Difficult places. How the continuing disaster in Bhopal can inform a critical view of industrial heritage
“To think critically is always to be hostile,” Hannah Arendt
The former Union Carbide factory at Bhopal, site of the chemical disaster, remains closed and contaminated since 1984. The old rendering plant is a visible reminder of the world’s worst disaster while the invisible, persistent chemicals in the soil and groundwater continue to occupy the city. The factory above and soil below connected through a toxic stream of leaching chemicals present a poetic afterlife of industrial monuments in India. The toxic waste of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy remains the most lasting legacy of the disaster where an uncertain number carry this contamination in their bodies while over half a million remain formally registered for medical support. In nasty ways, almost four decades since it ceased operation, the pesticide plant continues to produce chemicals, the company continues to occupy the land and the past continues to live violently in the present.
The project to map India’s industrial heritage has enabled a renewed perspective of this historic site by placing it in relation with 400 diverse sites from across India. Lying beneath the surface of this map, often overshadowed by a significant architectural heritage and recurring themes in the memory of a shared industrial past are stories of normalization of disasters, erasure of narratives of pain & shame and festering wounds of environmental contamination. Like the construction of colonial railways that plunged regions into famines or the welfare projects such as dams, canals and irrigation works that tragically produced greater disasters while re-employing those who were suffering as workers, the negative heritage of our industrial past cannot be simply seen as a side effect of development but a moral obligation that maintains the modern industrial project in India.
Stories of pollution and people, of pain and shame and of destruction and dispossession are excluded from the narrative of industrialization and perhaps for their absence, we continue recreate the colonial paradigm in the service of the nation till date.
In this context, what is needed to develop a shared view of heritage? Does experience of sites of conscience such as Bhopal have the capacity to inform the understanding of how communities can heal from scarred landscapes? What about places where industrialization has not yet ceased to be a way of life but is a visible, conflict-ridden present as well as an ironic, promised future? Where is knowledge being produced to engage and respond to the wicked problems and link the study of industrial heritage to questions of justice and citizenship? This paper will present a view from ground zero.