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  • 1. Bhopal: A Report from the FutureIIt was soon after the 1990 elections that Rajiv Gandhi reorganized thePlanning Commission. The Prime Minister realized that two groupshad nearly cost him his victory, forcing the Congress into a wafer-thinmajority. The first of the guilty groups was the old party dons whoinsisted on speaking the medieval language of caste and vote bankswith acronymic names like Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim(KHAM) or Ahir-Jat-Gujar-Rajput (AJGAR). The second bunch wasthe old intellectuals in the bureaucracies who still talked of povertyand commitment to the bottom 40%. He felt both groups were tiedumbilically to the primordialism of the Garibi Hatao period. The new Indian Market Research Bureau/Operations ResearchGroup (IMRB/ORG) reports had shown that India was becoming agenuine mass society, with a huge middle class demographically thesize of several Europes. The role models of these groups came fromthe world of management and the media. The government hadsurveys to show that children of the new class could not relate toNational Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT)history books on India’s freedom movement, especially to figures likeTilak or Patel. The survey especially noted that it was not thatnationalism was passe, it was merely that Indians now modelledthemselves on successful NRIs. It was in response to thistechnocratically tough section that the Prime Minister reconstitutedthe Planning Commission. The first meeting of the new Planning Commission was held inApril 1990. Mr. Sam Pitroda was formally nominated Chairman. The 1
  • 2. other members included the Director of The Indian Council ofMedical Research (ICMR) and the head of the Apollo Hospitals chain,Dr. Ashok Ganguli of Hindustan Levers, Ajit Kerkar, the ExecutiveDirector of Indian Hotels and Dr. V. Kurien of the Institute of RuralManagement at Anand. The absence of familiar names from the list was also noticed. Theolder generation of scientists from the Indira Gandhi stablestheMenons and the Swaminathans with their discreet FRSes (Fellow ofRoyal Society) were no longer present. There were also no economistsfrom Oxbridge or London School of Economics. In fact the firstmeeting of the Commission began with a minute’s silence for the lateMr. H.K., a collective moment of relief that the last Laski-ite in Indiawas dead. The Commission, while surveying the range of its expertise, feltthat there was a gap in its membership. It was as if an old club chairwas empty. There was a need for a social scientist, but the oldergeneration talking to poverty and caste bored them. Pitroda tried outhis old friends at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies butall they talked about was decentralization and survival in a moralisticjargon that made Nirad C. Chaudhary sound futuristic. It was at thistime that Pitroda’s assistant sent him a cutting of Moss Kanter’sreview of a new book Risk and Public Policy by Arun Bhide. Bhide was a political philosopher, a consultant to several thinktanks. A graduate from Berkeley, he had worked with AaronWildavsky on the Sage project on “Risk Cultures”. Bhide had neverbeen to India but like all NRIs had a secret plan to redeem it. Pitroda 2
  • 3. assigned him to the new policy group on disasters, with an emphasison Bhopal. The Bhide Report, a collection of unbureaucratic scenarios ondisaster management was never published but became a part of thetacit policy of later governments. The Report makes fascinatingreading. There was little or nothing about the actual facts of the gasleak. In fact Bhide never went to Bhopal. All he asked for were theGreen Files of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), theconfiscated reports of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action(BGIA), the legal petitions filed by the Morcha and the publications ofthe Medico-Friends Circle (MFC), the three video films made onshoe-string budgets and the secret army report on Bhopal. He spent all his time in Delhi attending meetings at the LawInstitute and the lawns of the Boat Club. He also investigated theOleum leak at the Delhi Cloth Mills (DCM) plant in Delhi, delightedthat it had been used as a pretext for closing down the factory andconverting it into a marvellous piece of real estate. We reproduce below Bhide’s academic but eloquent introductionto his report minimizing the array of footnotes. It is strangelyreminiscent of an old classic The Report from Iron Mountain. Wemust also caution the reader that a few paragraphs might beoccasionally missing, accounting for the slight jerkiness in style. 3
  • 4. IITHE BHIDE REPORTIntroductionThis report is the result of a preliminary study on the Bhopal GasDisaster of 1984 and is devoted not to an analysis of the causes of thedisaster but to the responses to it. The work is predicated on the beliefthat disasters like other collective representations are subject tophilosophical analysis, which then provide scenarios for socialforecasting. The basic technique employed is textual analysis of theliterature on Bhopal with special reference to the rhetoric of disasters.The report believes that the Bhopal Gas disaster is unique but hasunfortunately been plagued by cliches. The literature on the disaster comprising of over a thousandarticles and several substantial books divides itself into two differentbut complementary approachesa managerial-technological one and ajournalist-activist approach. The categories underlying the two aresurprisingly similar in their commitment to machine technology as away of life. The general feeling in these analyses is as if some bigmachine had broken down and the discussion then centres aroundthe causes of the breakdown or the possibilities of repairing it. It is inthis context that one is reminded of Ernest Becker’s observation that“Our belief in the efficacy of the machine control of nature has initself elements of magic and ritual trust. Machines are supposed towork infallibly, since we have put our trust in them. And so when they 4
