A Human Rights Scandal and a Citizens' Initiative

On the night of December 2, 1984, the worst industrial disaster in history was caused by Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, India a city with about one million people. Over 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate and other lethal gases, including hydrogen cyanide, leaked from Carbide's pesticide factory in the city, killing over 8000 people and causing multisystemic injuries to over 500,000 people. The number of deaths has risen to over 16,000 in the subsequent years. On this l5th anniversary of the disaster, the New York-based law firm Goodkind, Labaton, Rudoff and Sucharow have filed a suit against Carbide, drawing on the International Declaration of Human Rights, arguing that Carbide has violated the human rights of the Bhopal victims. Satinath Sarangi, Sambhavna (Possibility) Medical Clinic, Bhopal, was in New York in connection with the case Sathyu teaches ayurvedic remedies and yoga to the survivors of the Bhopal disaster. I interviewed him for SAMAR on June 4, 1999, New York.

Arvind: What is the situation today in Bhopal?

Satinath: We all thought that nothing could be worse than this. Well, it is worse, The only difference is that when the disaster occurred, the whole world wept. But today hardly anyone notices that there is a continuing disaster in Bhopal.

Arvind: How are the survivors managing?

Satinath: The survivors are also worse. They have a range of problems — breathlessness, loss of appetite, fatigue, menstrual problems, neurological disorders, and a host of mental illnesses. Cancers are widespread, and tuberculosis is four to five times higher, because of immunological damage. One of the apprehensions scientists have is that there are chromosomal aberrations, and it is possible that future generations will carry the marks of Carbide's poisons. Union Carbide refuses to give medical information about the gases and their impact on animals, although they have sponsored a lot of research on this. And the Government has abandoned any search for a proper cure. So basically, people are being subjected to symptomatic treatment. This has led to symptomatic drugging — steroids, antibiotics, on an indiscriminate basis, possibly causing more harm than good.

Arvind: How do the survivors cope? Is the compensation adequate? Satinath: Far from it More than 95% of the gas victims have received less than Rs. 15,000, or about $300, for lifelong damage. Deaths, are compensated with less than $3000.

Arvind: What is the government doing?

Satinath: Hardly anything is being done in terms of proper care and treatment, or providing a safe environment. It is as if the government has written off the Bhopal victims.

Arvind: Now about the way the government has responded, you say they have not brought the culprits to book nor have they tended the victims adequately. Could you tell us why?

Satinath: I think the government's general policy towards development of the country has been dictated by multinational corporations and multilateral agencies like the World Bank. There has been a consistent pattern. If you see the government's response to the disaster it has been to underassess the damages inflicted by Carbide. They have brought down the body counts by dumping bodies elsewhere. And today there is no research or monitoring of the long-term consequences.

Arvind: While in fact a lot of money was devoted to Bhopal related research, was it not?

Satinath: Yes, but most of that research remains unpublished. There was a ban on its publication and now no further research is being done. If you want to understand the relationship of the government with Union Carbide, or other agencies such as Union Carbide, the most glaring example is how they have settled the case.

Arvind: The settlement in 1989 was for $470,000,000 which was equal to Carbide's insurance plus the interest it had accrued since the disaster?

Satinath: Yes. The Indian government had at first sued Carbide for $3 billion in damages but then it settled for this 1/7th of the sum. [The punishment amounted to] fifty cents per share leaving Union Carbide unscathed. It sends a strong message to corporations everywhere, that you can come and kill people in India and go virtually scot-free.

Arvind: How would you characterize the voluntary efforts?

Satinath: I think one of the good things that is happening in Bhopal is that the survivors, overwhelmingly the women, are continuing to struggle and be active demanding a better deal for themselves, demanding their right for a dignified, disease-free life and for justice. We are talking of very traditional people in Bhopal. We are talking of women who have probably never left their household to go anywhere. And these are the women who are now marching on the street, gathering in the park every week. It is really powerful to see their struggle of memory against forgetting, to see that Bhopal doesn't go unnoticed.

Arvind: I want to ask you about the Sambhavna Clinic with which you are involved.

Satinath: Yes, the Sambhavna Clinic is run by the Sambhavna Trust. We set it up in June 1995 with the objective of improving the condition of the survivors. We are a bunch of scientists, medical doctors, researchers, writers who have been involved with Bhopal from the beginning,

Arvind: How is the organization funded?

