Who said the Bhopal tragedies are over?

I’ve been in Bhopal for a month now but I had been so consumed by my work at Orya Basti school and on medicinal plants (and blogging!) that I had never really had time to visit the Chingari Trust Rehabilitation Center for Children. I pass by the center every day, when I bike back to the clinic from the basti but I had not considered dropping by. So when the new volunteer, Gautama from NYC, wanted to volunteer there, I seized the opportunity to go with him and finally have a look at the center.

Sambhavna staff had told me that the Chingari Trust was a therapy center for disabled children who were born to parents who were affected by the gas tragedy or to parents who were contaminated by the toxic water. [Yes friends, the MIC exposion in 1984 that instantly killed thousands was only the first Bhopal tragedy. Ever since it was erected, in 1982, the UC plant has been leaking toxic chemicals into the water supply consumed by the people in the slums all around the factory. The plant that is abandoned and uncleaned is still leaking heavy metals into the water that is connected to the pumps that service the bastis. So beside the gas tragedy of 1984, there is an ongoing second tragedy that is affecting several generations at a time: water contamination. That is why many activist campaigns say: “Bhopal, 1984, till when? »

Even though parents are affected with certain types of sicknesses because of the gas/water, they are still functional human beings. Most of them can talk correctly, walk properly, coordinate their movements, think clearly… But their children, now that is a completely different story. The chemicals that have penetrated the parents of these children are serious mutagen agents and can have very damaging effects on fetuses. As a result, many children are born handicapped. For the longest time, the Indian government denied the link between these childern’s disablities and the gas/water tragedy. But statistics show that the basti areas have a dramatically higher number of handicapped children than the rest of Bhopal. Il faut se rendre à l’évidence les amis!

Sambhavna’s definition of Chingari was quite exact. Chingari is a rehabilitation center for handicapped children. But before visiting the center, these words were just words. I was only truly able to understand the weight of these words once I actually visited the center yesterday. I was shocked to see the severity of the children’s handicaps, handicaps that have in many cases worsened because they were left untreated for years. Some have mental handicaps, others physical. I met some kids with cerebral palsy, some with autism, some with Down syndrome, some who have to crawl around because their legs don’t function, some who have trouble controlling their movements, some who can’t talk… Most of them need operations, but their parents can’t afford them and only a lucky few get them for free when some private clinics feel like being generous. Although all the kids bear a huge smile on their faces, and rush to you to shake your hands, it was so hard for me to see these children relegated to the margins of society because of a fatal mistake made 27 years ago. Union Carbide’s negligence has carried over to the next generation, more terrible than ever.

The work Chingari is doing is very positive and fundamental for the basti communities. These children have access to free therapy as well as special schooling. These facilities indeed allow the children to improve their condition, even if ever so slowly and painfully. At Chingari, the children have found a friendly niche with specialists who care for them, love them and empower them. Parents are also empowered. With the stigma associated with having a handicapped child, many parents initially refuse to accept that their children are handicapped and do not wish to bring them to the Center. But, as Mr Thomas, the director there, informed us, when they actually go there with their kids and see how their children’s condition improves, they are thankful and come back willingly. The organization needs support, publicity and financial help. The Bhopal Medical Appeal partially funds Chingari and the Indian government also helped by donating the large site housing the compound, but the children need a lot more attention and therapists. We, as activists, need to open our eyes to this tragic reality and do something for these children. The Bhopal tragedy is far from over; it is just continuing in the terribly sad form of new generations of people plagued with life-long handicaps and endless suffering for them, their kin and their communities.

Fighting an E coli infection with Ayurveda

I am sitting on a clinic bed, with a needle in my hand, attached to an IV drip bag. Shahnaz is right by me, holding my other hand, and Bina is massaging my forehead. Several other staff members are gathered around me in Dr. Qaiser’s office, whispering, wondering what had happened to me. I have 40 degree (104F) fever and can hardly keep my eyes open. I am also wondering: what on earth is wrong with me? Why can’t anyone tell me what I have? Is it malaria? No, I tested negative. So what is making me so sick?

It took a three-day stool culture to figure out that I have an E coli stomach infection. The bacteria is what caused severe, several day-long loose motion and non-stop high fever.

But don’t worry.  I wasn’t just wasting away while I was waiting for the result of the culture to come out. Sathyu had told me that there was a chance that I may be resistant to the antibiotics anyway, so my best chance to feel better and fight the infection would be with Ayurveda. I said, why not. At least I won’t be developing any extra resistance to antibiotics! And so I immediately started with ayurvedic medicine once I got off the IV, a day later.

