…it is Still Happening.
Many people know about the Bhopal Gas Disaster, but most people don’t know that it is an ongoing disaster impacting people today, 27 years later, in varied and profound ways.
On December 3rd 1984, at 10 minutes past midnight, a Union Carbide pesticide plant, operating under extensive cost-cutting measures with sub-par safety facilities, leaked over 27 tons of methyl-isocyanate—a deadly gas—into the air. The gas released was carried by winds into the heavily populated slum neighborhoods surrounding one side of the factory, affecting some of Bhopal’s most impoverished people.
Over half a million Bhopalis were exposed to this gas that night and 20,000 people died in the immediate aftermath as a result of their exposure, with many more dying each year from gas-related illnesses.
The continuing disaster or “second disaster” as many people call it, refers to the ongoing contamination and poisoning of 16 basti (slum) communities’ water systems, as well as the perpetual inability of the Indian government and judicial system to secure adequate compensation to gas and water victims. The abandoned Union Carbide pesticide factory still stands in Bhopal today—a looming reminder of “that night”—rusting and decomposing, while bottles of highly toxic chemicals collect cobwebs and dust, and pose a very real threat to the thousands who live nearby.
Victims of the gas exposure and water contamination have been left to cope with lifelong chronic and debilitating health repercussions. Over the past 27 years, an estimated 150,000 survivors of Union Carbide’s poisons and their children have been suffering from a multitude of health problems.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster thousands of gas-exposed Bhopalis had poisons circulating in their bloodstream causing differing degrees of damage to almost all systems in the body. Health issues include, but are not limited to, respiratory problems, diminished vision, muscle weakness, higher incidents of cancers and tuberculosis, anxiety and depression. Furthermore, the testing of local ground and well-water systems in communities located near the abandoned Union Carbide Factory revealed poisons such as mercury and lead between 20,000 and 6 million times what is acceptable. Cancer causing as well as birth defect causing chemicals are still found in this water.
As an added dimension, the chemicals present in the gas people were exposed to in 1984, as well as those toxins present in local communities’ drinking water are particularly and disproportionately damaging to women’s health; these health problems have serious social consequences. Health issues include gynecological and endocrinal complications, as well as high levels of abnormal menstrual and reproductive difficulties as well as higher incidence of miscarriages. The children of gas and water affected women also suffer from a vast array of congenital deformities, and mental and physical disabilities.
In the particular context of impoverished and religiously conservative Indian communities, reproductive difficulties and chronic illnesses render many women undesirable marriage partners, causing them to bear significant social stigma. Indeed, the inability to conceive healthy children sentences many women to live without ever getting married, which can lead to an inability to ever attain economic security.
In a situation where an overwhelming proportion of people are suffering from such numerous health problems, effective and sustainable medical care and treatment as well as economic rehabilitation for those rendered immobile and unemployed are necessary. However, in response to the multiple medical problems suffered by the thousands of gas and water affected Bhopalis, government health programs and hospitals has proven ineffective and negligent in providing Bhopal’s victims with sufficient medical and economic rehabilitation.
Government-led methods of health care that have prevailed in Bhopal since the gas leak have been largely directed towards providing symptomatic relief without having any effect on the chronic disease process. Initial government management of the crisis was neither organized nor thorough, and to this day, accurate documentation of victims’ experiences and subsequent health and economic problems has not been carried out.
Union Carbide Corporation’s victims and Bhopal’s most impoverished people have been left to deal with these problems all on their own.
But there is no pity in Bhopal; only persistence, possibility, and power.
Out of this context, marked by government neglect and corporate exploitation, a movement of community-based activism has flourished. This movement is united under a common goal: the victims’ fundamental right to lead healthy and productive lives.
Over the past 5 years I have returned to Bhopal several times as a volunteer, a researcher and a supporter. What I found was a strong community that is resilient and passionate and will stop at nothing to get justice for themselves and their children. This campaign for justice in Bhopal not only advocates for Bhopali victims’ rights and compensation, but also creates awareness of environmental issues and corporate injustices affecting communities all over the globe.
My first introduction to Bhopal’s groundbreaking community-based activism came in 2007 when I came to live and work as a volunteer, working to develop and implement an activities program for children from the nearby slum communities at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic,. The creation of the clinic was one of the first major projects initiated by the Bhopal Medical Appeal with the goals of community health and empowerment:
“It is possible to develop safe, simple, and effective ways to treat the people exposed to Union Carbide’s poisons, and it is possible to inspire a community to take control and improve its health, possible to do meaningful research with meager financial and human resources, possible to bring about change in the government’s neglectful attitude towards the victims.”(Ten Years of Possibilities)
The Sambhavna Trust Clinic provides free medical care to the victims of the gas disaster and subsequent water contamination. Currently the clinic treats thousands of Bhopalis and employs over 30 staff members, half who are themselves gas survivors. At the clinic, patients are offered free medical care through allopathy (“western” medical methods) Ayurveda (indigenous Indian methods of treatment using herbal medicines) and yoga.