Satinath: We decided that we would not take money from the government or corporate charities. We believe in it and we are convinced that we should be able to support this clinic from individual donations from all over the world. We have run the clinic so far with small amounts of money from large amounts of people. Our primary sources are schoolchildren, artists, workers in India and places like UK and USA.

Arvind: What has been the reception for the work Sambhavna has done in Bhopal?

Satinath: Since our clinic started functioning in September 1996, we have offered care to more than 7500 survivors from severely affected communities. So far we've had very encouraging responses and results. Every week there are patients who come with flowers and sweets to share with us their joy of being able to breathe freely for the first time in so many years or being free of the pain they suffer from. But there are more than 120,000 people today who are in desperate need of medical attention for exposure related health situations. We find that modern medicine just cannot offer treatment for many of what are known as the new industrial diseases like neurological and immunological problems and many reproductive problems. We find that in these situations there is remarkable relief and cure through a combination of the treatments we offer at the clinic: western medicine, Ayurvedic system, yoga and massage therapy. All this seems to be very effective. There is one person who used to come for balance problems. He'd fall down while walking. It was so bad that he thought of killing himself. And today through Ayurvedic treatment and massage therapy he walks, he's a happy man, he's gone back to work and is supporting his family. Almost every day we have really soul filling stories of people who've had remarkable improvement after so much time.

We don't have the resources to provide to so many but we are, through our work, trying to influence the kind of treatment these people are getting. For instance, we did this research over a year which showsthat yoga and pranayama, breath control, offers sustained relief among people who suffer chronic respiratory disorders. This is the kind of data we have and which has been presented at international conferences. What essentially we see ourselves as doing is trying to be a model for responses to industrial disasters and trying to come out with solutions with what the government should be doing.

Arvind: So, what can people do if they would like to contribute to or help in the work you are doing?

Satinath: People can come and volunteer at our clinic. There is a lot of good work to he done. You are very welcome.

Arvind: Room and board provided, I presume?

Satinath: Yes, and we can work all of that out. We are also dependent on donations from people with Sambhavna, with similar feelings, so any kind of donation is very welcome.

Arvind: You also have a campaign coming up for the 15th anniversary?

Satinath: That is the good news. All over the world people are gearing up for the 15th anniversary of the disaster and once again raising the demands of the survivors, showing support, insisting that Carbide present itself before the Indian courts, taking steps for medical care and rehabilitation and asking that the Bhopal factory is turned into a memorial on toxic disasters.

Arvind: Instead of what?

Satinath: Its just lying there on contaminated soil. All of this is happening as a part of the 15th anniversary international action. There is Tim Edwards of Lifecycle, an organization that formed essentially to support the work in Bhopal. Tim is cycling for six months all the way from Brighton to Bhopal on the occasion of this 15th anniversary. Then there is the feature film based on the disaster, Bhopal Express, made by Mahesh Mathai [starring Naseeruddin Shah and Zeenat Aman] and Indra Sinha's book, Cybergypsies, which should he released very soon. There are groups all over the US, UK, Japan, different parts of Asia all gearing up to make their voices known that they will not allow another Bhopal to happen. The lesson of what has happened in Bhopal clearly shows that you can neither rely on the corporations nor on the government to take care of your health and your fife,

Arvind: Is then anything else you'd like to tell our readers? Meath; Yes, I'd like recite this poem I've written. This is bow it goes — the title is "Yes."

Yes, I'm rabid optimist.
For me,
Every tree that continues to stand,
Every stream that continues to flow,
Every child that runs away from home
is an indication that the battle is not
only on,
it is being won.

You may tell me about
the nuclear arms race
And all I can tell you is that an
unknown child held my hand
with love.

You'll try to draw me
into the plateau of practical life
Tell me
that not only god
but all the religious
and irreligious leaders are dead
And all I can tell you
is that across the forest
lives a young man
who calls the earth
his mother.

You will give me the boring details
of the rise of state power
after every revolution
You will give me the boring details
of the rise of state power
after every revolution
And all I can tell you
is that in our tribe
we still share our bread

You will reason with me a
And I will talk nonsense like this
And because the difference
between breathing and living life
is the difference between
reason and poetry
I will read poems to you
Poems full of optimism,
Poems full of dreams
and maybe a poem better than this.

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