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Lest we forget: A museum for the Bhopal gas tragedy

On August 5, 2005 four organisations involved in fighting for justice for the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy formally announced the setting up of a museum in memory of those who died or were injured in what has been described as the Hiroshima of industrial disasters.

On the night of December 2-3, 1984, 40 tonnes of MIC (methyl-isocyanate) escaped from inside the pesticide factory of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL, an Indian subsidiary of the multinational company Union Carbide Corporation based in West Virginia, USA), severely affecting people who lived nearby. The rough estimate is that 8,000 people died in the weeks that followed and 20,000 over the years. Over 500,000 people were injured and still continue to suffer the effects of the poisonous gas on their lungs, eyes, reproductive and nervous systems.

The Bhopal gas tragedy continues even today, not only impairing the health of the survivors but also their ability to earn their livelihood and lead a life of dignity. And what is worse, the company that was responsible for creating so much havoc has gone scot-free, by paying a minimum compensation of 470 million US dollars. This means that on an average, a gas survivor got as little as Rs 25,000. Is that all a life is worth in a poor third world country?

Do people have a right to their memories?

The museum will be called Yaaden-E-Haadsaa, memory of an event. How important is it for people to have a right to their memories? Why do we have to remember something that is so traumatic? And how do we remember an event that snatched away all the ingredients of a meaningful and happy life?

“Our memories belong to us”

This is what the survivors will tell you. They describe themselves not as victims but as survivors. If you hear them talk they will tell you not just about the night of the disaster, but what it has been like to continue living with the nightmare. Their memories are rife with the impact of deadly chemicals on the body and mind. They will also tell you about the indifference of governments, people and the total denial of justice by the very system that is meant to protect them. Thus the legal system, medical care and modes of economic rehabilitation have failed.

The survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy are angry. Their memories are filled with a deep sense of injustice. What they want to preserve is the story of their long and arduous fight for justice.

When the government of India floated the idea of converting the killer factory into a National Museum on the disaster, the survivors were sceptical. They felt it would only project the official point of view that would not be true to their own memories.

“We want our own museum”

Instead of anything official they chose to set up their own museum in a building that used to house a free clinic run by the Sambhavna Trust. The clinic has now shifted to a new location in the heart of the affected neighbourhoods. The vacant building carries its own healing touch. The museum is close to their dwelling places and is very near the abandoned factory.

The idea behind the Yaaden-E- Haadsaa museum is to create a forum where the truth is put on display. They have preserved photographs of their near and dear ones who died on that night, belongings that are linked to their struggle for survival, newspaper cuttings, posters and pamphlets on subsequent events connected with their struggle -- this is what they have collected as memorabilia.

Lest we forget

This peoples’ museum has the scope to become a vital centre for documentation. It is a grim reminder that Bhopal can happen again simply because we continue to use deadly chemicals, which then seep into our water system and spread far and wide. We allow big corporates to ravage the environment for profit. The lessons of Bhopal have not been learnt.

This museum will be a tribute to people who have continued to battle against structures of oppression for the last 20 years, described as the world’s longest struggle for justice.

In other words this is not a museum that will commemorate the past and help us get over the tragedy. This will be a living, breathing reminder of why the ignited memory of Bhopal has to be kept burning. Ýaaden-E-Haadsaa will take us down memory lane and lead us into the future.

(The four organisations that are collectively setting up the museum are the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Group for Information and Action and Bhopal ki Aawaaz.)

-- Suroopa Mukherjee

August 2005

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