Toxic Lunch in Bhopal and Chemical Publics (in Science, Technology & Human Values)

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On November 28, 2009, as part of events marking the twenty-fifth anni- versary of the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, gas survivors protested the contents of the report prepared by government scientists that mocked their complaints
   Article ToxicLunchinBhopaland Chemical Publics Rahul Mukherjee 1 Abstract On November 28, 2009, as part of events marking the twenty-fifth anni-versary of the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, gas survivorsprotested the contents of the report prepared by government scientiststhat mocked their complaints about contamination. The survivors shiftedfrom the scientific document to a mediated lunch invitation performance,purporting to serve the same chemicals as food that the report hadcategorized as having no toxic effects. I argue that the lunch spread,consisting of soil and water from the pesticide plant, explicitly front-stagedand highlighted the survivor’s forced intimate relationship with suchchemicals, in order to reshape public perception of risks from toxins.Chemical matter like sevin tar and naphthol tar bound politicians, scien-tists, corporations, affected communities, and activists together, as thesestakeholders debated the potential effects of toxic substances. This gaverise to an issue-based ‘‘chemical public.’’ Borrowing from such theoreticalconcepts as ‘‘ontologically heterogeneous publics’’ and ‘‘agential realism,’’I track the existing and emerging publics related to the disaster and thecampaigns led by the  International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal   advocacygroup. 1 University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA Corresponding Author: Rahul Mukherjee, University of Pennsylvania, Fisher-Bennett Hall, Room 127, 3340 WalnutStreet, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.Email: Science, Technology, & Human Values2016, Vol. 41(5) 849-875 ª The Author(s) 2016Reprints and 10.1177/  Keywords environmental practices, expertise, genders, justice, inequality, protest,politics, power, governance, space/place/scale dynamics On November 28, 2009, in Bhopal, a group of women in saris and burqasspread out a tablecloth and lined up a series of plates, cups, and glassescontaining chemical wastes and contaminated water. They had invited sev-eral ministers, bureaucrats, and scientists to lunch with them. The dignitariesnever arrived, but labels with their names were present next to the plates, and the women continued to wait for them as media cameras snapped pictures.See Spiegel (2010, 8); see Figure 1. In Bhopal, capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, India, a methyl isocya-nate leak occurred from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide (now part of Dow Chemical) on December 3, 1984. The leak resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries and precipitated unimaginable long-term birth defects, breathing problems, and other ailments, turning out to be the worst-ever industrial disaster in history. The performance sketched above was part of aseries of events marking the disaster’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Every year,women survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy invite people to commemorateits anniversary by participating in such events. The anniversary providesthem with a space to collectively mourn their traumatic past and bleak future (Fortun 2001). This time, the press release from the survivor uniongroups included a lunch invitation to a ‘‘Benign Buffet.’’Mass media outlets dutifully present themselves during the disaster’sanniversary, though they remain absent from Bhopal for the rest of theyear. Media attention at this time provides an opportunity for the survivorsto voice to the government their persistent demands for health-care ben-efits, clean drinking water, and a sanitized environment. The demandsoften have a contingent character: this time, a risk assessment reportrecently released by governmental scientific institutions, the DefenseResearch and Development Establishment (DRDE) in Gwalior and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Nag- pur, was under attack.The victim-survivors affected by the Bhopal gas disaster have longcomplained about the contaminated environment they have been forced to live in since 1984, but the scientific study commissioned by the govern-ment mocked their claims by suggesting that the effects of chemicals found  850  Science, Technology, & Human Values 41(5)  in the factory’s vicinity were benign. The victim-survivors protested thecontents of the scientific report through their mediated lunch performance, purporting to serve food containing the same chemicals that the report had categorized as having no toxic effects.Theimaginativelystagedlunchisnotmerelyahumor-ladencritiqueoftheactions of governmental scientific institutions to be dismissed as politicalsatire. Instead, the performance demands attention to survivors’ embodied knowledge about the chemicals and the contaminated environment in whichthey conduct their daily lives. Gas survivors and affiliated middle-class acti-vists fighting for justice in Bhopal are not distrustful of science. In fact, theyhaveoftensoughtthehelpoforganizationssuchastheCenterforScienceand Environment (CSE) and Greenpeace to conduct scientific studies to ascertainthe extent of the toxic exposure their bodies bear, both for legal purposes and to receive better health care. As I argue, the survivors wanted to shift thedebate from the immediate effects of these chemicals (acute toxicity) to their long-term effects (chronic toxicity).The lunch performance by women survivors was enacted just outside the precincts of the abandoned Union Carbide factory. The mood alternated across a range of emotions: upbeat protest chants, frustration over stategovernment’s inaction, laughter about their clever staging of the lunch Figure 1.  