Deepti Khera and Ritu Jhingran
(Published in the Annual Magazine-Redefining Limits SCM batch 2009-2010. Reprodcued here courtesy Deepti Khera)
On December 4, 1984 the city of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh witnessed an extraordinary exodus. Every train, every bus, every vehicle leaving the city was packed with people. For in the early hours of the morning, over 40 tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate, and other poisonous gases such as hydrogen cyanide, leaked from a pesticide factory, owned and run by the Union Carbide Corporation, USA, now Dow Chemicals.
Naturally, the trains coming into the city were almost empty. But on board one of them was Sathinath Sarangi, better known as Sathyu, who had been taking a break from the rigours of a PhD in engineering, in his village, Paliyapitariya,in Oshangabad district.Sarangi says, “I heard of the Bhopal gas tragedy on the radio. I immediately decided to visit Bhopal. It was simply out of curiosity to know what was happening in the city. I decided to go there for a week. But what I saw that day was much more terrible than what I heard on the radio. People were wandering down the road with swollen eyes, tears streaming from them. Many were hobbling as if in pain. Some had fallen down and found it impossible to get up.”
Sarangi had not been motivated by anything nobler than a vague desire to see what he could do to help. He says, “I had other plans, a thesis to complete. But once I came to Bhopal there was no going back.”
Sarangi is now a founding trustee of the Sambhavna Trust studies on the ongoing health impacts on the victims. He is the one who has been constantly fighting against the injustice, staging demonstration, filing cases and lobbying against any other future Bhopal. He is the one who is committed to fight unless the people get justice. He has been arrested, threatened, charged in court for many false allegations and humiliated. But he soldiers on.
It has been 25 years of Bhopal gas tragedy, one of world’s worst industrial disasters. Though it is often said that time is the greatest healer, the passage of time has only magnified the problem. Year after year, government after government, election after election, they hear promises which evaporate once the ballot boxes are emptied.
The tragedy continues. Women do not conceive and when they do, a high percentage have birth defects. Blindness, fused fingers or toes, missing limbs, cleft lips are some of the symptoms of the havoc that the cocktail of gases has unleashed in the survivors’ DNA. Many have disrupted immune systems and succumb to opportunistic infections.
The question you see in Salma’s eyes is clear. Is there any justice for the survivors? Warren Anderson, who was Chief Executive Officer of the company, lives in comfort in the USA. He is wanted by Interpol and the government of India on charges of manslaughter but that does not stop him from living the good life. Greenpeace International tells us that his yearly golf club membership alone is three to four times the compensation paid to those survivors who were lucky enough to get any money.
And this is the man who ran a plant that blatantly disregarded security. Sarangi recounts the list of what went wrong. The plant was badly designed. It was located in a high population density area. Safety measures were ignored. In order to increase profits, personnel were reduced.
He says, “There is ample evidence of “double standards” being followed by the American multinational. Bhopal’s sister plant in West Virginia is far superior in storage, production and safety systems. There are enough documents to show that Union Carbide and its seniormost officials knew that the factory in Bhopal was a ticking time bomb and did nothing because they did not want to spend money on a plant that was yet to yield big bucks.”
And so the gases leaked, and covered almost all of the city of Bhopal, exposing 500,000 people to these deadly gases.. About 8,000 people died in the first three days. More than 23,000 people have died so far. And people continue to die today. About 120,000 to 150,000 continue to be ill from the exposure.
The worst began after the tragedy. The officials of the company refused to disclose what gas it was. According to them this was “highly confidential information”, even though thousands of people were dying. They maintained it was just like tear gas and the impact would not last long.
In the initial years the government actively discouraged independent efforts in medical relief, monitoring and research. But Sarangi managed to open the Jana Swasthya Kendra in 1985. It was actually raided by the police and all documents were confiscated. He was jailed for 18 days.
But Sarangi refused to give up his fight. For he knew things were getting worse. Every day. Official research showed that the number of dead and those with exposure-related illnesses had actually gone up in the years after the disaster. There were manifestations of “new” diseases such as tuberculosis, cancers and reproductive problems among young survivors.
Meanwhile, government hospitals had no treatment protocol for exposure-specific illnesses and no means to monitor effect of therapies. With help from voluntary doctors and other researchers, he carried out a survey that showed that the chronically ill survivors were being routinely prescribed potentially harmful drugs, thus compounding their exposure-related problems. Official research on long term effects of exposure had been abandoned.
Under such circumstances he started Sambhavana Trust in the eleventh year of the disaster, when most people had begun to forget. He says, “It started with the understanding that by including treatments based on ayurveda and yoga, involving individuals and communities in the improvement of health and health care, introducing participatory monitoring and research methods and other innovations, it was possible to create a workable alternative to the Bhopal medical establishment.”
By now the Sambhavna Trust has treated over 23, 000 gas disaster survivors and people exposed to contamination. It also provides health education, training in medical and survey skills to health volunteers in a population of over 20,000. Sambhavana grows herbs and manufactured high quality ayurvedic medicines. Apart from this it carries out medical research to establish damage caused to the children of gas-exposed parents and to people drinking contaminated ground water and on the efficacy of yoga in treatment of exposure-induced injuries. It also runs an informal school with 50 children from Oriya Basti.
The Central and State governments have always tried to downplay the human and environmental damage caused by the disaster. “The major reason for the health problems is the contaminated water that the people of the affected area are forced to drink. Though the government’s stand is that Dow is liable to clean the land, the government has hardly taken any action.”
He points out that, the Central Government has agreed to set up an “Empowered Commission on Bhopal” for long-term rehabilitation of gas disaster survivors and those exposed to contamination. Although this happened in August 2008, the Commission is yet to be set up. In 2008 when Sarangi with survivors and victims marched to Delhi and when these people were quietly demonstrating there, they got another gift from the government. All of them, including the children, were put behind bars. “That’s the government stand on the issue,” he says.
In the last four months, Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh and Madhya Pradesh Urban Administration and Development Minister Babulal Gaur have publicly stated that there was no toxic contamination due to the chemical waste from Union Carbide. Sarangi believes that the state government has also been criminally negligent on the issue of providing clean water to the people in the communities with contaminated ground water. The money to provide piped water was provided in 2006 and the state government has so far postponed the deadline four times and still about 18,000 people are drinking contaminated water.
But Sarangi will not give up. He says, “Unless these people are punished, the message to the corporate world goes out: you are free to kill for your benefit.” Sarangi did meet with the officials of Dow Chemicals. His meeting put him behind bars; the company took him to court for distributing a Bhopal Gas Tragedy fact sheet at their shareholders’ meeting.
This does not slow him down. “It keeps me going. It has made me more hopeful, which is weird,” he says. “But there’s hope because even under these circumstances, things are possible. You have the government, the corporations, and the legal system against you. The scientific bodies are apathetic. Medical institutions don’t care. And yet things have been done and victories have been won.” His optimism gleams as he recites lines of his own poem:
I am a rabid Optimist
Every tree that continues to stand
Every stream that continues to flow
Every child that runs away from the home
Is an indication
that the battle is not only on
It is being won.