  • 5. fail to work, our whole worldview begins to crumble just as theprimitives’ worldview did when they found their rituals not workingin the face of western culture and weaponry. I am thinking about howanxious we are to find the exact cause of an air-crash, or how eagerwe are to attribute the crash to ‘human error’ and not a machinefailure.” This preoccupation with the machine or mechanical failure thatwe witness in Bhopal operates at two levels. The first is the search forthe causes of the disaster and the other is the attempt to repair thedamage. There is a sense of action and activity at two levels, causeand effect and stimulus and response. But the machine as symbol, asmeaning has not been understood. As a result we always end uplooking at what happened in Bhopal or what we can do in Bhopal butnot at what Bhopal is saying about our society. In fact Bhopal is adisaster haunted by cliches of radicalism, applied science and socialwork. The literature on Bhopal follows a standard script where theresponse to a disaster is inevitably a disaster institute. This preoccupation with the machine is echoed by newspaperreports. Journalism only recreates the same discourse in a morehumanized way. The machine becomes a backdrop for individualsmoving into action. The sense of purposive action conveyed by all theactors is fascinating, giving one a feeling of control, of movement, ofknowledge, of command and of normalcy. In fact, the triviality ofthese action-events almost escapes us, so gripping is the narrative.The best example of this Time-Readers’ Digest Style is the otherwisecompetent and compassionate book by Sanjoy Hazarika. Hazarika uses a clutter of details to humanize the event. Consider 5
  • 6. his descriptions of Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide Chairman.We are told that Anderson was the son of a Swedish carpenter, that hewon scholarships to college in football and math, started as a lowlysalesman and rose steadily up the corporate ladder, earned a milliondollars in salary and perks and that he had a cold the day before thedisaster. One is reminded of Jacques Ellul’s devastating comments onWilliam Shirer’s, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. “Shirer operated consistently from inside the news as he found itin the archives and did prodigious work in unravelling eventsto arriveat precisely nothing. . . Limited by his concern with news, heremained at the superficial level. In reality, he understood nothing ofHitler’s revolution, its economic components or its nature. All welearn from it is that on June 16, 1938, at 21 hrs 2 minutes, Hitlerwearing a pair of grey trousers said such and such. And the book wasa bestseller.” The efforts of the managers and activists remind one of KarlMannheim’s observation about the different ways in which Americanand European sociologists approach a problem. The American onhearing the word problem immediately reaches for his toolbox,unfurling in the process a whole array of applied sciences. The wordproblem has a more metaphysical flavour to a European who unravelsit again and again like a philosophical Penelope’s cloak. India of thelate eighties is essentially American, naive both in its faith intechnology and political action. As a result what is missing is a notionof evil, of violence, the sense that the gas leak was an unprecedentedattack on the human body. The ideas of governmental corruption or 6
  • 7. the economic power of the multinationals seem inadequate to capturethis. The textual analysis of literature reveals that a new model of adisposable society is being inaugurated. We must state that the abovemodel is emerging not as an epistemic break or a geological fault inthe system but by creeping through the slits of the system, aided byacts of omission and indifference. The Report thus will deal with a societal trend not generallywithin the purview of such exercisesevil. The report is unique in thatit systematically and neutrally considers evil as a policy tool. Theprevious attempts of Herman Kahn (1984), Aaron Wildavsky andMary Douglas (1982), and the allegedly anonymous Report from IronMountain (1968), all move elliptically away from the concept by usingsuch technically neutral terms or acronyms like triage, Risk or MAD(mutually assured destruction). The most important context for theunderstanding of evil both in modern and anti-modern ludditearchives has been the city. Sociology and Social Policy can be read as a series ofelaborate footnotes on the modern city. The city has not only been asite for the drama of modernity but a metaphor for speculating aboutit. Infact, one of the most fascinating exercises that remains to beperformed is a philosophical dictionary of the city, where each citywould become the equivalent of a philosophical term. Such ananthology could well become a thesaurus of modern life, a city as keywords. Yet, so kaleidoscopic is the city that a dozen classic essays oneach city could still not capture all its meanings. Not all the efforts ofKipling, N.K. Bose, Geoffrey Morehouse, Gunter Grass, PritishNandy, Sukanta De and Aparna Sen have exhausted the polysemic 7
  • 8. power of Calcutta, its repeated attempts to mediate between hope anddespair, good and evil. The city keeps rewriting itself, constantlyproducing new variations that need to be grasped. It is in this contextthat the Report asks what is it that the idea of the gas leak in Bhopalhas added to the city as a mode of thought. In this, we mustemphasize that in looking at tragedies, we generally look for evil inthe bigness of structures: the gigantism of the state, bureaucracy orthe multi-national. Yet evil slips through the everydayness ofdisasters. In fact it is through the everyday slips and slides, thatimperceptibly, Bhopal is becoming a new paradigm, where disastersare being brought into the boundaries of the system and absorbed.The process can be systematized into a list of steps. The next sectionof the Report shall restrict itself to a chronicle of such strategies. * * *Scenario OneAnthropology and anthropologists of development, in particular, haverecognized that tradition provides one of the major forms ofresistance to power. The stuff of tradition is memory and memoryexpresses itself in narratives. The story teller, like the fool, threatenspower. One of the first tactics in the move towards the disposable cityis a compression of time and history. It is observed that Bhopal as acity lacks the polysemic power of Calcutta or Benares. But even thenthe reader is surprised that books on the gas leak compress thethousand year history of Bhopal into a few lines or a footnote. This act 8
