Bhopal is the name of an actual, living city—a city with an elected government and real residents you can see traveling through real streets that look a lot like the streets you will find in many other Indian cities. Those of us living in Delhi or beyond have no doubt about this: Bhopal appears from time to time in our newspapers; it occupies a place on our maps; we may pass through its railroad station on the way to other places.
But since the chemical disaster that happened 25 years ago this week, Bhopal’s name has come to represent something else as well; something less tangible than the city that serves as the capital of Madhya Pradesh, but no less real. Like Chernobyl, Darfur, Hiroshima, and several other cities that come to mind if you think for a moment, Bhopal’s name now stands for something horrific that should never have happened.
Symbols like these are powerful: they help us understand the world we live in—what is wrong in it and what is right; what is just, what is criminal. But as powerful as they are, these symbols are also ephemeral: unlike real cities, they are not made of cement and steel, but are the product of our collective memories; the more we forget, the more they fade.
So let’s not forget these few things:
Twenty-five years ago, Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemicals, released poisonous gas into the residential areas surrounding its factory. An estimated eight to ten thousand people died within 72 hours.
Since that day, another 15,000 have died as a result of the disaster; more than 100,000 continue to suffer from chronic medical conditions.
Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson and other responsible corporate officers were never extradited to face charges in India for manslaughter, in spite of there being an extradition treaty with the US. Activists are still demanding Anderson’s arrest.
Much of the money that Union Carbide finally gave in the pitifully small settlement the Government of India agreed to never reached the victims of the disaster.
The water around the now-abandoned factory is even now being poisoned by chemicals that have never been cleaned up by Union Carbide, Dow Chemical or the Government of India.
Taken as a whole, what happened—what is happening—in Bhopal has been the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world. It is an example of criminal corporate negligence and continuing arrogance; it is an example of the inability and unwillingness of our government and our courts to protect and defend us. And it is an example of a twenty-five year struggle of ordinary people to obtain justice for themselves and their community in the face of overwhelming odds.
By choosing to declare we are all Bhopalis, we are saying we have not forgotten this injustice, that we are in solidarity with those who have been wronged by it and who struggle against it still.
This anniversary is a good time to recall and reflect on the meaning of the Bhopal disaster. But let’s not forget these lessons during the rest of the year.
When companies import trash and toxic waste and dump it on our fields and farmlands, then also let’s remember, we are all Bhopalis.
When pesticides leak into the cola we serve at our children’s birthday parties, then also let’s remember, we are all Bhopalis.
When the ships that the world no longer wants end up on our shores, poisoning our seas and the ill-equipped workers who take them apart by hand, then also let’s remember, we are all Bhopalis.
When we read that over twelve hundred people die every day of diarrhea in this country because our government cannot provide clean water or adequate sanitation facilities to all, then also let’s remember, we are all Bhopalis.
And when we say we are angry, that we will never forget and will no longer tolerate the companies and the politicians who allow these things to happen, above all then let’s remember, we are all Bhopalis.
I’m a Bhopali. You’re a Bhopali.
And let’s never let anyone forget it.
Hari Batti’s Green Light Dhaba is based in Delhi and serves up fresh thinking about the environment, politics and justice. We’re open Tuesdays, Thursdays and the occasional Saturday.