Staff members include physicians, gynecologists, yoga therapists, ayurvedic therapists as well as community health workers who carry out health surveys, health education, and community organization for better overall health. The clinic library also happens to be the worlds’ largest documentation center on the disaster. Offering patients care through yoga and herbal medicine decreases the dependency of the patient on the clinic and provides alternative medical treatment solutions that are holistic and sustainable.
The movement’s focus on community health also places a significant emphasis on the relationship between women’s health and social conditions. This special attention has had many positive effects on Bhopali women living in gas-affected and water affected communities. In the past, social taboos and shame have discouraged many women from seeking medical treatment for gynecological health problems. Community health work at Sambhavna has worked to overcome these issues.
The Bhopal Medical Appeal movement and the Sambhavna Trust Clinic’s particular focus on community and social conditions has had the power to provide community members with agency and individual ownership with respect to their personal health. Additionally, this movement led by community members and gas victims themselves has had the ability to provide sustainable health care that is culturally sensitive and speaks to the particular needs of Bhopali women.
It was during that same summer, researching a paper for the Women’s Studies Department at McGill University, when I first became familiar with the powerful women’s activist movement in Bhopal. This movement is spearheaded by two impassioned and inspirational women Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla. As gas victims themselves, these women, both married at an extremely young age and living in poverty, Rashida Bee and Champadevi (both illiterate and at that time uneducated) were impacted by not only the health repercussions of the gas disaster but the economic consequences as well—experiencing the increased financial liabilities that came with their illnesses and that of their families.
In 1985, in an attempt to address the overwhelming economic impacts of the Union Carbide Gas Disaster, the government set up approximately 50 training/production centers in different localities throughout Bhopal to provide gas-affected women with training in trades such as sewing and stationary manufacture. Thousands of Bhopali women were employed at these sewing and stationary centers in the hopes of improving their economic situations, as many of them were widowed by the tragedy or had husbands incapacitated by the gas. But within four years the government abruptly closed down all but two of the centers, without notice or consultation with the female employees.
That is when Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla along with hundreds of other gas affected women mobilized to form the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sangathan the Bhopal Gas Affected Working Women’s Union. The union was initially formed to protest against the closure of one such government-sponsored sewing center and over time, the union went on to become one of the largest organizations of gas victims and one to regularly articulate victims demands through various forms of public protests, press coverage and litigation.
Participation in activism for Bhopali women has transformed their lives in multiple ways, inspiring them to seek social changes in other aspects of their lives. Many of these women emerged from lives of seclusion and isolation to implicate themselves in protests and other justice-seeking activities. Furthermore, the unified efforts of Rashida Bee (a Muslim) and Champadevi Shukla (a Hindu) have encouraged integration and amicable relations in otherwise religiously divided communities.
Since the late 1980s the activist movement in Bhopal has tackled issues of advocacy and justice for gas and water contamination victims, corporate crime and environmental destruction. The people of Bhopal continue to struggle and fight to ensure that what happened in Bhopal does not happen anywhere else in the world.
I have just spent the past few months in Bhopal, and as always, the visit has had an enormous impact on me. I lived at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic again and got involved in several different projects in some of the gas and water affected communities.
One of my projects involved work at a school in the Oriya Basti community—a neighborhood affected by persistent water contamination caused by the chemicals found at the abandoned Union Carbide factory premises. The neighborhood is very small, very poor, and surrounded by many other impovrished communities. What sets this community aside from the others around it is the ethnic composition of it’s people. The people from Oriya Basti are from the Eastern Indian state of Orissa and they have a different culture, language and appearance to them.
In the 1980s increasing employment opportunities enticed many people from Orissa to move to, and eventually settle in Old Bhopal, extremely close to the Union Carbide Factory. This neighborhood was prominently featured in the book entitled “Five Past Midnight in Bhopal” by French doctor and writer Dominic Lapierre, A captivating fiction-style story about the true accounts leading up to and during the Bhopal Gas Disaster. Dominique Lapierre is responsible for funding the gynecological equipment that is at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, and he also helped set up a small school in the Oriya Basti.
