Bhopal and the sound of silence
In Bhopal, India, on 2 December 1984, toxic gas slipped into the wintry night from a chemical factory and travelled towards unsuspecting victims, most of whom were fast asleep. Thousands were killed. It was one of the worst chemical disasters of the modern age. Dow Chemical, a sponsor of this year’s Olympic Games, owns Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), whose Indian subsidiary was the company responsible for the leak. However, Dow denies that it has any responsibility for the disaster or the outstanding contamination of water and soil in the Indian city, having bought UCC in 2001 – 17 years after the disaster.
My connection to Bhopal extends back to before the Bhopal Disaster. It is hard now to hear the word Bhopal without the inevitable association of horror and tragedy, so linked have the two words become. That is a global phenomenon, as Bhopal was one of the worst industrial disasters of our age and its infamy is boundless. Or perhaps I should say it could be taken as a given for most of my lifetime, that people knew about Bhopal. The struggle now, is against forgetting.
In my early teens I would spend time with my extended family in this old historic city. I have got an uncle who used to work at the Union Carbide factory where the leak happened, and another uncle who was a doctor working in a local government-run hospital at the time of the disaster
Even after almost 28 years, tens of thousands of people are affected by the repercussions of the night of the 2nd December 1984. Around 7,000 people died painful deaths right away. Others died over the following weeks and months and years.
Those are the sort of numbers that strip away understanding, and make it hard to empathise.
The installation I have made, brings to life a train carriage carrying people into Bhopal. On the night, many dozens of the people who died were being carried in on trains, without knowing that death was silently creeping across the land.
Along a piece of stretched muslin cloth running along the wall of the installation, are stitched the names of some of the victims. Those names, make the loss real. Names are very important, people relate to names.
The deaths at Bhopal, are only a part of a damaged whole. My intention is to ask people to reflect on wider issues about our unjust world. In my view Bhopal is a conflict issue. Its something I have been focusing for over past 15 years, it’s about this so-called modernity, consumption model, urbanization and how the traditional way of life is marginalized.
I want people who enter ‘Bhopal, a silent picture’ to consider being obliged to give their own child a contaminated glass of water to drink. I want people to contemplate moral obligation. Legal duty aside, I want people to recognise that obligations to humanity extend far beyond those that can be imposed within the jurisdiction of any Court.
It is fitting that we have managed with the help of Amnesty, to bring ‘Bhopal, a silent picture’ to London at the time of the Olympics. We are not here to dampen any of the spirit of celebration that can be felt throughout the city and beyond. Indeed, the Olympics, to my mind, represent the very best symbol of nations uniting. Combat in the sporting arena is preferable to war.
On the night of the Bhopal disaster, the direction in which the wind blew dictated who died and who lived. It could be that the direction in which the wind blows now, dictates how we are viewed in history, and how corporate relations are handled in the future.
Amnesty is asking the public to contact Lord Coe, the head of the committee organising the London Olympic Games, (LOCOG) to ask him to retract his committee’s defence of Dow Chemical and to apologise to Bhopal’s survivors.Tagged in: bhopal, Dow Chemical, human rights, India, olympics
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