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Keeping Bhopal in the public eye

By Satinath Sarangi

Satinath Sarangi arrived in Bhopal two days after the gas leak 20 years ago. He has been there since, helping in the fight for the legal claims of survivors, in the mobilisation of communities, volunteers and international donors, and the provision of medical support. In this interview he explains why it is important to keep reminding the world that Bhopal happened

 Satinath Sarangi arrived in Bhopal two days after the gas leak 20 years ago, and stayed on. He is the managing trustee of the Sambhavna Clinic which provides survivors free medical care and undertakes community health work. The clinic is the only organisation currently researching the long-term effects of the Bhopal gas exposure. He is a founder of the survivors’ support organisation Bhopal Group for Information and Action and interacts closely with survivors’ associations . Sarangi has been involved with the multiple activities run by a network of local, national and international groups, pursuing health and economic needs, fighting legal claims, providing medical support and reminding the world that Bhopal happened.

In this interview, Sarangi explains how Bhopal has been kept in the public eye for 20 years, how communities, volunteers and donors have been mobilised, and what the do’s and don’ts of a successful campaign are.

How did you get involved in the Bhopal campaign?

I was working for my PhD (in metallurgical engineering) in 1983 at the Council of Industrial and Scientific Research’s Regional Research Lab in Bhopal . But I soon got disillusioned with the work and joined Kishore Bharati, an NGO working among tribal and semi-tribal people in villages about 150 kilometres south of Bhopal . I helped organize village youth on social and political issues through songs, plays and meetings. On the evening of December 3, 1984 , I and other villagers heard in a news broadcast from All India Radio that a gas leak had killed people in Bhopal . I don’t remember whether the number of casualties was mentioned. If it was, it wasn’t staggering. Dr Anil Sadgopal, founder and one of the leaders of the Kishore Bharati team, and I left for Bhopal later in the evening.

As I walked out of the Bhopal railway station I was shocked at how massive the problem was, how painful for people. I saw entire families huddled together, their eyes swollen, holding on to each other, groaning, people lying helpless on the wayside….What lifted my spirits and got me out of the benumbed state was the huge number of ordinary people who were trying to help the victims. Small makeshift booths had been set up by volunteers from religious and social organisations and ordinary citizens on the roadside and volunteers of every description were busy putting eyedrops, distributing different kinds of pills, providing milk and fruit, carrying unconscious and semi-conscious people to passing vehicles requesting them to take patients to the hospital. The spontaneous outpouring of humanity was as overwhelming as the grief and misery.

I joined one such group and for the next three-four days remained occupied with these relief efforts, even as I became increasingly sceptical about the efficacy of the eyedrops or the different pills. I met with a number of local volunteers and some who like me had come from outside Bhopal . On December 9, I attended a meeting of over 20 people at the house of a small-time lawyer where the Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha was formed with the objective of leading the struggle for relief and rehabilitation and punishment of the guilty. That is how I got involved.

In early-1986 I left the Morcha and founded the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA).

What led to the formation of the Sambhavna Clinic?

I was always interested in the medical fallout of the disaster. In early-1985 four organisations active on issues of disaster --- Union Carbide Karmchari Sangh (the trade union of Carbide workers), Trade Union Relief Fund (a workers’ support group from Bombay ), Nagarik Rahat Aur Punarvas Committee (a local survivors’ organisation) and the Morcha -- started a clinic together. I offered to manage the clinic. In June we administered sodium thiosulphate (a detoxificant) and monitored its remarkably positive effects with help from volunteer doctors. In 20 days the clinic administered more injections than all the government hospitals put together had in the preceding five months.

Then on the night of June 24 the police raided the clinic, arrested us, put us in jail for 18 days, and took away all the files with data on the efficacy of the drug. The reason for this was that Union Carbide did not want sodium thiosulphate to be administered and the effects monitored because that would establish that the gases had injured not just the eyes and lungs (as the Corporation wanted people to believe) but almost all the organs by getting into the bloodstream (the drug was administered intravenously). I tried setting up two more clinics but there was too much police repression. The political nature of Bhopal ’s medical issues was rather stark in the first few years.

Several years had to pass before independent medical work could be carried out. In these years I was witness to the indiscriminate prescription of potentially harmful drugs (mainly antibiotics, steroids and psychotropic drugs), the absence of sustained relief in symptoms. I also saw the premature termination and winding up of medical research and an absence of community health initiatives. A study that BGIA did in 1990 to evaluate drug utilisation in government hospitals showed that in the two hospitals studied over 50% of the drugs prescribed had been banned in other countries or been considered for a ban by the Indian government.

