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Published: December 28th 2008
I have got a bit slack at the old blogging, particularly considering I was at a computer all day everyday in Bhopal. The Indian internet, which claims to be broadband at the clinic- presumably when its not too busy sipping Chai and swatting the endless onslaught of mosquitos was not what held me back from writing this time. It was infact fear. Not of living within 400 metres of a highly toxic factory which is still claiming the lives of thousands. Not of worrying about what I may do next time the headband wearing, goatee sporting, peculiarly limping middle aged hippy wakes me from my slumber with his tympanic-bursting snoring. And not from another bloody stoning (I jest, there was no blood) as the children were won round in the end. But from something else. Namely Sathyu, the most feared and respected man I have ever met, who masterminds his magic to the world from the desk behind mine.
Sathyu came to Bhopal the day after the fateful night of the gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide factory. He then never left. For the last 25 years of his life he has dedicated every spare minute to the campaign for justice of the Bhopal victims and his efforts in treatment and rehabilitation for them. He is the "managing trustee" of the Clinic I was working at, but I think most people just see him as "The God". I am not a shy person with strangers, but around Sathyu I stuttered like a little boy in front of a thousand headmasters. From everything I have taken from Bhopal, the inspiration and motivation that you really can do good in the world shines above all else. I may have swooned a little when I said goodbye. Maybe just a little. No more than a flock of girls around Elvis may if he touched the hand of one of them. I am not afraid to sound a little less than my usual manliest self, but getting a great big bear hug from the Man Himself when I put my hand out to say goodbye was an experience I will never forget.
Haha, anyway, as I am so far behind in my blog, In am going to cheat a little and blatantly plagiarise somke other stuff I wrote when I was at the Clinic. Its just to give you a rough idea of what thje whole Bhopal disaster was all about (if you still don't know!) and what I was doing there. Give it a skim as I am bound to be talking about it in my new-improved Jack for Justice campaign. Start signing up now for a Barefoot for Bhopal walk across Britain I mayyyyy have in mind on my return to Blighty.
"I cannot sleep. I escape from my mosquito net hanging over my bunk and make my way along the top floor of the Clinic to the Volunteer’s room, climbing up the ladder to the rooftop above. From my vantage tower I look out across the horizon where in all directions I see the faintly glowing lights emitted from the sprawling dwellings of Bafna Colony. It is hard to imagine, hearing the horn of a train leaving Bhopal Station, and the occasional bark of a dog, that on such a night, nearly 25 years before, this city in the heart of India was plunged into a deeper darkness that they still have not got out of.
On the 3rd of December, 1984, on an evening just like this one, thousands were woken from their slumber gasping for air, their eyes and throats burning and their screams only masked by the expectorant cough of white froth, streaked with blood. You do not need to be a medical student to know that is a bad sign, but just how bad, is still being determined.
A pesticide factory, situated in the heart of the slums of Bhopal’s Old City, leaked 42 tonnes of deadly Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) and other gases into the homes of over half a million people. Within 72 hours 8000-10,000 had died with an estimated 23,000 killed from gas-related illnesses to this day. The aftermath of the disaster is bleak, with the life of at least one gas victim being claimed with every day that passes. This is not a man-made disaster that can just be swept under the carpet and forgotten about. The gas leak may have occurred before some of us were born, but it is a current global health issue, now more than ever. With the toxic effects of MIC now presenting in the 3rd generation and 30,000 Bhopalis having their sole water supply contaminated by the lingering chemicals, the advent of the 25th year since the disaster is the year for international action.
I am a medical student from the UK and am currently volunteering in the Sambhavna Clinic, situated 400 metres South of the factory, in an area crippled after the disaster. It is an independent, non-governmental medical and educational initiative, which through primarily individual donations, provides free healthcare to the victims. At Sambhavna, I have observed how Ayurvedic medicine, Yoga and Panchakarma works alongside modern allopathic medicine to treat patients and alleviate symptoms. Whether it is through using indigenous herbal medicine grown in the garden, adopting specific Asanas and breathing techniques or detoxification with medicinal enemas and oil massages; alternative medicine is at the forefront of Sambhavna’s founding philosophy.
