalini Sharma, researcher and trustee of the Remember Bhopal Museum.
Sharma adds that the out of court settlement “had many irregularities, including no compensation for those who had psychological impacts [sic] or cancer due to the exposure to toxic gas”. It was only post-2010 that survivors learnt through RTI applications that the entire out of court settlement was designed by Union Carbide, including the nature and categories of injuries and corresponding compensation for each. “The settlement was meant to serve Carbide’s interests, not ensure disaster relief and recovery,” says Sharma.
In the early 2000s, following pressure from Dow Chemicals (which acquired Union Carbide in
2001) to close the case, the Madhya Pradesh government proposed building a memorial for those affected by the tragedy on the factory site. They organised a public competition, and the winning museum design was by graduates from the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in Delhi. The government awarded them the contract for building the memorial, along with the responsibility of cleaning up the site of contamination. A lesser-known fact, however, was that the history of soil and groundwater contamination at the site predates the gas leak.
“What is not visible to the naked eye is the underground contamination. Since the ‘70s, Union Carbide had been dumping toxic waste in the site. Today, there are about 4,500 metric tons of toxic waste underground and this resulting groundwater contamination affects nearly 48 communities,” says Sharma. Survivors opposed the state memorial for several reasons, an important one being the validity of building the memorial on a contaminated and legally disputed site. Even today, Dow Chemicals is embroiled in several lawsuits and petitions in the Supreme Court, including being a respondent in a public interest litigation seeking a clean-up of the gas tragedy site. Building a memorial in this very area ensures that Dow Chemicals, once again, escape their responsibilities with the help of the government.
This corporate-government collusion is not new. Post-leak, there are several incidents that implicate the government, including helping then Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson escape India clandestinely. The out of court settlement, refusal to involve survivors in memorial plans, failure of relief and rehabilitation processes, and an overall lack of accountability contribute to survivors' cautiousness and distrust. “Survivors asserted a moral right to their own memory," notes Sharma. "They asked: Can the government account for its own shame in the memorial-museum it builds?”
In 2004, acting on the suggestion of Bhopal activist Satinath Sarangi, survivor groups set up a
museum with donated mementoes of loved ones — ‘Yaad-e-Hadsa’. Soon after, journalist and trained museologist Rama Lakshmi offered her expertise to the Bhopal Movement for building an oral history-based museum. Sharma and Lakshmi collaborated to set up the Remember Bhopal Museum in 2014 with inputs and assistance from survivors. “Oral histories reinforce the survivors’ agency in telling their own stories,” says Sharma. The museum actively involves survivors to tell the story of the world’s worst industrial disaster and one of India’s longest-running environmental justice movements.
The museum opens into the ‘Dark Room’ — painted entirely in black, filled with B&W photos from the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Memorabilia — clothes of victims, or things bought for their loved ones — is encased in glass shelves below. An upward look reveals photos of those who lost their lives in the tragedy, arranged in a grid towards the ceiling.
A corridor chronicling stories of Warren Anderson and ‘Operation Faith’ leads out from the Dark Room. On the other side, objects and voices bear witness to contaminated water, followed by the ‘Health Impacts’ room. Here, a flight of stairs leads to two other spaces: The ‘Protest Room’, containing photos and souvenirs from decades of protests for fair compensation and dignity of survivors, and the ‘Compensation Room’, which archives legal documents and compensation details. Nailed to the walls of each of these rooms are telephones, containing a recorded voice note of victims’ stories, narrated by themselves. Adjacent telephones include English translations of the same recording.
Among the people whose testimonies are heard over the phones is Sadanand Rathore, a Bhopal-based activist who lost his mother in the gas leak. He was associated with the movement until his death a few years ago. “Sadanand ji’s wife keeps coming here to listen to his voice,” the caretaker Rachna says. “We are the guardians of so many memories that shape the lives of people.”
Since its inception, the Remember Bhopal Museum has refused donations from the State or corporates in order to “resist any attempt by anybody — government or industry — to rob the survivors of their active voice in museum or memorial projects”. The everyday maintenance of the museum and salaries of the two staff members is entirely dependent on donations from individuals and groups. Due to a lack of funds, rumors of the museum shutting down began swirling around April 2019. With the COVID-19 pandemic dealing a hard blow, the museum has been temporarily shut since March this year. However, the Remember Bhopal Museum website is still active. “We are exploring options and developing curation possibilities such as a virtual tour of the museum,” says Shalini Sharma.
And despite the museum being temporarily closed, expenses — including rent — continue to mount. The initial donations from the public have now dried up. “Nobody cares,” says Rachna. “How can we go on if people don’t care?”
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