  • 9. of compression is further facilitated by the fact that the Bhopaldisaster unlike Minamata, Hiroshima or the Thalidomide scandal hasno place in the iconography of industrial disasters. It lacks anidentifiable symbol that feeds both memory and resistance. The next move towards distorting time is through thejuxtaposition of two histories, such that they become a linear serieswhich makes disasters appear as an inevitable part of industry. It isironic to note that some of the more sensitive accounts also fall preyto this. In fact several of them begin with a description of Bhopal as abucolic town “which retains much of its pre-twentieth centurycharacter” with cows and goats roaming the city and where goods arehauled by oxcarts on dusty roadsa typical Hollywood set of a pre-industrial city. This picture of an almost historyless non-developed Bhopalis immediately counterposed to the future industrial Bhopal whichUnion Carbide embodies with its “marketing, transportation andcommunication network, criss-crossing the globe”using 1000kilowatts of energy a day when many houses in Bhopal have none,possessing a large staff of scientists when 72% of Bhopal is illiterate.One is unwittingly forced to conclude that the real history of Bhopal isthe history of its industrial development. The literature unconsciouslysuggests that Bhopal enters into modern history with theestablishment of the UCIL plant. That act is read as doublysignificant. Firstly, the plant produces pesticides and thus makesBhopal part of the great modern scenario of the green revolution.Secondly, the symbolic presence of the 7th largest chemical multi- 9
  • 10. national of the United States gives Bhopal membership, a Diner’sClub Card, to modernity. The next major array of displacements facilitates thetransition from populism to triage through the idea of the slum. Theslum is a combination of hope and fear about the city that the middleclass and its adjunct, the bureaucracy, cannot understand. It isprecisely this middle class incomprehension that has to be played onto set the stage for the disposable city. Probably, the only way tocapture it is through a symbol, a bill-board, one of our investigatorssaw. It was a giant hoarding in yellow and black visible from a flyover.It demands that one live life kingsize. On the top like a subtext sat adozen vultures. Almost all the writings on Bhopal provide the samestandardized picture of the slum. The rhetoric of the slum has to havethree essential ingredients in the middle class eye, a demographicpush by the poor, an illegal encroachment on land and a corruptpolitician who legitimizes this. The next step towards the disposable city is thesimultaneous delegitimation of the slum and the politician, as part ofthe old package of populist development. The linkage betweendevelopment and democracy is evident in the early models of theslum. The slum is a symbol of hope, a claim to the possibilities of thecity, a vote bank, a hall-mark of populism and of corruption but witha human face. Virtually all the writings on Bhopal provide this middleclass-centred scenario of the slum. We reproduce below a quotationfrom Hazarika. It could easily be substituted by Srivastava, Everest,etc. 10
  • 11. As Bhopal developed into a capital city in the sixties, “pressuregrew on land and encorachments began on government property. Theneighbourhood was increasingly composed of new migrants from thecountryside who flocked in search of jobs.” “And there were jobs availablenew roads, buildings andsewerlines to be built, plus all the ancillary jobs a growing cityspawns. A host of ramshackle colonies sprang up along the roadsleading up to the plant. . .” “The government did nothing about the encroachments.This was because the new migrants were seen by the politicians asvote banks. This is why Arjun Singh, the Madhya Pradesh ChiefMinister, with an eye to the general elections later in the yearpresented pattas in April 1984 to the inhabitants of Jaya PrakashNagar and other jhuggi-jhopri dwellers. Singh acknowledges themotivation was political although he defends the decision. It is easy tofind fault with the decision and say we shouldn’t have done it butanyone who knows the condition of the slum dwellers in India knowsthey live virtually subhuman lives. . . It was not meant to be a finalsolution (sic) of the problem.” But that was to come. What most activist writings in their fear of corruption fail tounderstand is that the political party boss is absolutely intrinsic topopulist as opposed to technocratic development. To label him ascorrupt fails to understand him. We must refer in this context to thestudies of the party machine in America by Robert Merton. Themodern city is virtually a maze of bureaucratic rules. Not only is thecity bureaucracy inefficient, it cannot provide the leadership requiredto take decisions and run the city. Secondly, the bureaucracy is 11
  • 12. impersonal and the new entrant to the city cannot cope with thedemands of literacy it makes on him. It is here that the politicianenters in providing the decisional impetus, the human response, acommunity requires and thereby fulfils the needs a bureaucraticstructure cannot provide. As Robert Merton remarks “with keensociological intuition, the machine recognizes that the voter is aperson living in a specific neighbourhood, with specific personalproblems and wants. Public issues are abstract and remote, privateproblems are immediate. It is not through generalized appeal to largepublic concerns that the machine operates but through direct quasi-feudal relationships between local representatives and voters in theneighbourhood.” Arjun Singh realized that elections are won in the slums andlegitimized illegal colonies installing even water and electricity lines.It was precisely this human face of corruption that Bhopaldelegitimized. The movement from populism to triage can beembodied in intermediate figures of Delhi party dons like H.K.L.Bhagat. They control city corruption but can also make the transitionto genocidal intent. The now hazy November 1984 riots weresystematic expressions of this. Genocide of “ethnic groups” providedthe transition point to a more generalized and abstract elimination. Itis the transition from Naga and Sikh to the poor that Bhopal helpedachieve by reworking the notion of development. Modern development needs a monster. It is this basic ideologythat provides the dividing line between the other and us. In the earlierwestern evolutionary view, the savage was the other. The savage ascategory was domesticated by merely becoming our past. More 12
  • 13. problematic than the savage was the monster or missing link, thatorganism that was both normal and not normal, subject of curiosityand object of analysis. The monster with the diacritical marks ofdeformitythe dwarf, the bearded woman, the two headed calf, theSiamese twin, the deformed babywas easily identifiable andeventually domesticated through the museum and the circus whichturned our fears into fun or scholarship. As the secular world view ofdevelopment spread, the monster became that which we could notassimilate into the homogenized worldview of our time. It focused onthe ethnic group but eventually settled for the recalcitrant victim orthe defeated culture. Bhopal has helped shape this attitude to thevictim. To understand this one must grasp the nature of the Indiansuccess. As Indians we have made such a fine art of criticism that we areslow to realise that despite our corruption, our inefficiency, our ThirdWorldliness and other worldliness, we, particularly the middle class,have internalized all the development slogans. We are the achievingsociety that the forgotten behavioral scientists, the McClellands andthe Kunkels, that Ford and Rockfeller imported in the sixties, wantedus to be. The middle class is proud of its production statistics, itsAsiad villages, its local Disneylands. It is even prouder of itsindustrious NRIs and hails every success from Nobel Prizes tospelling bees. The successful Indian middle-class identifies itself withthe Korean and Japanese miracles and feels a contempt, even horrorof the working poor, especially their lack of demographic restraintand poor purchasing power. It is in the context of the middle classcommitment to dams, nuclear reactors, industrial estates or tourism, 13
