One of the most popular current clichés is that "we have all gone mad about health and safety". The tabloid press appears to love nothing better than stories about a goldfish without a health certificate or the school that has cancelled its egg-and-spoon race. These same stories seldom mention that industrial accidents still occur and that, in some parts of the world, further attention to the conditions in which people live and work would be entirely positive.
However, the callous disregard for the safety of others that is expressed in the West is nothing compared with the lack of concern for others that many multinational companies have shown for populations in the global South. High on the list of disasters unleashed upon helpless people due to a refusal to take safety at work seriously is the tragedy in 1984 in the town of Bhopal, in which clouds of toxic gas escaped from a Union Carbide plant.
In the "accident" at Bhopal, thousands of people died and at least half a million others suffered debilitating and often long-term side effects. There is, as Suroopa Mukherjee found at the beginning of her research, neither a shortage of survivors to talk to nor an absence of literature and controversy about the event. But from the outset this superb book does more than represent the voices of those maimed or bereaved; it suggests that "the social costs of industrial progress have never really been calculated for the poor". The worst of it, as Mukherjee demonstrates, is that those most severely affected by the disaster were not represented in the subsequent legal battles about blame, responsibility and compensation. Rather, it was - and is - that what she describes as a "paper cloud" allowed Union Carbide to shelter under that ancient umbrella of "accidents will happen".
That same "paper cloud" included the decision to try the case against Union Carbide in India rather than in the US, a decision that considerably lengthened the progress of the trial and reduced the possibility of effective assistance to the victims. Yet even if the trial had been conducted in the US, questions about what, and who, were on trial would have remained.
In one sense, of course, there were apparently clear-cut cases where money could be paid to survivors or their families. On the other hand, as Mukherjee points out, "the Bhopal disaster entailed a total collapse of the social structure and breakdown of the family unit". The terms "social structure" and "family breakdown" do little to convey the individual misery that the gas leak caused; the oral history that is a central part of the book (and of the series of which it is a part) attest to the reality of the personal suffering and injury. At the same time, the book's latter chapters document the ways in which survivors have struggled for better futures, how affected individuals (in particular, women) have acquired new habits of resistance and autonomy, and how oral history itself can assist in the acts of both remembering and analysing the politics of the disaster.
It is the nature of these politics that is perhaps the core of this lucid and remarkable book, of which one of the most striking aspects is the author's sensitivity to the meaning of words such as "accident" and "responsibility", and the layers of duplicity hidden in corporate statements about "regret". As we might note, "accidents", despite many attempts to naturalise the term, are consequences of social events and choices. It is all too easy - albeit foolish, in an age post-Robert Maxwell and other perpetrators of financial fraud - to assume that corporate crime is somehow physically harmless and that the mugging and/or assault is "only" metaphorical. This study demonstrates vividly that corporate lack of responsibility is anything but.
But over and above that point, Surviving Bhopal has two major strengths: its recognition of the complicity between global corporations and local elites, and the dangerous consequences of neoliberal exhortations to industrial growth in contexts without adequate, let alone rigorous, safety regulations. Every time an individual Western voice mocks health and safety legislation, or preaches a libertarian agenda about the perils of "risk aversion", attempts to avert further tragedies on such a scale are undermined. In the case of Bhopal, there are elements of consolation to be drawn from the disaster, but those positive outcomes are also a testament to what need never have happened.
Surviving Bhopal: Dancing Bodies, Written Texts, and Oral Testimonials of Women in the Wake of an Industrial Disaster
By Suroopa Mukherjee
Palgrave Macmillan, 224pp, £52.00
Published 14 May 2010