With the deterioration in the health of survivors and the system of health care, research and monitoring, what finally made Sambhavna happen was the possibility of raising enough money through individual donations. I am strongly opposed to setting up/running a clinic with funds from corporate charities, governments or large funding agencies. Raising funds through individual donations was made possible through the involvement of Indra Sinha, an adman/writer in London , in 1994. The first ad that he published in December 1994 in The Guardian, London , raised over 50,000 pounds from over 3,000 people. Sambhavna Trust was set up in June 1995 and the clinic building was purchased with part of the money raised through the advertisement.

What are Sambhavna’s achievements?

First, by developing treatment protocols for specific symptom complexes that combine therapeutic intervention through modern medicine, ayurveda and yoga, we have demonstrated the possibility of developing safe, simple, inexpensive and effective therapies for exposure-induced health problems.

Second, we have developed a system of registration for continuous monitoring of health status and treatment efficacy. Third, ours is the only clinic in the city providing facilities for screening, diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer. Fourth, in a paper presented at the World Asthma Congress in October 1999, we presented data on significant increase in lung function parameters among persons with exposure-induced chronic respiratory disorders through the practice of yoga and pranayama.

Through house-to-house surveys we generated important data on the health consequences to over 20,000 people of toxic exposure in 1984 and contamination of groundwater. Our research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (October 2003), was the first to show health injuries among children conceived and born to gas-exposed parents after the disaster.

We manufacture over 60 ayurvedic medicines mentioned in standard texts from locally collected or purchased herbs. We have developed a successful programme for control of tuberculosis based on the involvement of ‘health leaders’ who are recovered TB patients from the community. In four years the incidence of TB in the community came down ten times.

Health education by Sambhavna’s community health workers led to collective action by residents of the communities affected by groundwater contamination.

Through advertisements in newspapers in India and UK we have been able to raise sufficient funds to run the clinic for the last eight years and have reason to hope that this support will continue.

Importantly, we have established a system of collective management based on participation of staff members and consensus decision-making.

We have been awarded the Japanese Tajiri Muneaki prize in 1999, the national Inner Flame award in 2001 and the international Margaret Mead award in 2002.

Your funding strategy is unique. Could you describe it?

Our fundraising is mainly done by placing full-page ads in newspapers such as The Guardian and Independent in the UK around the anniversary of the disaster each year. We spend about 8,000 pounds per ad and are able to raise 30-50,000 pounds per ad. We have over 8,000 donors including school children, workers, artists and others.

Our ads are as much about raising awareness about the disaster and crimes of corporations as about raising funds. They are markedly different from most fundraising ads that evoke pity and/or guilt among potential donors.

You’ve also been able to attract volunteers on a regular basis over the years. How?

We have had medical and non-medical volunteers from France, Ireland, Belgium, UK, Sweden, USA and Switzerland in addition to those from Bhopal and other parts of India who have done a great deal of work. Most of the people who volunteered came to know about us and our work from the first report we published and distributed in 1998 and through our website www.bhopal.org. We take great care to ensure that a volunteer enjoys and learns from her/his work at the clinic and also that the work contributes to the overall achievements of the clinic. We think people are attracted to our approach to health care of chemically exposed people because it’s a combination of several systems.

You’ve managed to involve a lot of writers, artists and photographers in the Bhopal campaign. What do you think motivated them?

Writers like Dominique Lapierre, Indra Sinha, Suketu Mehta and Arvind Rajagopal have written for Sambhavna. Photographers such as Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh, Prakash Hatvalne, Andy Moxon, Richard Grove (both from the UK), Maude Dorr (USA) and others have given their photos to Sambhavna.

I think what motivates people is the plight of the survivors (and those forced to drink contaminated water), the fact that the agencies responsible -- namely Dow Chemical Company and the Indian government -- are doing little to alleviate the suffering of the people and our successful efforts in providing sustained relief and building community organisations. We help volunteers choose the kind of work that is relevant to the immediate situation so that she/he can see the significant contribution she/he is making. We also encourage the volunteers to see the situation in Bhopal as part of the much larger tragedy of destruction of human health, lives and the planet due to the commercial activities of corporations which aim at profit maximisation. Bhopal helps them develop a perspective on their own surroundings back home.

How did you keep Bhopal in the international eye? Was it the issue or the campaign?  Would it have worked with another subject?

