Bhopal is a city of contrasts. The capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, it is a delightful blend of modernity and tradition. It is a place where art and culture is revered and the fight for justice by the poorest of poor in the middle of the old city reverberates through the city’s collective consciousness.
Every year, in the months of November and December, Bhopal is on my mind. This is the time when the media sits up and takes notice of the protests, demonstrations, memorandums issued and (in)action taken during the past year for the intervening night of Dec 2 and 3, marks the anniversary of the world’s worst industrial disaster. 31 years ago.
The city keeps alive the horrific memories of that fateful night. For there has been no closure. The Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya in Bhopal is where I first encountered the reality of the Gas Tragedy of 1984 when tonnes of poisonous gases had leaked from a UCIL pesticide plant killing thousands and maiming countless since that day.
Bharat Bhawan and the Museum of Man also introduced me to tribal art. It was surprising to see the repetitive patterns of dots, little flowers or certain shapes used to fill larger images. The vibrant colours of the paintings grew on me and I explored all the Gond art structures.
The Museum of Man, is an ethnographic museum or anthropological, if you must say it that way, with an open air exhibition of tribal house types. Unlike the typical museums, where you go inside a building, girding up mentally to look at the curio-objects and get some knowledge, here the exhibits flow seamlessly from the confines of the exhibition rooms to the serene hillside outside and overlooking the placid Upper Lake.
The art in the museum that takes the pride of place is not merely a patronage but also a celebration of the Gonds, Bhils, Baiga, Rajwar, Pardhan and other tribes that populate the state of Madhya Pradesh. Through an exhibition in just another hall, a few steps from the vibrance and richness of culture, the despair of the victims of the industrial accident was documented on the walls and the faces of the deceased and diseased looked down in a mockery of the peaceful green hillocks of the city.
It was a shock to experience the polarities that exist, often in tandem. Just a short distance from the modernity of the suburbs lies the squalor of the affected ‘colonies’ where people jostle for clean drinking water, forced to live in an area contaminated by the toxic waste lying about for three decades now, waiting for compensation, something more than ‘apathy’ and justice for the victims.
In 1984, Bhopal saw an industrial disaster of horrendous proportions. 31 years on, the ‘poorest of the poor’, disadvantaged in every sense of the word, be it literacy or even an assured access to food, are still fighting for justice, refusing to give up. Activists insist that adequate financial compensation be given to the victims and that the toxic waste be cleaned from the site. The compensation initially paid out was paltry and the callousness towards the safety of the people living in the vicinity of the industrial disaster site meant that the toxic waste seeped into the ground, affecting the soil and the underground water. People exposed to these toxins suffer from cancer, blindness, respiratory problems, immune and neurological disorders. Birth deformities are rampant. The toxins are detected up to 3.5 kms away from the factory site where the gas leak took place.
The abysmally low level of compensation paid out, the complete lack of corporate accountability and the apathy of government agencies in cleaning up the site means that there could be many more Bhopals waiting to happen.
In the meanwhile, the activists and the protestors march on, holding placards and raising slogans, fighting a battle they cannot afford to lose. And the contrast between the haves and have-nots was never so stark.