Rancid Requiem: a grandiose memorial scheme irks Bhopal gas victims

Even before it could take off, the Madhya Pradesh government’s plans to build a memorial for victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy is in the thick of controversy.
The government proposes to spend close to Rs 100 crore on building a memorial park at the 67-acre site where the now-defunct Union Carbide plant stands. Survivor groups describe the idea as ‘vulgar’ and ‘unacceptable’, and say the money should be spent on giving a better deal to thousands of suffering gas victims.
What put them off, for a start, was the money spent on a national-level competition organised in September by a state government outfit, the Environmental Planning and Coordination Organisation (EPCO), to choose a design for the memorial. Prizes worth Rs 13 lakh were handed out to the architects who entered. The state government now plans to execute the design by Delhi-based architect Suditya Sinha, who was awarded the first prize. Estimated cost: Rs 96 crore.
Some of the striking features of the design, as described by the architect, are:
* An underground tunnel that will have displays on the tragedy, and will end at ‘ground zero’— i.e, below the methyl isocyanate plant of the factory—where “it all started or for that matter ended”.
* Encasing of the Union Carbide plant in glass, with human dummies operating it, to recall that cold December night, 21 years ago.
* An ‘ecological park’ spread over several acres with a web of pathways, theme walks and cycling routes.
* Community facilities such as a school and playing fields for the benefit of the “immediate community that suffered the most in the aftermath of the tragedy”.
* Landscaping of the whole area with plant species used in ‘phytoremediation’—a mechanism by which living plants alter the chemical composition of the soil in which they are growing.
The gas NGOs are not impressed. In fact, they are aghast that the government is planning to launch the project without first cleaning up 200 metric tonnes of toxic waste still left at the site. Studies conducted by environmental watchdog Greenpeace as well as the state government’s public health engineering department suggest that the seepage of this waste into the earth over the last 21 years has contaminated ground water sources in a five square kilometre radius around the dump site, affecting 18,000 families living in 25 slum settlements.
“The government has no moral right to construct a memorial when it is not able to meet the medical and other needs of the gas victims,” says Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, an NGO working among gas victims. Other activists, while not disputing the need for a memorial, feel it should be on a much more modest scale than being contemplated, and demand that the gas victims should have a say in what it should be. A committee that included representatives of the survivor groups was in fact constituted to decide on the shape the memorial should take, but was not consulted.
The state government, which has asked the Centre to foot 75 per cent of the cost of construction, seems unfazed. “We will go ahead even if the central government does not chip in,” EPCO director-general Satya Prakash, who is also principal secretary, housing and environment, told Outlook. “This was a popular demand and we are going to fulfil it. We want to commemorate the disaster and its victims, just as has been done at Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he says.
An activist sardonically says the proposed memorial would be more of a photographer’s delight. “I feel that, at best, its magnificence will provide an excellent contrast with the misery of the people living around it,” he adds.

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