Tuesday, 05 April 2011 14:09

3 Months in Bhopal

In late August last year, as I placed my hands on a man suffering long-term asthma, I started to learn the true effects of one of the worst industrial disasters the world has known. I was in the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, deep in the slums of Bhopal where I had arrived a couple of days before. Welcomed immediately by Biju, the resident local physical therapist, I was already putting my skills to the test.

Sambhavna is a beacon of hope and support to the people in the surrounding bastis, who were the ones to suffer when, in 1984, a factory run by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) spewed a vast cloud of toxic gas over the whole area. Many families were devastated and left with one parent, or no parents. Many potential mothers spontaneously aborted.

As I got to know the people working at Sambhavna I learnt that many of them were ‘victims’ of the gas or of water pollution. Many were children when it happened so now are only in their early 30’s, and they have various levels of underlying illness. The mention of water pollution was new to me. The factory had used many different toxic chemicals in the production process so there were many storage containers around the site. After the gas leak, the site was simply abandoned and containers left to rot and rust, thus leaking their contents over the ground. This has filtered through the soil, accelerated by every rainy season, and is polluting the entire groundwater supply – the only supply to the area.

As I worked with patients in the centre, I came to realise that they also have all the ‘normal’ illnesses that we all get from time-to-time, but in many cases the effect is compounded because of their toxic bodies. Sambhavna makes its own Ayurvedic remedies including a massage oil with 23 herbs which is used by Biju and his colleague, Meena, in the special body-therapy known as Panchkarma. The clinic has 2 doctors specialising in allopathic medicine and 2 in Ayurveda, and patients can choose which they receive. During the time I was there, Biju and I could be working non-stop all day, and I realised there is no way that this single resource for the community is enough.

10 more are needed – every person I saw in the clinic would benefit from body therapy but it would be impossible to provide that without increased funding. The manager, Sathyu, and I spoke often, and one of his ideas is to create several satellite centres where a sub-set of treatments can be offered, including emergency cover, Panchkarma and nursing support plus a visiting doctor.

There is no free health care system, though some hospitals do give free treatment to the gas victims, but none to the water-affected ones. So for most of the people, many unemployed through lack of work, there is no alternative.

It wasn’t all work for me, though: I found I had new skills as a teacher of written English! One young man was supporting the website and wanted to improve his written style and grammar. It was after one of his lessons that we went for chai!*

While there I learnt about the Chingari RehabilitationTrust, which supports families of children born with a whole range of disabling problems including cerebral palsy. The number of babies born here with congenital problems and disability is many times more than in the rest of India.

I came here for the final three weeks of my stay, and they didn’t want me to leave! Once again I was immediately welcomed and put to work, giving 10 to 15 treatments every day alongside the other therapists. (Treatments are shorter for children, of course.) Both Sambhavna and Chingari are stridently non-sectarian and that is very noticeable here, with mothers and children of all religions mixing together and sharing lunch in the communal setting – a real example for all of us and fundamentalists of all religions.

Both centres keep themselves apart from campaigning very strictly so as not to compromise the treatments and principles. There is a highly active set of campaign organisations in Bhopal itself, leading international calls for Dow to accept that when they bought UCC they bought the liabilities as well as the assets. Sadly, this goes on, making the lawyers rich and doing nothing for the living problems of the real people who suffer still today.

Below I am working with a boy who, because of cerebral palsy, had difficulty standing.

You can see me here, having sat him on a bench. He reaches his arms around my neck
so he feels in control of himself and can steady himself and start to stand. My arms are not actually doing anything other than being there to help balance and to catch him if he falls. I did not see the grin on his face as he found himself standing. The last picture is with his mum, showing her how to support him and do this at home. She took some encouraging not to hold him tight. You can see, though, he is now as big as she is, so handling him is a real difficulty for her.

The Chai Trip: “After Nagendra’s English lesson today a crowd of ‘the lads’ were going to a local chai joint and invited me along. So we all hopped on various motorbikes and roared off through the streets. It was a bit like Bhopal’s own hells angels on 100cc machines - Sambhavna Street Circus, maybe! About 6 bikes thundered around potholes, open drains, kids, adults, dogs, cattle, unmade tracks to make it to Berasia Road, or, to give it its international name, State Highway 23, where we recklessly joined the rush-hour traffic, buzzing auto-rickshaws, dodging busses and trucks and tearing up the pot-holed highway.

Swaggering into the café we purchased our chai at 7 rupees each (9p). After slugging our drinks we roared off on our separate ways into the gloaming sunset, in my case back south down the famous Berasia Road.

And, during the conversation in the cafe, I was told that if I return I will have at least half a dozen more students for English lessons, so I’d better brush up my technique.”



Well, I am now back in England. I have memories, friends, many experiences, much learning and some teaching. In Bhopal we have drawn a clear line between the events of the politics and campaigns and the practicalities of medical support. There are five main campaigning organisations, each with its own focus, working together under the bannerof the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB on www.bhopal.net). To support this angle you can go to the wqebsite and read many articles and donate to any of the organisations.

Then there are Sambhavna and Chingari clinics giving support, care, medical treatments and education to the adults and children still affected. People affected by the after-effects of breathing the gas, children, still being born with multiple disabilities because of the continuing water pollution; adults affected by the water pollution that they had to drinkl and wash in before the local authority provdede tankers (still somewhat sporadic). The Sambhavna Trust Clinic primarily gives medical treatment, Ayurveda and allopathic to mainly adults, growing its own herbs and making pills and powders. The Chingari Rehabilitation Centre supports parents and children with a wide range of disability, physical and mental, with physiotherapy, special education and speech therapy. It is also a lovely opportunity for the mothers to chat together and support each other.

But we need 10 more Sambhavnas and 10 more Chingaris to do more than scratch the surface of need.

Do watch the video below and why not skip over to the 'Bhopal Book' page on this site and buy a copy - I am told it is an interesting and even amusing read. You can see some comments at the bottom of the page.

Your individual donations are still welcome and will support my trip and continuing efforts for this disaster that was created by US - yes, by all of us in our suppport of industrialisation. Please consider making a donation. There are three ways you can do this if you would like to support me:

1.      Go to http://www.justgiving.com/Spineworks and follow the instructions on the website. It is Just Giving and is a convenient way of funding the Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) directly. They will claim the Gift Aid amount for the BMA if you are a taxpayer and say so. Just in case you wondered they take a 5% commission.

2.      Do an electronic funds transfer to my account at sort code 08-92-88, account number 12147113 and put Bhopal and your name as the reference. For those outside the UK you will also need SWIFT code - CPBKGB22 and/ or IBAN - GB03 CPBK 0892 8606 1675 94

3.      Send a cheque made out to me to Ian Jarvis, 19 Westbury Court, 50 Coten End, Warwick CV34 4NP.

Related Video

Please take 10 minutes to watch this video about the centre.

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