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Creating a canvas for the people of Bhopal

The gold standard of industrial crime


VOICE OF PROTEST: Samar Jodha says his exhibition is not against the spirit of the Olympics but against Dow Chemical

Ablack arrow is subtly drawn on the floor of the reception of Amnesty UK's headquarters in London. The words written on it are: 'Bhopal, India Union Carbide pesticide plant'. The next arrow, a metre or so along, reads: 'Just after midnight, 3 December, 1984'. The arrows continue, relaying the core details of the world's biggest industrial disaster, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

They lead to the backyard of the NGO's offices where a 40-foot black container, with smoke seeping out, stands. The date '2/3. 12. 84' is written on the side, the date that tons of methyl isocyanate gas accidentally leaked from a tank at the Union Carbide India Limited Bhopal plant.

Inside, a sound loop recreates the peaceful chirping of crickets, the humming of the plant, followed by the eerie sounds of gas travelling through chambers and then slipping into the night and finally a gasp, signifying the death of the first victim. The multimedia container aims to recreate the feeling of the night of the gas leak which killed thousands and has left hundreds of thousands with permanent disabilities or illnesses.

About 1, 800 names of the victims are listed on a black canvas inside. Some just read 'baby'. Behind these stand human-sized mannequins symbolising the dead. Smoke suddenly billows from the smoke machine symbolising the gas. Opposite this hang 3D black-and-white pictures of the derelict site as it is today.

"This is meant to be like a train compartment, " explains photographer Samar Jodha, who is in London for Bhopal: A Silent Picture, his audio-visual art exhibition, which has been installed to coincide with the London 2012 Olympics in protest at the fact that Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide Corporation, the company responsible for the disaster, is a major sponsor of the Games. "The windows of the train look into the plant and the train is arriving at Bhopal. I wanted to recreate that night. The trains in India are not closed and so the gas came into the trains too, carried by the wind, " Jodha says. He has even controlled the temperature of the container to recreate the coldness.

"I don't want to kill the spirit of the Olympics. This is about the committee who made the decision for Dow to be a sponsor, " says Jodha, who lives between New York, Delhi and Dubai.

Dow Chemical, an American company, is one of 11 major worldwide sponsors supporting the Olympic Games. It is also the official chemistry company for the Olympic Movement until 2020 and has invested an estimated $100 million (Rs 550 crore) in the Games. It is providing its products, technology and science to the Games, so, for example, it has supplied roofing insulation to the Olympic Stadium and Olympic Village, materials and manpower to complete the Olympic Wrap around the Stadium and materials for the field hockey pitches.

Yet, 27 years on, life in Bhopal remains tragic.

According to Jodha, the groundwater and soil remain contaminated by toxic chemicals that were allegedly dumped when the plant, which is now under the authority of the Madhya Pradesh state government, closed. The site is yet to be cleaned up and people continue to live near it.

"Many people living around the site have respiratory illnesses and babies are being born dead or with serious defects, " the 46-year-old says. "People carry on living there because there are no medical services back in their villages, whereas there are lots of clinics around Bhopal. "

He believes Dow should now take corporate responsibility for the disaster and decontaminate the site. He also wants to see stricter Indian laws to punish corporates who commit similar crimes. "Everyone is worried about whether FDI will get affected if India tightens its laws but the West is saturated and MNCs need to penetrate India so they will do so anyway. There was no compensation given to labourers in the Commonwealth Games, many of whom caught dengue and malaria, because of the garbage sites they lived on to build the venues, " he adds.

He hopes ongoing pressure on Dow will coerce the company into action. "They know the state government isn't capable of cleaning it up because of bureaucracy and interest groups. The clean-up will only happen from the corporate side. If they can spend money on the Olympics, why can't they on this?" he asks.

Jodha says he has no issue with the Olympics, only with the way "some corporates" have "snaked their way in".

"I don't think India should have boycotted the Games but there should be protests, " he says. "If the same thing had happened in New York City, the entire plot would have disappeared and been cleaned up. People think they can get away with it in Third World Countries. This is a crime scene. "

The exhibition, in a smaller 20-foot container, has already travelled to the India Art Fair in Delhi, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai and Art Chennai in 2011. More than 95, 000 people went to see it.
Jodha is delighted with the response in London, saying it is drawing a "multicultural, not exclusively Indian" crowd.

He bought the 40-tonne container in Oxford, and fabricated it in Rochester, then took it on a truck to London. "We had painted on the sides what it was about so people could see it on the roads, " he says. The container will now tour schools and public spaces in the UK for a year before he takes it to Berlin, Oslo and Amsterdam. He funded it mostly himself. "I don't know how much it cost, " he says. "I can't fund it anymore. I have got some interest from some private foundations. But I never work with corporate sponsors, " Jodha who earns his living from running a publishing house and producing documentaries, says. He says collectors have already asked to buy the prints and sound, but he has refused. "I did not want to sell them, " he says.

Jodha has close emotional ties with Bhopal. He lived there for a year when he was 12, his uncle was a doctor in a government hospital there during the disaster and another uncle was a chemist at Union Carbide. In 2004, he visited the Bhopal plant to take photographs for a print campaign to accompany a BBC programme to mark the twentieth anniversary of the catastrophe. It was relatively easy to get inside, he says. "Parts of the boundary walls are broken and locals wander in and use the site as a toilet. The security is just at the front. The cattle wander in and out and drink the water. "

It was when he discovered that Dow had spent £7million (Rs 60 crore) on a canvas Wrap around the Olympic Stadium, that he decided to create his own "canvas" for the people of Bhopal. "Although it's a sealed site under court order, once you know how to get into it, you can get into it again, " he explains. So he went back to take photos for this exhibition. "It's quite weird when you visit the site now. There is nothing there;instead of machines you can see corporate politics and human error. "

Jodha insists he is not an activist but an artist but he also does not believe in art for art's sake. He explains the theme running through all his work is that of the individual being exploited by large corporates and faceless bureaucracy and the price humans pay for development.

Dow Chemical has continuously tried to distance itself from the disaster pointing out that it acquired Union Carbide 16 years after the tragedy and so had no involvement. Union Carbide paid a final settlement sum of $470m (Rs 2, 600 crore) to the Government of India in 1989 to compensate those affected by the tragedy.

Peter Frankental, Economic Relations Programme Director at Amnesty International UK, says the intention of hosting the installation is to "highlight the need to remediate Bhopal's victims and survivors" and to bring "powerful images of the horrors of Bhopal" to the East End of London where the Olympics are being held.

"It is shameful that such an iconic sporting event should be sponsored by Dow Chemical, the company that has steadfastly denied responsibility for dealing with the consequences of Bhopal, " he says. "People see Samar's work, they are moved by it and they want to take action to voice their concern about the way Dow's legacy is poisoning the Olympics. It is obvious from the reaction of the visitors to the installation that his work is a powerful way of making people think about the scale of the Bhopal disaster, and about the idea of corporate responsibility. "

A spokesman for Dow Chemical declined to comment.

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