  • 14. that modern development finds its monsterthe recalcitrant victim.What gives this middle class violence a peculiar flavour is a mentalitythat is a combination of Victoriana and America of the Eisenhoweryears. It is the middle class that provides the legitimating frame fortechnocratic triage and one can trace it across two tracks (1) thedebate on the slum and (2) the transformation of the category calledthe victim. The middle class has never approved of the slum whichalways smacked of pathology and excess. There was always somethingMalthusian about the slum and the metaphors employed to describeit were always those of uncontrolled growth, of exponential increase,of an abscess of cancer. There was no doubt that the slum wastransforming the city’s form, economy and politics. By 1984, onefourth of India lived in the cities175,000,000 and one fourth ofthesesome 45,000,000lived in the slums. In the early eighties the attitude to the slum was an open-endedone. The rise of voluntary organizations in the slum, the support ofpoliticians particularly in states like Maharashtra and Madras, andthe work of urban ecologists like the Unnayan group helped provide adifferent picture of the slum, where the slum was part of the city ascommons providing many of the services the middle class sodesperately needed. As a result of political agitation and governmentpolicy, slum occupants were frequently granted legal rights to theirsmall plots of land. The government occasionally went beyond suchrights of tenure by providing water, sewer and electricity connections. 14
  • 15. But the truce was an uneasy one and the slum still faces occasionaleviction by policemen and slumlords. The 1987 Bombay agitation regarding the removal of slumsaround the Tata Theatre at Nariman Point marked a radical change inattitude. The biologist Garret Hardin would have called it a classicTragedy of the Commons. The picture of the Commons generallyapplied to pastureland, lakes, seas or forests was now applied to thecity. The classic formulation was to picture a Hobbesian state ofnature where each man tries to maximize his benefits. As long as thesituation is one of plenty, of small populations and bountiful space, abit more of waste or pollution leaves one indifferent to theconsequences. But shift to the Malthusian explosion called the city, ofgrowing populations in constricted spaces and a case forauthoritarianism to control pollution and waste becomes obvious .One needs tyranny to keep the city of Bombay clean. It is precisely atthis time that the metaphor of the commons which evoked sharingand community becomes a lifeboat. The city becomes a small spacefor the rich and successful people. The question is should the life-boatcity go to help the drowning poor especially when the latter don’tknow how to swim or fish. Should the poor be allowed to sink the lifeboat? The picture of the lifeboat is one of controlled affluence withinand despair beyond. It is this kind of situation which led many of thetired citizens of Bombay to demand that a cordon sanitaire be thrownaround the city. It is at this time that the cancerous infiltration of thecity through the slum and by terrorists produces the demand for 15
  • 16. identity cards for the city. Those who don’t have cards becomevagrants/vagabonds or terrorists. Though the first moves to the lifeboat city were stalled the seed had been planted for what is clearly anirreversible process. The city acquired once again the mentality of thefort that it sprang from. There are lessons for policy here. Evil abroad has to besanctioned by science as policy. It needed the expertise of socio-biology, the work of Hardin and the Paddocks to advocate the rationaldisposal of defeated societies like Ethiopia. It needed the think tankexpertise of Herman Kahn and the Hudson Institute to convinceAmerica that it could live with a few nuclear wars. Evil abroad neededthe comforting sanction of scientific rhetoric. But in India the middleclass mentality provides sanctions for evil by anticipating such policyrhetoric. It is this middle class commitment to expertise, officediscipline, and reason that sees the slum as pathology. Policy in Indiamerely has to formalize and catalyze the process. A Hardin, a HermanKahn or a Henry Kissinger would be merely ornamental, a reminderto the middle class that they are in good company. The notion of thecorseted fortress city by itself would be too simplistic. The Orwelliandictum that ‘some are more equal than others’ needs a more sinistercombination of the fantastic and the real at the everyday level. The aftermath of the Oleum Leak case provided entry into thenext move. In his response to the criticisms of the DCM plant,Siddharth Shriman had pointed out that many industries wereoriginally located in the barren areas or in cleared jungles. But as aresult of population growth within a few years crowded slums and 16
  • 17. housing colonies sprang up around the plant. Shriram pointed thedifficulty of then relocating the plant. The same problem was statedby Tarachand Niyogi, Minister for Labour in Madhya Pradesh. Inresponse to earlier complaints about the Carbide plant, Niyogicommented: “It is not a small stone that can be picked from one placeand put in another. It is a 25 crore investment.” The civic authorities in all such situations face a standardproblem: (1) either evict the slum, or (2) shift the factory. But “thesome are more equal than others” government found the classicsolution: a) industries pollute but are necessary; b) slums pollute but are necessary for the city and industry; and c) by juxtaposing them in the same place, certain spaces andcertain categories of people can become disposable.Disasters rather than being outside the system are absorbed into therituals of the industrial state. If a chemical plant leaks, it is merelydismantled and moved to the next space like a set of filmprops for thenext hit. All policy now has to do is to identify such disposable spacesand people. The aftermath of Bhopal provided the denouement forsuch an exercise. 17