It is the Bhopal Group for Information and Action that has been working actively to keep Bhopal in the public eye. In the years after the disaster when media attention on Bhopal waned drastically, BGIA used to publish/distribute a newsletter in English for international distribution and a Hindi newspaper (with news from around the world) for distribution among survivors. The campaign tour of survivors and BGIA members to several countries starting in 1989, the organisation of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Bhopal and the setting up of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal helped a lot in building contacts with community groups victimised by similar corporate crimes, trade unions, students, environmental, human rights, medical and other professional organisations. Organisations such as The Other Media in New Delhi contributed significantly to maintaining and promoting interest nationally. Once we set up the website it became much easier. I think it was more the issue than the campaign. It has been our experience that the word ‘ Bhopal ’ evokes strong memories in people, including non-activist people. Of course (because of a lack of media attention) many tend to believe that the disaster is over and all is well in Bhopal but it is a rare person who does not recognise the name or remember how terrible it was. The other thing about the issue is that it touches most people as concerns regarding environmental health are growing all over the world. I do not think it would have worked this well with so little effort with another subject which does not have such name recognition and immediate relevance.

So the do's and don'ts of campaigning according to you would be….?

Do’s:

  1. have a vision
  2. have a democratic structure and consensus decision-making
  3. make clear demands, backed by data, and repeat them over and over
  4. encourage community participation at all stages
  5. have a diverse range of activities
  6. keep your sources of funding, accounts of income and expenditure and systems of fiscal accountability open to all participants
  7. be creative in deciding on protest actions – use a combination of violent (against property not people)  and non-violent action, legal and extra-legal means, mass and individual work
  8. include all possibilities in defining your constituency
  9. remember to add fun and laughter in political action
  10. celebrate all victories
Don’ts :
  1. stoop to make allies particularly with corporate/government bodies even though such alliances may seem to offer benefits for the campaign
  2. forget that a vast majority of potential supporters particularly in India do not have access to computers/Internet
  3. underestimate the power of a small group or even an individual either as an ally or an enemy
  4. keep people in the dark
  5. let legality of any matter stop you from raising issues of morality
  6. follow any leader unquestioningly
  7. be lazy or careless about money matters
  8. discourage criticism or silence dissent
  9. use a ‘higher purpose’ argument to condone immoral actions
  10. let defeat bring you down

Has the campaign concerned itself with general policy issues as well? Or has it focused on the specifics?

Along with raising issues of Bhopal and specific demands against Dow and the Indian government, the campaign has raised issues of corporate accountability, penalising corporate crime, public access to information on industrial activity, inherently unsafe technologies and products, and regulation of corporate activities.

To what extent has the community been mobilised?

On October 14, about 350 women from the communities affected by groundwater contamination ‘occupied’ the office of the director of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation for three-and-a-half hours, demanding the supply of safe water. The protestors left only after the director gave them a written statement promising immediate action on the matter. Each of the communities has a group of women representing it. These women keep track of the quantity and quality of water supplied every day. This facilitates prompt response. The data collected by them is used to nail government’s lies in the Supreme Court. All decisions are taken at open meetings in which representatives from different communities participate. On October 25 over 2,000 people (mostly women) are expected to travel to New Delhi to protest against the delay in distribution of compensation. Community leaders (Rashida Bee, Champa Devi, Syed Irfan and Shahid Noor) are mobilising people for this campaign, visiting the communities and speaking to people. Local supporters carry out house-to-house visits.

Where does the Bhopal campaign go from here?

BGIA along with survivors’ organisations has been involved with several legal actions calling for improvement of medical care, disposal of toxic waste, stoppage of demolition of the factory by the management, and several other issues. BGIA has provided legal assistance to survivor claimants who have been wrongfully denied compensation or have been paid inadequate sums. In the ongoing criminal case against Union Carbide and its officials, BGIA is assisting the prosecution. In the class action suit against Union Carbide Corporation in the Federal Court in USA , BGIA is one of the plaintiffs. T he movement as a whole is moving towards confronting Dow's ‘original sin’, which is chlorine chemistry (Dow invented/commercialised technology for getting chlorine from brine wells around Midland , Michigan ). This chlorine went into the production of highly toxic chemicals including PVC (Dow is the largest producer) and dioxin. The Bhopal survivors have joined forces with residents of Midland over the issue of dioxin contamination and with Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange/dioxin spraying by the US army (Dow was the biggest supplier of Agent Orange to the US army).

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004