The school has a modest fenced-in yard behind it and this past summer another Canadian volunteer worked with the students to plant a small ayurvedic plant garden and educated them on the different health benefits of these plants. The students planted hibiscus, tulsi, aloe, henna and several other commonly used plants with the intention of them eventually learning to use these plants for healing within their own families and communities.
When I arrived in September the garden had become neglected and overgrown with weeds. I spent several weeks working with the students and local community volunteers (led by Sambhavna community health workers) to revive the garden and to teach them about caring for plants, the same way we would care for babies and animals. The students impressed me with their knowledge of the herbal medicine plants they were caring for. Eventually the goal is for them become mini community health workers themselves, diagnosing the health conditions of their community members and prescribing medicine from their own gardens.
I spent most of my time while in Bhopal working at the Chingari Trust and Rehabilitation Center. I first got to know this organization during my visits to Bhopal in 2007 and 2008, but I was blown away this time by its impressive expansive and growing impacts on the local community. The Chingari Trust was started in 2004 when Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla were recognized for their activism on behalf of the thousands of survivors of the Union Carbide Gas Disaster and won the Goldman Environmental Award.
The women used the money from the award and started a trust that has several main functions: to extend economic and livelihood support programs to gas-affected women and their families, to take up initiatives that help protect and support the rights of victims of the Gas Disaster, particularly women and children, and to promote the Chingari Award, which recognizes women activists in other parts of India who are fighting against corporate crime and environmental destruction.
One of the major functions of the Chingari Trust is the work committed to supporting the families of the many children in Bhopal born today with various mental and physical disabilities.
These disabilities are a result of the Union Carbide poisons that have been passed down to them (as third generation survivors) through their parents’ bloodstreams—because the MIC gas leaked from the factory in December 1984 never neutralized in their bodies and are continuing to affect people to this day. Similarly, their disabilities are due to the contamination of their only water sources by the toxins and chemicals that are still present in the abandoned Union Carbide factory. Each year the monsoon washes these chemicals into the ground, leaching into the aquifers and boreholes that feed local water pumps.
For years, the Chingari Trust was operating a rehabilitation and special education center out of a very small building in Bhopal, with an office, and only a few other rooms which would be packed each day with mothers and their children, hoping to receive therapy and counseling for themselves and the children. Presently there are about 300 children registered with the Chingari and about 120 of them come each day. Most children come with their mothers but there are a few who come on their own.
Chingari has 3 vans and their drivers drive out to the basti communities every morning to pick them up and bring them to the center.
Just recently the Chingari Trust was able to move into the ground floor of a much larger building on a main road in one of Bhopal’s gas affected neighborhoods. The new location has several rooms: an office, a small kitchen, a physiotherapy room, an occupational therapy room, a speech therapy room, and a special education room. Additionally, there is a long corridor where the children can play sports.
It’s a really wonderful place to be. The children, although suffering from a myriad of disabilities and health conditions, are really in their element. They are supported, stimulated, and encouraged—all of this makes them happy and leaves them feeling “normal”, an experience they do not always encounter at home and in their neighborhoods.
Almost all of these children come from families that are impoverished and one can only imagine how poverty can compound their existing health problems. This is why the free care and therapy provided at the Chingari Rehabilitation Center is so crucial.
The staff at Chingari are incredibly warm and are very skilled doctors and therapists who every day take on the challenging task of working with these children. Not only do they work with the children, but they also counsel and instruct their mothers on how to best care for and stimulate their children when they are back home.
Working with the Chingari Trust has been incredibly rewarding. I have spent the last 3 years working full time at a cegep in Montreal where I gave regular presentations about the work being done in Bhopal by women activists like Rashida Bee and Champa Devi and it was an honor to see them each day—in action—and show them in person how committed I am to their cause. I spent my time working with Tabish Ali, the Public Relations officer, and his commitment and dedication to his work at Chingari is astounding. Tabish and I worked together as I trained him in grant seeking and in writing funding proposals and we worked to create a new website for the organization. I also spent time in the different therapy rooms, observing the valuable work of the different therapists and doing activities with the children who are so vibrant and enjoyable to spend time with.
In Bhopal, community participation is not only vital but necessary, and this is apparent in the many different organizations and projects that have evolved out of the tragedy of the Gas Disaster.
I have observed and have had the privilege of working with a community of victims who do not regard themselves in this way. They view themselves as powerful agents for change in a world where too often the poor are neglected and exploited. Their vision is that of community health education and empowerment in the face of greed and outright human rights abuse perpetrated by governments and corporations.