  • 18. Let us be clear at the outset that there was little notion of thecommunity in Bhopal. Beyond the media hype of picnickingvoluntarists what was the community that went to the aid of Bhopal?Reports indicate that there was no sustained boycott of Carbideproducts, no sacrifice of a day’s salary which is a virtual bureaucraticnorm for war and disasters like floods and famines. There were nochanges in the consumption of pesticides or an increase in theinstallation of safety devices. Through a strange irony the best reportson Bhopal were by a leftist journalist in the corporate magazineBusiness India. He left broken-hearted when the only response to hisbrilliantly consistent reports was one letter to the editor. His realitywas his colleagues who claimed Bhopal does not sell. Whether therocket Agni goes up or not is more titillating to the middle class thanBhopal. May be it was the gas that understood this better. The report ofthe Asia-Pacific People’s Environment Network (APPEN) groupcomments on what might be called the moral route of the gas. Ittraversed the slums, avoided the rich and professional Area colony,and as if smelling privilege stopped short of the ministerialbungalows. The middle class of Area saw it as an outward sign ofinward grace. The disaster was virtually like a carnival, a feast offools, violating the middle class notion of order. The fact that thisliminality was not ordained by authority and stretched far too longbecame a problem. It was the verdict that restored the middle classvirtues of reason, restraint and expertise and with it, the comfortable 18
  • 19. solace of the company town. It is around the time of the verdict thatall the strategies for domesticating the protest of the survivordovetailed. It involved a series of compressions and a shifting of signssignifying a change in the relationship with the victim. The first was a compression of space. The survivors’ reports ofthe route and the impact of the gas was ignored and a new and officialmap compressed the area of the disaster. The second was thereduction of the categories of suffering into a few bureaucraticmanageable slots for which compensation could be easily fixed. Thethird was the reduction in the number of victims in each category.The fourth tactic altered the relationship to the victim through ashifting of signs. One shall dub this process the moral career of theBhopal victim. During the initial months of the disaster, the afflicted individualsof the disaster were treated as victims with all the moral significationthat a victim and a sacrifice possesses. The passage of time weakensthe halo of support and the victim becomes a survivor. The survivoris a more secular figure. He is both witness and residue. He has bothseen death and been left behind by it. As a result, he acquires thequality of embarrassment as if he is both witness to a scandal andparty to it. Yet he still has some sort of moral field around him. Fromthe moral to the medical is a quick step as the survivor becomes apatient. The sick role is of the most strictly defined of sociological roles.As Talcott Parsons showed, sickness is deviancy of a particular kind. 19
  • 20. The sick role permits the citizen patient to avoid some of the normalresponsibilities of adult citizenship. The best example is from Bhopalitself where women to avoid household chores, often got themselvesadmitted to hospitals for a few days rest. The patient is generally notregarded as responsible for his ailment. He is not competent to takecare of himself and needs the care of both family and the professionalexpert. In fact, in modern societies, the patient is expected to seek thehelp of experts and the doctor has to certify both his illness and thereturn to normalcy and citizenship. There is thus an objectivelydefined period of time within which the sick person must return tocitizenship. Prolonged periods of illness especially when there arecontradictory definitions of the situation by doctor and patientbecome problematic and this is precisely what happened in Bhopal. The defiance of the patient becomes threatening to the expert. Infact, disasters become liminal periods where the patient bursts out ofhis sociologically sanctioned role, threatening both the expert and thestate. What begins as illness soon becomes both sin and crime and issubject to the simultaneous pressure of all three forces. It is the site ofthe slum, that particular hybrid of poverty and pathology, that makesthe Bhopal victim the object of a series of strategies. One is neverclear whether he is poorman, sickman or criminal. The patient’s right to his interpretation was almost immediatelychallenged. The doctors in Bhopal refused to give the victimscertificates that they had suffered from gas poisoning. It was impliedthat they were suffering from normal ailments of poverty, especially 20
  • 21. Tuberculosis. Professor N.P. Mishra of Gandhi Medical College noted,“You can’t call these sick people gas cases. Most had such pre-existinglung diseases like TB anyway.” Giving political imprimatur to thisopinion, Arjun Singh was publicized as opening a TB camp in one ofthe gas affected areas soon after the leak and claiming that there wasa necessity to establish a link between the deaths and the MICleakage. In fact the government’s first response was the dole. The ChiefMinister distributed 700,000 new ration cards and a sum of Rs.20million was spent on free rations for victims and non-victims alike.The dole model is doubly dangerous not only because it can besuspended arbitrarily but because it construes the victim as a beggar.The dole preface the first step to the panopticon. The victim like avagrant in the old panopticons is forced into a series of specificoccupations. Claude Alvares observes that “The bureaucrats (mostlywhisky drinkers themselves) have determined that males should notbe given jobs under the relief programmes or cash as they wouldfritter away their incomes in drink. Therefore the (first) relief centresopened by the government are predominantly for females and includebasically sewing centres.” One wonders if the irony of giving victims,many with eye ailments, sewing jobs, ever struck the bureaucrats. Thepicture of the victim as vagabond and vagrant is pushed even further. The promise of money disrupted the moral economy of theBhopal patient. There were shades of unruly millenialism as hordes ofambulance chasers descended on the city promising untold wealth,where death and damage became passports to the American dream.The dreams of the Bhopal victims were publicized like Cargo cults in 21
