by Andy Davies, University of Liverpool
In 2004, I was a fresh-faced 20-something who, straight out of my undergrad degree, had uncritically accepted that there was a process called ‘Development’ that was worthwhile taking part in, and had ended up volunteering in Bangalore, India. This was an education in itself, and is in many ways responsible for my turn towards more radical ideas (that, however, is another story).
Whilst in Bangalore, in order to have a meeting with some other volunteers in Indore, I passed through Bhopal. Up until that point in my life, I’d been aware of something called the ‘Bhopal disaster’, which was ‘the world’s largest industrial accident’, but it hadn’t really struck me what this meant. Whilst I spent little more than an evening in the city, that was enough to get a sense of the lingering grievances about the disaster that still remained important to the people that lived there. Over the next few years, I’d kept half an eye on things to read about Bhopal, but over time had gradually paid less attention to the issue. That changed when, just prior to this summer’s Olympics in London, a number of protests were launched against Dow Chemical’s sponsorship of the Games. Sponsorship of the Games is, of course, filled with the tensions of corporate capitalism, but the campaign against Dow’s sponsorship was the latest protest against the company’s disregard for the people of Bhopal.
The Bhopal disaster, for those unfamiliar with it, was the result of a toxic gas cloud from a pesticide factory operated by Union Carbide India Limited (a subsidiary of Union Carbide). Due to a variety of safety failures within the complex (which are disputed by Union Carbide), on the evening of the 2nd / 3rd of December 1984, a toxic mixture of gases vented from one of the methyl isocyanate tanks on the site. The resulting cloud of gas was blown over the city, including some areas next to the plant which housed some of its poorest residents. The toxic cloud is estimated to have affected up to 500,000 people within the city. Thousands of people died (the exact figures are disputed, but range from 8,000 up to 25,000) and many more were permanently affected by the poisons they inhaled. Thousands of children were and are born with birth defects and genetic abnormalities. Union Carbide became a subsidiary of Dow in 2001, but since 1984, there has been a campaign (using a variety of methods, see http://theyesmen.org/blog/dow-runs-scared-from-water) to [a] provide compensation for those affected by the disaster, [b] force the company to clean up the site, which remains polluted as a result of the industrial waste produced by the facility, and [c] prosecute those who are responsible.
The long running nature of the dispute means that the campaign for justice Bhopal disaster victims has important geographical consequences that play out across spatial scales. Firstly, and most importantly, the disaster continues to have an enormous impact on the people of Bhopal at a local scale. Beyond the obvious impacts of those affected by the death family members, there are the long running health issues affecting many people (see http://www.bhopal.org), together with ongoing pollution of groundwater in the area after the site was closed, together with the effects of trauma and stress on individuals and their families.
The disaster and its management also directly impact on India at a national level and at a state level in Madhya Pradesh, as the state’s role in both initially attracting UC to the country, and the role of Indian law in the management of the disaster and the subsequent settlement made with UC is vital to the ongoing sense of grievance felt by Bhopalis.
The targeting of the Olympics also highlights how this disaster is an issue that is able to have transnational effects. Obviously, the role of UC and Dow as transnational corporations is important here, driven as they are by free trade and the nature of global capitalism. However, the Bhopal disaster has also been able to draw on what Mary Kaldor (2003) calls ‘global civil society’. Of course, the extent and spread of this civil society is debateable, yet transnational activism remains one of the few ways numerically small movements like those for justice in Bhopal can attempt to ‘up-scale’ and mobilise. Targeting major international events like the Olympics is a key strategy for gaining visibility, yet is also tied into more ‘micro-political’ activities where solidarity is constructed much more locally (something which I’ve written about in relation to the Olympics a little bit before – see Davies 2009).
The day to day work of constructing solidarity across space is done by a various actors, and in particular by what Paul Routledge has called ‘imagineers’, who do the work of stitching together seemingly disparate struggles. This happened last weekend when I attended a screening of the excellent film Bhopali as part of a Bhopal Survivors tour that is currently taking place in the UK. This was supported locally by Merseyside Asbestos Victims Support Group, Steve Tombs from Liverpool John Moores University and Nerve Magazine amongst others.
Whilst, in academia, we know a huge amount about how these movements function and how transnational activism happens, for me, this event was about more than thinking theoretically about how we can understand the tragedy of Bhopal from a geographical perspective. Instead, I spent more time thinking about my own visit to Bhopal in the past, which in turn re-energised a commitment that had waned in recent years as other, seemingly more urgent, parts of life had intervened. As a result, rather than try to make a grand point about either geography, or about Bhopal when it is only one of many examples of injustice around the world (as we are all too aware), I simply want to point out that, without the Olympic protests earlier this year, I probably wouldn’t have re-engaged with Bhopal as an issue in my life. This is now something which I’m trying to change (and if you’d like to get involved in organising something, then let me know!), but I think it is worthwhile for everyone to reflect, once in a while, on the struggles and causes that we have taken part in, and those that we have moved on from or forgotten about, and whether it is worthwhile re-engaging with them.
Davies A D (2009) Ethnography, space and politics: Interrogating the process of protest in the Tibetan Freedom Movement. Area 41(1):19-25
Kaldor M (2003) Global Civil Society. London: Polity