Lunch sit-in. Courtesy of International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal(ICJB). Mukherjee  851   performance, and sadness about a dark future. Other activities of thewomen’s group that day included shouting slogans such as ‘‘Bhopal’swomen are flames not flowers’’ and ‘‘The Madhya Pradesh governmentshould stop telling lies.’’ These protests, including the lunch performance,were covered by representatives of media outlets from across the world who jostled for space to have the best angles while capturing the performance.Women survivors have used agitation in the past to draw media attention tothe issues they want to highlight.Women have been the worst affected by the Bhopal disaster, becausemany of them lost their husbands to the disaster and then faced diffi-culty finding sustainable employment. After toxic exposure, they faced social ostracization for giving birth to children with congenital abnorm-alities. Women and children carry the burden of toxins most explicitlyon their bodies. When they have asked for relief and compensation,indifferent doctors (mostly male) and unscrupulous politicians havehumiliated them (Scandrett, Mukherjee, and the Bhopal Research Team2011). A gendered reading of this lunch performance through a feministtechnoscience lens is necessary to comprehend what dominant systemsdo not say, what hegemonic discourses of institutions and positivistscience eschew (Haraway 1988; Harding 2008), and how marginal and alternative positions can be recovered/championed by  feeling   women’s performance. I argue that feeling the sensorium of the performance iscritical, as affective dimensions open up a space to attend to the embo-died suffering of women survivors.In this article, I show how the discursive and material dimensions of thewomen’s protest create a heterogeneous public (of varied stakeholders and chemicals) that repudiates authoritative scientific constructions of risk and responsibility. My contribution to scholarly debates about theorizing pub-lics in Science and Technology Studies is to foreground the importance of studying the embodied interactions in such protest performances at themicrosocial scale. As the bureaucratic and legal language of the govern-ment, corporations, and courts has considerably alienated the gas victim-survivors, focusing only on such discourses is limiting when thinking of  publics. The affective and material performance of suffering enacted by gassurvivors during the toxic lunch is a form of public action that challengesconceptions of publics that focus on just the textual or vocal. This notion of materiality of publics is encapsulated in the concept of ‘‘ontological jus-tice’’ that I put forward later in the article. In this article, I study the publicsof this environmental controversy under the framework of ‘‘chemical pub-lics,’’ which is developed in the following section. 852  Science, Technology, & Human Values 41(5)  Chemical Publics This isnot the first time that gassurvivor-activists havetried tohighlight thechronic effects of living in chemically infested surroundings. Placing this protest performance within the history of the gas victims’ activism of thelast twenty-five years helps to ascertain the survivors’ impact on the politicsof knowledge concerning debates about risk. The issue of chronic toxicityof chemicals in Bhopal has spawned a  chemical public  constituted byinvolved actors such as government ministers, bureaucrats, scientists, gassurvivor-activists, and Dow Chemical officials. Chemicals such as sevin tar and naphthol tar, in their capacity as ‘‘things,’’ bound politicians, scientists,and activists together, as these stakeholders debated the potential effects of these toxic substances. Through their toxic effects, these chemicals havecreated ‘‘issues,’’ thus instigating the various stakeholders of the chemical public to act. The chemical public is an ‘‘issue-based public’’ (Dewey1927)—a public forged by social actors who are compelled to break fromtheir habitual ways when they find themselves affected by a problem beyond their control (Marres 2010).In the case of Bhopal, this chemical public also includes actors such astransnational activists who are fighting to make corporations responsibleand mediated publics who are asked to perceive and judge the material-semiotic performances (as seen on websites, newspapers, or televisions) of the survivor-activists. The political ecology of this lunch performanceincludes dynamic mediations of this controversy: after all, the toxic lunch performance was staged for the media because the issues needed wider circulation. The lunch performance was not just an isolated campaignagainst the Indian government and Dow Chemical. Rather, tracing its pub-lics entails tracking the existing and emerging publics of campaigns led by both Dow Chemical and the activist group International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB).The most significant characteristic of the performance was its ‘‘front-staging of nonhumans’’ (Marres 2010), including sevin tar, naphthol tar,and soil and water extracts from the erstwhile pesticide factory’s surround-ings. Jane Bennett (2010) emphasizes the capacity of matter to disrupt. Noting Jacques Rancie`re’s focus on those actors who are left unaccounted for in a democracy until they demonstrate their disruptive potential, Bennett(2010) asks that things be considered part of publics. Bennett’s work is anextension of Bruno Latour’s (2005) notion of an ‘‘object-oriented democ-racy’’ where things (and not just humans) are part of the political realm.Bennett’sconceptualizationof‘‘ontologicallyheterogeneouspublics’’—those Mukherjee  853
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