  • 22. which natives dreamed of aeroplanes landing with refrigerators,radios, TVs and all the products of the whiteman’s world. Even afterthe February 1989 verdict, there was a sense that a group of vagrantshad won a lottery. But the assertion of government control over themoney prevented the middle class fears of a giant carnival ofalcoholism. In fact, the first grants of money to the victim, just beforethe elections of 1990, were compared by newspapers to a plane ride ofworkers returning from the Gulf. The buying of target goods likeradios, the increase in consumption and debt, the rise in the numberof pawnshipsall served to confirm that the money was wasted. Thereal facts of the disaster got submerged in the transformation ofvictim into a vagrant. Perhaps the final word belongs to a piece ofscience fiction. One can cite Samuel Butler’s description of theconsumptive which captures for us the eventual plight of the Bhopalvictim. In his Erewhom he describes the trial of a man accused ofpulmonary consumption: “Prisoner at the bar, you have been accusedof the great crime of labouring under pulmonary consumption, andafter an impartial trial before a jury of your countrymen, you havebeen found guilty. It pains me much to see one who is yet so young,and whose prospects in life were otherwise so excellent, brought tothis distressing condition by a constitution which I can only regard asradically vicious; but yours is no case for compassion. This is not yourfirst offence you have led a career of crime, and have only profited bythe lenience shown you upon past occasions to offend yet moreseriously against the laws and institutions of your country. You wereconvicted of aggravated bronchitis last year; and I find that though 22
  • 23. you are now only twenty three years old, you have been imprisonedon no less than fourteen occasions for illness of a more or less hatefulcharacter. Had not the capital punishment for consumption beenabolished, I should certainly inflict it now.” The first scenario of the Bhide report ends at this point. IIIThe complete text of the Bhide Report is still not available. Apartfrom the above scenario, what we possess are the notes of a meetingof the Planning Commission to discuss certain proposed initiatives byvoluntary groups concerned with Bhopal. We are informed that therecommendations were later incorporated into the Report. The meeting was held on June 11th, 1990. Apart from the officialmembers and the Chairman, the only other individual present wasAshok Bahadur, an IAS officer who functioned as Secretary. He was,as he himself confessed, a generalist, closer to Macaulay than to AlvinToffler and it was he who provided the following document andannotations.Notes: Confidential Meeting, 11.6.90The proposal of the voluntary groups had already been xeroxed andcirculated. It sought to establish a Citizens Commission on Bhopal tomonitor the relief and rehabilitation activities of the Government ofIndia. In pursuit of this it suggested the following:1) To publish a complete set of all the scientific, medical, legal and 23
  • 24. environmental reports on Bhopal. Each report was to be specificallyannotated by an expert.2) To establish a secretariat including a small full-time staff toprepare within six months, a Citizens’ Report on Bhopal to befollowed by a Bhopal Relief Bulletin.3) To convene a team of doctors to establish a clinic at Bhopal. Theclinic would avail itself of expertise from different medical systems. Inthis context, the Hamdard Institute (Delhi), the Arya Vaidya Shala(Kottakal), the Srinivasamurthi Siddha Institute (Madras) and theCollege of Homeopathy (Calcutta) have already been approached.4) To provide surveys of the victim’s view of the disaster andespecially their description of pain, suffering and cure.5) To establish a People’s Science Institute to investigate any futuredisaster and to provide a circle of expertise outside governmentalcontrol.6) To establish a museum to commemorate the disaster.7) To encourage discussion and debate on Bhopal among schools,colleges and trade unions by sponsoring debates, meetings and essaycompetitions. Citizens would also be encouraged to fast once a weekand donate the proceeds to the Commission. 24
  • 25. 8) To raise through public donations a sum of Rs.5 crores to meetthe above objectives.The initial reaction of the Planning Commission to the aboveproposals, particularly given the enthusiastic public response, wasviolent. There was even a demand to revive a variant of the KudalCommission. The Chairman asked Dr. Bhide whether he had anyspecific suggestions in this regard. His initial reply that‘understanding does not always lead to applied science’ puzzled thetechnocrats. But he then elaborated a series of responses whichdemonstrated his consummate skills. While the technocrats did notalways understand his vocabulary, they admired his sense of power. Bhide confessed that he had found the proposals interesting andobserved that they required a more generalized response. There wasin his view, no need to harass all voluntary groups. Their activitieswere in any case being monitored by the National InformationNetwork (NICNET), which possessed the only complete dossier onthem. He then presented his famous note on voluntarism and the listof recommendations. “Voluntarism is a middle class urban phenomenon. It arose as alegitimate activity after the two great acts of repression in an urbancontext, the Emergency and the government’s response to Naxalbari.It recognises a need for some form of generalized ethical concern nottied to specific ideologies or ‘isms’. The urban middle class needssome space to reflect on the nature of the city and the responsibilities 25
  • 26. of citizenship. Voluntarism provides a mild case for conscience. Italso provides a sense of community to professionals not totallycomfortable in the old clubs, a sense of conviviality where old andnew ideals can find space to talk. These groups are also part of athreatened elite and feel they are no match for the new aggressivenouveau riche and think of themselves as potentially, at least,downwardly mobile. It is only old family wealth that allow many ofthem to maintain current lifestyles. “The problem before the state is how to harness this creativedissent, this urge for limited heroics. The Indian state, it must beobserved, has not been perceptive about the Emergency. It neverrealized that the Emergency not only broke the heart of the CongressParty but also that of its double, the Sarvodaya movement underVinoba Bhave. Today the Indian state needs such a moralcomplement, only in a more professionalized form. Its earlierstupidity lay in harassing the Voluntary Agencies (VOLAGs) withenquiries and Commissions and politicizing them by pushing theminto a more antagonistic role, though part of the responsibility for thisno doubt lies with some of the ideologues of the Nehru era, thekitchen cabinet around Mrs. Gandhi. When they broke with her, theyhijacked voluntarism away from government. This has been the realrole of opposition intellectuals like Romesh Thapar, Raj Krishna andRajni Kothari.” Bhide insisted on explaining to the Chairman the role ofProfessor Kothari. He remarked that the scholar’s Politics in India 26
