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An ever present past

Remembering the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy on its anniversary isn’t enough. Pratik Kanjilal elaborates.

columns Updated: Dec 04, 2009 21:45 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

We have safely negotiated the silver jubilee of the Bhopal gas disaster. Did the ritual remembering. Wondered what Warren Anderson was doing at home in Long Island, safe from the limp arm of the US law. Wondered how the Dow management gets any sleep. While declining to pay to clean up the 2,000 tonnes of hazardous waste dumped in Bhopal by its subsidiary Union Carbide, it has spent a packet to propose a new element for the periodic table — ‘Hu’, the human element. The Dow Hu ad blitz supports corporate goals which include ‘Local Protection of Human Health and the Environment’, ‘Product Safety Leadership’ and ‘Sustainable Chemistry’. Seriously, how do Dow’s managers sleep at night?

They can because they’ve got away with it again, like they got away with selling napalm and Agent Orange. Our government muffed up, settling for Union Carbide’s paltry insurance money instead of the $3.3 billion claimed. That was 18 years ago and today, one sees that the disaster labelled the Industrial Hiroshima has left a disproportionately small footprint on the world’s consciousness. Bhopal enjoys a fraction of the recall of another disaster that happened a year and a half later: Chernobyl. They’re like a diptych, a study in contrasts.

Chernobyl forced a reappraisal of nuclear safety. After a referendum, Italy decommissioned all its reactors. Global concern forced Moscow to let down the veil of secrecy, contributing to the process of opening up that led to the collapse of the USSR. Today, an international Chernobyl Forum oversees the cleanup. And in popular culture, the depopulated Zone of Alienation and the ghost town of Pripyat have featured in four video games and the Oscar-winning Chernobyl Heart.

The Chernobyl meltdown directly killed 56 people and contributed to perhaps 4,000 cancer deaths. Union Carbide immediately killed about 8,000 and the cumulative toll could be 25,000. Factor in morbidity and genetic disorders and Bhopal is probably worth ten Chernobyls. And yet the world generally goes, “Bhopal… what?” Only the activist community remembers. In 2003, Greenpeace even tracked down Warren Anderson when he was sought by Interpol and the US government claimed to have lost him.

But five years ago the Yes Men, culture jammers from New York, put the 20th anniversary of Bhopal in the face of 300 million. On BBC, Andy Bichlbaum impersonated a Dow spokesman and announced that Union Carbide would be liquidated and the $12 billion proceeds paid to Bhopal’s victims. Dow’s scrip lost $2 billion in 23 minutes. The Yes Men also infiltrated a financial conference in London to present a fake Dow Acceptable Risk Calculator, which computed industrial project gains against doomed lives. Its slogan: “Because the skeleton in your closet could be a golden skeleton”, like Bhopal. Its mascot: Gilda, a gilded human skeleton. Global risk managers still line up to know more.

Footage from these gonzo ‘actions’ features in The Yes Men Fix the World, which premiered in US theatres in October. A Hindi print is planned for India release. Not sure when that will happen, so I’m publishing the script later this month. One does what one can. What happened in Bhopal in 1984 was impunity on an industrial scale. It is important to remember it, and not only on its anniversary.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal