reclaiming history

Thirty years later, a museum wants to change the way we look at the survivors of the Bhopal gas leak

The community-led museum has voices of survivors talking about not just the night of the leak, but also the struggle that has followed in the decades since.

India’s first community-led museum to document the social history of the deadly gas leak of 1984 and the people’s movement for justice afterwards will open in Bhopal around December 3.

Led by the voices of the survivors, the museum, built by the Remember Bhopal Trust, will take visitors through people’s memories of the leak, to how the movement for justice itself coalesced and continued to rage for 30 years, with oral histories, objects related to those stories and photographs of those who are speaking.

All contributors are survivors of a deadly gas leak in the early hours of December 3, 1984, when a valve at the Union Carbide India Limited chemical plant in Bhopal leaked methyl isocyanate into surrounding areas. The gases killed at least 5,000 people and permanently maimed and injured hundreds of thousands more. The effects of the contamination have since passed on to later generations.

“Had the people who died still been alive, they would have written the stories of their lives on their own,” said Hazira Bi, an activist and survivor whose testimony is a part of the museum. “But they are dead. Others should learn the lesson that there should be no more Bhopals, whether it is the coming government or the new generation, which is why we are building this museum.”

‘The state has no moral right’

The state government also plans to build a museum on the currently contaminated land of the site of the Union Carbide factory, but has not involved survivors in the process. In 2009, the government had held a competition for designing a potential museum, which was won by a Delhi-based company, Space Matters. The government later awarded the tender to build the museum to the same company. The company has also been asked to decontaminate the site – something survivors feel Dow Chemicals should take responsibility for.

“If they are going to build a museum after 30 years, what will they put there?” asked Rasheeda Bi. “The ground is still poisoned. If you build a museum, then all that toxicity will spread in the air, in the soil. There is nobody from the government standing against these companies but yet they want to come here and build a museum."

This was where Rama Lakshmi, a journalist, museologist and oral historian came in. In 2009, Lakshmi travelled to Bhopal to cover the 25th anniversary of the leak. Rasheeda Bi, when she met Lakshmi, mentioned the state government’s plan to build a memorial.

“She [Rasheeda Bi] said they were opposed to the memorial because the government had no right to tell their story as it was complicit in the injustice they had suffered over decades,” said Lakshmi. “As a museologist, that interested me.”

Lakshmi had worked on community museums in the United States, with native Americans and the disability rights movement. This, she thought would be the perfect way to let survivors speak for themselves.

For the community

The Remember Bhopal Museum is an elaboration of an older idea from 2004, when survivors of the leak decided to put together objects commemorating those who had died.

Called Yaad-e-Hadsa, the 2004 museum was a simple affair. Survivors contributed items such as frocks, walking sticks, sewing machines and pencil boxes that belonged to those who had died. These were arranged on a large table in the centre of a room with photographs of the people to whom the objects had belonged. Many of these were the survivors’ last physical connections to their lost ones.

While the organisers of Yaad-e-Hadsa had kept these objects, with time, they had forgotten where and how they had obtained some of them. Simultaneously, Lakshmi and Shalini Sharma, an activist and assistant professor at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences, though it would be best to have the survivors talk directly about their experiences.

“Oral histories become the sutradhars, the narrative thread at the heart of this museum,” said Lakshmi. “This was at the heart of my conversation with Rashida – that they have the moral right to tell their stories and we have to ensure that we secure this story for them.”

They interviewed around 50 survivors about their memories of the events. The entire committee, including survivors and activists, then selected stories they thought were striking and asked their interviewees for any object that might represent it.

“It was difficult to talk, but not impossible,” said Hazira Bi. “For 30 years, the government and the company have put salt in our wounds. I am very ill now, but people who come after us should understand what we are fighting for and they should continue our struggle.”

Not all objects collected for the Yaad-e-Hadsa museum overlap with the new one, and some are there by coincidence.

“We interviewed Mulchandji, who had lost two children, a boy and a girl, in the disaster,” said Sharma. “He gave us his daughter, Pooja’s, sweater. But he died of a gas-related illness before we returned two years later to take photographs of the survivors. When going through the portraits of Yaad-e-Hadsa, just by chance we happened to find a family portrait of Mulchand with his children. That is now in the exhibition.” 

Pooja's sweater. Photo credit: Remember Bhopal Trust

Synced with survivors

The key point of the trust was that it would not deviate from the values of the movement. They have used no chemicals to preserve the objects, the posters are not made of flex, and they refused to accept donations from corporations or governments. They also want the museum to record not just the horrors of that night, but also how the movement galvanised after.

“I did not just want this to be a tragedy and trauma museum,” said Lakshmi. “You as a visitor should not just come away thinking that it is really sad. You should come away saying that is tragic, but wow, they’re still fighting. This has transformed people from victims into warriors and that is a very important story. Largely elderly women have been radicalised and have crossed the lines society imposed on them before the gas leaks.”

They initially planned to have a bus travel the country to collect social histories of other similar movements for a year, reaching Bhopal on its 30th anniversary, but did not have enough funding. For now it is sponsored only by individuals and like-minded organisations. The museum will be in a small room rented by the trust within walking distance of the site of the Union Carbide factory.

Her only regret, says Rasheeda, is that she did not think of doing this earlier.

“Had we known about this museum, we would have kept many more objects,” she said. “But it has been so long that people have slowly been throwing things out, in Diwali cleaning and otherwise. If even 20 years ago, we had thought of this, it would have been good.”

The Remember Bhopal Museum will open at Senior HIG 22, Housing Board Colony, Berasia Road, Bhopal.

Excerpts from the audio interviews:

When the gas leaked, everyone was left unconscious on the road. Animals, parrots, dogs, and cats everyone was lying down like dead bodies. When the voices of ‘Run, Run’ came, we were in our house. As it was winter season, we were sleeping with blankets on our face and so couldn’t feel anything. Far from there the voices of run, run came. When I came outside, thousands of people were running. I asked one ‘What happened? What is happening?’ Suddenly I started to cough and my eyes began to inflame. Then, I along with my family started running in the same direction where everyone was running. From my house till the bus stand, there were dead bodies, dead bodies, dead bodies and only dead bodies. There was no one to look and pick these dead bodies. Even the leaves fell from the trees. There was not a single leaf remaining on the trees. After that, I was unable to see from my eyes.

Ruby Parvez

The people who inhaled that poisonous gas that night, the effect shows on their kids today. The germ in my body has been passed on to my baby. My child who is 9 years old can’t walk stand on his feet, can’t walk. Today he is dependent on me. Today when he says that he wants to play like a normal child, then I think had that incident not happened on that night, today my child would have been normal.

He is good in studies. You teach him something, he will learn very fast. His brain is very sharp. He is just handicapped in his legs, his hands are bent. If his hands become alright, he can achieve a lot in future.

His father suffered a lot due to the gas. He had such severe stomach ache that he used to twist and turn like a fish out of water. Today also he suffers from that pain and it has spread all over his body. Till today there is no proper treatment available neither in Kamla Nehru or Hamidia nor in any hospital of Bhopal.

We, the victims, alone know our mental condition. We will obviously support the other victims. That’s why I married one victim. Here, there many cases of a gas victim marrying another victim. Imagine our strength. Even with paralysed children we still support each other. Despite being a gas victim myself I married another and made a family. We give hope to each other that in near future our children will be cured of all the ailments. We still have hope!

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.


SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.