  • 27. was the only systematic political study and legitimation of theCongress and the Nehru era. The pity was there was no Politics inIndia-II. When men like Kothari broke away, they counterposed thesenew spaces of voluntarism against the government and this hasblinded the state to the possibilities of voluntarism. Fortunately, withthat generation retiring, the time was ripe for reversal. Bhide quotedsecret government surveys to show that no ecologist under 40 wasrespected as an individual, that most of them were seen as careeristsand that not one of them scored half the points for integrity thatSunderlal Bahuguna, Baba Amte or Sivaram Karanth did. “There are two further trends which could aid this possibility.Firstly, dissent in our times is amorphous. Radicalism today hasbecome a floating signifier, ready to attach itself to any object, anycause. From poverty to family planning, from dams to the Novemberriots, it runs through its cycle of attention, obsession and indifferenceand moves on; untouched and untarnished. The social function ofcoffee houses and art in the earlier years is now met throughradicalismeach disaster providing the city of Delhi with new salons.There is no greater scandal than a disaster and one can pick fromRoop Kanwar and Bidar to Narmada and the November riots. Whatmakes this even more obscene is the new advocacy networks,professional VOLAGs who hire themselves out as consultants to anycause. These are the new Kissingers of despair. “There is a second and equally important trend. This relatesto the explosion of talent in social sciences other than economics andit is these ambitious groups which have entered the domains of 27
  • 28. ecology, feminism and the civil rights movements. These groups havebeen constantly searching for their equivalent of Project Camelot, oneact or report that could emphasize the policy validity of their science. “It is Bhopal that will allow for such giant re-territorializations.Consider feminism, which by now is tired of its nitpicking protests.Now from the parochiality of feminism, one can enter the almostinfinite grid of medical policy, with none of the taint of familyplanning. Feminism can enter power in a way it never visualized. “At one end is the historical anchor of Bhopal and at the other,the floating future, the ever imminent prospect of AIDS. Between thetwo lies years of relevant research and activism and the prospect ofthe definitive statement on medicine and medical policy in India. Thisprospect is even more enchanting as health rather than poverty willbecome the metaphor of control of the modern welfare state. Bhopaland AIDS reflect the internationalization of disasters, and the twotogether offer prospects of political control that neither plague nortropical medicine could ever provide in the past.” The Planning Commission was then provided with a series ofsocioeconomic-cum-psychological profiles of voluntary groups inDelhi based on a specially commissioned survey. Dr. Bhide claimedthat it was also representative of Bombay and Bangalore. His analysisrevealed the following partly overlapping strata of groups involved inBhopal. 28
  • 29. (a) Retired scientists, U.N. officials and government servants,particularly IAS officers (Age 60-65);(b) Feminists (17-35) & (45-50)The latter age group includesprofessionals and housewives with older children or intellectualambitions;(c) Ecologists (17-35);(d) Marxists interacting with (b) and (c) but also looking for a newconstituency (30-40);(e) Secular groups, especially senior professors, older socialworkers, editors of small magazines. These are generally peoplewhose ideals were formed during the Nehru era (45-70);(f) Civil rights activists (20-60);(g) Concerned professionals (doctors, engineers, lawyers,journalists) generally ambitious but with a need to play up to radicals. High income with interdisciplinary interests (35-50);(h) Fringe political groupsNaxals, Trotskyites, small trade uniongroups. Generally adolescent and theatrical (20-40);(i) Students, generally an upwardly mobile category withundergraduate degrees from Bihar, Orissa, Kerala and Andhra,planning careers in the civil service. Use involvement in movementsto acquire a cosmopolitan facade (20-25); 29
  • 30. (j) Occasional members of ‘target’ groups, Nagas, Sikhs or Assamesegenerally present to display solidarity. The survey also emphasized that groups (a) & (e) generallyprovided respectability and the sites for frequent meetings inSouth Delhi houses. Virtually all had children working for ‘NoMore Bhopal Campaigns’ abroad or doing prolonged Ph.Ds insocial science departments at JNU or Delhi University. Theother interesting fact was the complete absence of one strata,IIT or commerce graduates with MBA degrees. Dr. Bhide’s note then outlined a plan for co-opting theVOLAGs. He noted that the regime had set the basis for thedomestication of these groups through two politicallyimpeccable steps, the Technology Missions, now numbering adozen, and the India Festivals. The VOLAGs, he felt, could becut to size between the two ends of this scissors. Reproducedbelow are the range of suggestions made. What particularlyimpressed experts was the systematic attention he paid to theuniversities and research institutes. Bhide argued that threethings had to be reclaimed for the state: “1) the legitimacy of the state as a form of expertise; 2) the notion of the state as an agency of welfare; and 3) as a provider of creative spaces for the intelligentsia.What Bhopal threatened is the validity of state expertise inscience, medicine and law and the superiority of modern overlocal knowledge. Three events in particular confirmed this. The 30