I have obviously taken a lot from my time here, but have also tried to give something back and contribute by starting a literature review intended to help guide the 2nd International Medical Commission for Bhopal. From sifting through 24 years worth of medical research I have learnt of the true horrors of how MIC and contaminated water affects the victims. Bronchial asthma, pulmonary tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pulmonary fibrosis may be expected after exposure to such a toxic irritant, but what I was not expecting was the multi-organ effect of the gas, with victims suffering from ocular, psychiatric, neurological, immunological, gynaecological, and genetic problems. The most alarming effect of MIC and other gases released in the toxic cloud is its ability to claim victims years after the disaster. Studies suggest a mutagenic capability, chromosomal abnormalities have been identified and babies that survive to term are born with pigeon chest, syndactlyly, and congenital diseases.
With such devastating health effects, and an abandoned factory plant that is contributing to further ground-water contamination with each successive monsoon, certain questions may be asked. Compensation for the victims, proper medical relief and the urgent need for those responsible to clean up the factory are passionately campaigned for as part of Sambhavna’s global outreach mission. They collaborate medical research and epidemiological studies with the ICJB, the International Campaign for Justice for Bhopal. Anyone who has heard about the legal battle of the Bhopal victims in recent years will not be surprised to hear that a lot of their political lobbying surrounds the demand for corporate accountability.
What transforms the Bhopal disaster from a national tragedy into a pressing global health issue is the questions that arise in the 24 years of demonstrations and campaigning that have followed. Two American juggernauts of the chemical industry have received most of the wrath of angry Bhopal survivors, namely The Union Carbide Corporation, who owned the factory, and now The Dow Chemical Company, who has taken over the company and its responsibility for Bhopal, as the ICJB argues. Dow’s planned research facility in Chennai, Tamil Nadu was burnt down, future factory plans have been repeatedly opposed, and the company’s recruitment scheme is in tatters through persistent “Don’t Work for Dow” demonstrations.
Whether the campaigners are “despicable and perverse” as recently stated in a Dow press conference in response to local protests by children is open to judgement. However, what has significant undertones, is the fear of the production of toxic chemicals so close to human habitation. Chemicals from such factories are well known for polluting the waterways and ecosystems of our planet, but what is often overlooked is the severe effect that they have on our bodies. A pesticide factory built on your doorstep would cause an outcry, but what about the intoxicants we willingly take into our systems through our pesticide treated food? Biomonitoring and body burden studies have found over 400 potentially harmful chemicals in breast milk, blood, tissues and in neonates. The internal pollutants are believed to be carcinogenic, teratogenic and have effects on the endocrine, nervous, renal, immune and reproductive system.
I would like to highlight that harmful chemicals do not just come from the likes of pesticides. Dow chemical along with making MIC, also have a large pharmaceutical branch and manufacture drugs and medication. With increasing medical research and pharmaceutical developments, more chemicals are formulated everyday in an effort to improve the health of an individual. At Sambhavna, these medications are recognized as chemicals, which potentially may overload an already intoxicated system of a gas victim. Allopathy has its merits here, but in the philosophy of first do no harm, chemical medicines are limited to necessity, and the break-through practices of Ayurveda, Panchakarma and Yoga shine through as increasingly effective treatment in reducing symptoms and toxins polluting the body.
The horrific human tragedy of the gas leak may still be felt down each narrow alley, and every congested home of the neighbourhood. But if anything good can come out of such loss, it may be Sambhavna, the shining beacon of hope amongst an otherwise poisoned community. And perhaps with Sambhavna, comes the holistic approach to medicine needed the world over, where allopathic has embraced ayurvedic, integrating a care system that treats, without intoxifying. As for Bhopal, with the 25th anniversary since the disaster arriving next December, the global community will unite alongside organizations like the ICJB to finally achieve justice for the victims, and an end to the poisoning.
Or that is what I reassure myself, so that I can finally get to sleep."
Well done if you read that.
Got to go and move Mumbai hotel rooms now. I will fill you in again very soon to get back on top of it. By the way, a little fact for you. Read "Shantaram" and the room I am in at the moment is right next to that of Lin's much mentioned room in the India Guesthouse. Amazing, I know.
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