ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Manufactured Silence

Political Economy and Management of the 1984 Bhopal Disaster

Scholarship on the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy tends to treat the Indian judiciary as the site where political, social and legal forces converged to betray survivors seeking redress. But before this judicial failure, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had already politicised the disaster to protect his economic modernisation programme. Recognising the threat the Bhopal tragedy posed to the ideology behind this agenda, Rajiv Gandhi and his advisers pursued multiple strategies to suppress the gas leak’s resonance in larger political debates. This laid the groundwork for the courts’ later miscarriage of justice and helped shape the disaster’s subsequent place in Indian economic history.

The author would like to extend his sincerest gratitude to Shailaja Fennell, Satinath Sarangi, Rachna Dhingra, Devendra Panchal, Upendra Baxi, Joya Chatterji, and Satbir Bedi for their helpful comments and support in writing this article. Research for this article was supported by St John’s College, University of Cambridge, via the Tutors’ Praeter Fund and the Leathersellers’ Company Grant. Additional support was provided by the Sambhavna Trust Library and Documentation Centre in Bhopal.

Scholarly work on the Bhopal disaster almost always begins by calling it the worst industrial accident in human history. This statement is terribly insufficient, as it glosses over the significant neglect that led to the leak of the methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, and diminishes the extent to which its roots were embedded in decades of Indian political and economic history. Further, as Upendra Baxi notes, writing about such an enormous catastrophe often devolves into a form of epistemic violence when it fails to understand the multiple, highly individualised forms of trauma which emerge from catastrophe or to acknowledge survivors significant agency in shaping its aftermath (2010: 23).

What is undisputed is that, on the night of 23 December 1984, a cloud of MIC gas drifted from the multinational corporation Union Carbide Corporations (UCC) pesticide plant in northern Bhopal southwards, into the adjacent bastis and eventually across much of the Old City (Lapierre and Moro 2003: part III). The number killed that night remains largely unknown; a municipal waste truck driver recalled, to the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, that, in the days following the disaster, he and his colleagues either cremated or dumped dozens of truckloads each with approximately hundred corpses from around the city into the nearby Narmada river. Relying on similar accounts and other data, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) conservatively estimates a death toll, in the week following the disaster, of 8,000. Amnesty International (2004), likewise, has estimated that between 7,000 and 10,000 died in the leaks immediate aftermath, with at least 15,000 more perishing due to lingering effects and the citys continued contamination. While both estimates are plausible, in many ways the numbers game only serves to obfuscate a key facet of the ongoing disaster. This poor documentation was in many ways deliberate and has led not only to inadequate compensation and rehabilitation, but also the disasters murky place in Indian public consciousness.

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Published On : 20th Jan, 2024

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