  • 31. first was the attitude of government doctors in SodiumThiosulphate controversy and the ease with which VOLAGdoctors could score points against them. The second was thenature of the February 1989 verdict and the behaviour of thejudges in the aftermath. It puzzled people that the verdict was amere 500 words. Its language displayed what sociologistRichard Brown has called ‘rhetorical dominance, emphasizingthe relation between language and power rather than languageand content’. The judges behaved like a milkman caughtwatering the milk without the latter’s innovative alibis or senseof humour. Justice Pathak’s appointment to the InternationalCourt of Justice was an attempt to bolster this facade ofexpertise. “The third example is the exercise called Operation Faith.Designed to detoxify the remaining gas and simultaneouslyrestore faith in the government’s technical competence,Operation Faith was a classic ritual with the full paraphernaliaof scientific and technical expertise including helicopters. Yet itconvinced no one. All of Bhopal voted with its feet, choosing toleave the city during the exercise. Eventually the yagna topurify the city had greater legitimacy than Operation Faith. Thesymbolic power of ghee still matches the chemists equations. “The first requirement of Bhopal is the restoration of theconfidence of scientists, both in science and government. It isproposed that a new series of international institutes forElectronic and the Life Sciences be established and the RajReddy be invited to head the new International Centre for 31
  • 32. Robotics. These research institutes should be on the same linesas the International Agriculture Research Institutes thattriggered and sustained the green revolution. These instituteswill however be under greater third world control. They are tobe established mainly to attract Third World talent in the FirstWorld, which wants to be nationalist but in first worldeconomic conditions.” [In a decision which raised eyebrows even in BusinessIndia circles, the overall management of these Institutes washanded over to Ajit Kerkar, Executive Director of Indian Hotels.It was argued that these new institutes would be commerciallyviable unlike the old and defunct Council for Scientific andIndustrial Research (CSIR) and that franchises of researchinstitutes would soon be auctioned like those for hotels.] Bhide also opposed the establishment of a disasterinstitute, arguing that it represented too Pavlovian a responseand could even be read as an admission of culpability. What herecommended instead were two separate institutes, one for theRisk Sciences and the other Applied Systems Analysis, bothunder the Planning Commission. His third recommendation was to “establish People’sScience Institutes (PSI) to replace the dormant RegionalScience Laboratories of the CSIR. The PSIs are to be partlyfunded by the Statethe balance to be raised from localcontributions. This will give them an austere touch. They are to 32
  • 33. be partly modelled on agricultural extension cells and should beoriented to allow innovation in local technologies and materials.Special provisions should be made for recruiting craftsmen andactivists as extension agents. Scientists from Kerala ShastraSahitya Parishad (KSSP), ASTRA, CSE could be invited to beboard members.” His final suggestion, which many thought was a stroke ofgenius, was the establishment of the Indian Ecological Servicewith separate cadres for forestry, medicine, industry andagriculture. The old forest service, the country’s biggestlandlord, still reeking of colonialism was to be disbanded. It wasalso observed that many of the recently retired scientists of theIndira Gandhi era, who might feel distanced from power,should be requested to serve on the recruitment board. It wasalso proposed to establish the green commandos, a paramilitarygroup of ecology experts to tackle disasters. [Initially an objectof amusement, the behaviour of these squads in evacuating thevillages around the Kalpakkam reactor after a leak, providedthem the required touch of machismo.] “While absorption of dissent through employmentgeneration devices is one part of the strategy; the second aspectis more coercive. It is proposed that the government’s earliermoves to declare the Naramda Dam area a security zone shouldalso be extended to all disaster areas. Systematic acts ofrepression could be carried out, particularly against fringe eco- 33
  • 34. Marxist and small trade union groups. It is also recommendedthat the Ranjit Gupta model be applied in this context.” The former Police Commissioner’s treatment of Naxalitesfrom higher income brackets in Calcutta had intrigued Dr.Bhide. After an initial phase of repression, Gupta hadapproached the families of each revolutionary with a clearoption: either the son opted for an executive job, a fellowshipabroad or faced extermination. The results were impressive andformer Naxals have virtually been responsible for the highquality of scholarship in ICSSR institutes. Bhide advocatedsimilar measures in Doon Valley, Narmada, Singrauli and theKaiga areas. Dr. Bhide was not too enthusiastic about the museum. Suchefforts, in his view, tended to be unimaginative and obscene. Hereferred to tourists at the Hiroshima museum watchingdocumentaries of devastation while consuming hamburgers.The only exception he would allow was if the artist Nekchandagreed to build a museum out of factory junk in Bhopal. 34
  • 35. IVAftermathFollowing Bhide’s suggestions, there were two additionalnominations to the Planning Commission. The first was theappointment of ‘Alfie’ Gupta, the athletic young Stephanianwho at thirty made Bunker’ Roy look old hat. Gupta had alreadybeen head of five VOLAG groups dealing with mass media,health and literacy and had served stints at CARITAS andOXFAM. The other was the appointment of Meenakshi Khanna,the capital’s latest and most aggressive feminist, with specialresponsibility for tackling the issue of child labour. TheCommission was convinced that these two leaders would ensurethat VOLAGS, rather than being radical irritants would becomeextensions to the new consumerism. This post-Spock Home-Science generation had already been successfully used in thetechnology missions on literacy and health. The implementation of the Bhide Report under thedirectorship of ‘Alfie’ Gupta broke the spirit of VOLAGS. TheIndian Ecological Service was an enormous success, and scoresof students facing government repression in Narmada, Kaiga,and Singrauli soon joined these services. The diehard ecologistsmoved to organizations like the PUDR, and eventually driftedback to sluggish roles in the left parties they had abandonedearlier. 35
  • 36. Bhide on one of his occasional visits to India confessed thathe missed the charming VOLAG meetings at the Triveni Cafeand the lawns of the Law Institute and the Boat Club. WhenIndia Today asked him for his comments on them, he recited amodified piece from The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, MarioVargas Llosa’s study of a failed revolutionary. “They got sensualized too soon, they have no solidconvictions. Their morality is worth approximately a planeticket to a Congress. That is why the one’s who didn’t sellthemselves to a Yankee scholarship, let themselves be bribed byStalinism and became party members.” 36