Crip Life Amidst Debilitation: Medicalization, Survival, and the Bhopal Gas Leak
Keywords:debility, India, postcolonial, Global South, medical model, crip survival
In a textbook horror-story of global capitalism, on December 3, 1984, the U.S owned Union Carbide pesticide factory spewed forty tons of lethal toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) on the city of Bhopal in India. Nearly 10,000 people died and 30,000 people were disabled overnight. Continued exposure to MIC at the factory site has disabled many more in the decades since. Yet, few disability scholars have considered the histories of the survivors of the leak as a key site of crip politics. Drawing on work by Nirmala Erevelles, Jina Kim, Jasbir Puar, and Alison Kafer, this paper explores how the long history of debilitation, disablement, and survivorship since the Bhopal Gas Leak provides essential ground for re-zoning disability studies in the Global South. Braiding the theory of debility with the methodology of critical disability studies, this article posits that it is insufficient to say that the most marginalized in the Global South experience debility. Rather, it is also necessary to focus on their modes of survival in the face of the constant material and intellectual reproduction of said debilitation. The article demonstrates how poor lower-caste and Muslim workers and city-dwellers in Bhopal were subject to the debilitating logics of transnational corporate negotiations, racialized environmental de-regulation, and governmental profit-seeking in the years leading up to the leak. Through crip readings of medical research published between 1985 and 2000, I argue that this debility has been compounded through knowledge production which did not pay heed to the ways in which its victims contended with their vulnerability. In contrast to these sources, this article further examines testimonies and organizational pamphlets to contend that survivors in Bhopal offer their own model of disability justice and crip survival in the face of debilitation. In an era of vibrant disability rights organizing in the United States, the survivors of the leak emerged in global media primarily as victims of a tragedy caught in an endless cycle of injustice. Moving past the stance of pity often deployed in discussions of Bhopal, I highlight efforts of survivance that center disabled futurity, even as these activists use a different vocabulary and thereby strive to channel attention and resources to the myriad forms of crip survival in postcolonial India.
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