The consultation was interesting. Dr.Rupa came up to my room and the first thing she did was take my pulse. I still had a high fever then. After that, she started asking me lots of question, such as the color of my stool, its consistency, frequency, if I had pain anywhere… Then she prescribed a diet for me. I couldn’t eat any dairy products because of my cold, and no bananas. The best thing I could have was wheat-based products. As for the medicines, she gave me two different pills and some herbal powder that I had to mix with some honey. That powder, Sathyu told me, was pomegranate based. Apparently, pomegranate is even used to treat stomach cancer. It is an excellent fruit for all kinds of stomach ailments. The pomegranate powder was fowl tasting. I did not like it at all but I forced myself to scarf it down because I could feel it burn in my stomach. “This is what is killing the infection”. “But Dr. Rupa, is that burning sensation normal?” Her answer was interesting. “I’m supposed to prescribe this powder with buttermilk, and buttermilk is supposed to ease the burning sensation, but because you have a cold, you can’t have buttermilk.”

Wow. Ayurveda is such a complex millennial science! Don’t let yourself be fooled by the doctors who make it seem so easy. These doctors have gone through years of training and hold the key to an unimaginable wealth of knowledge of body ailments and plants. Ayurveda is not a simple mixing of herbs and fruits au petit bonheur; it is an ancestral system of knowledge of herbs and the body and their compatibility. It is this system of knowledge that has cured me and killed the E coli bacteria without using any antibiotics, especially since after the three days, the lab staff discovered that I was highly sensitive to no antibiotic at all. So no antibiotic would have effectively killed the bacteria. Regular antibiotics are definitely not as effectively as Ayurveda.

This is why I say thank you Ayurveda (and Dr. Rupa!!)  and I thank Sathyu for encouraging me to choose that path. As Westerners, we are often skeptical if these “alternatives” really work and I can remember my mom panicking on the phone asking what kind of medication I was taking. When I told her Ayurveda, she was worried. “Is it going to work? Are you sure? Why can’t you take antibiotics?” As Westerners, we are used to stuffing ourselves with antibiotics thinking it is the cure for everything. Well, because of the over-prescription of antibiotics in my childhood, the result is that I wouldn’t have been able to efficiently fight my current stomach infection with it. Ayurveda doesn’t just target the infection, it also seeks to reestablish the balance that I had lost because of the runs and the fever. It views the ailment globally and not merely as a process of targeting a specific organ.

So thank you Ayurveda, this is definitely a success story!

Its not malaria but…

Last Friday, I had some fever, chills and a terrible headache. I went to see Dr. Rupa, one of the aryuvedic doctors of the clinic for something to ease the throbbing pain I was feeling in my head. She gave me some medicine. I rested, fell asleep and when I woke up the next day, I didn’t have fever any more. Although the fever was gone, the headache remained. And that headache was very painful. Some other staff members were telling me that I should get tested for malaria because it is the season and the symptoms I have seem like malaria symptoms. So I went to Dr. Kesar, the allopathic doctor and I told him about the headaches. He immediately prescribed a malaria test, blood test and sputum test to start the investigations but because it was Saturday, I had to wait till Monday to get all those tests done. In the meantime, I was given Tylenol (Paracetamol). Now what happened between Sunday and Monday is the scary part.

After the ayurvedic medicine and the paracetamol, I was feeling fine. I didn’t have much appetite, but I didn’t think much of it. I was also fine on Sunday but as of 8pm I felt the headaches start again. I checked my fever and it said 37.8 C. Umm, that’s not too bad, its just a little high. By midnight, my temperature had reached 39.8 and I started having diarrhea that kept on going all night. I would rush to the washroom, come back, slide under my net and pass out until the next urge woke me up and forced me to run again. Next morning, I was the first one in line for the tests and by then, I had become very weak and dizzy because 40C fever + a night’s worth of diarrhea = A LOT of water lost. It was terrible having to wait for the lab to open. I had the blood test, but then I needed to rush to the toilet again. Seconds later, someone was sprinkling water on me. I had fainted. I was quickly on IV rehydration for the day, and needed to be fully supported any time I wanted to walk/stand. I lost consciousness several other times that day, especially when I wanted to go to the washroom. The silver lining is that now we know I don’t have malaria! Yay! But then what is this terrible thing that I have that’s making me so weak and feverish?

Not a fun story. This was Monday. Today is Wednesday and I feel much better. More tests showed that I have a stomach infection. It is some terrible bacteria that’s wreaking havoc in my poor stomach. Since Monday night I’ve been taking ayurvedic medicine, and although some of it does not taste good, it;s been helping a great deal. Sathyu and Rachna (those who head Sambhavna) have also been of great help. On Monday night, they stayed with me at the clinic and while Sathyu cooked diner for me following Dr. Rupa’s instructions, Rachna spent part of her night sponging me with a cloth soaked in cold water to bring down the fever. Sathyu and Rachna have been incredibly good to me and have taken such good care of me. Thank you both so much.

I’m much better now although my stomach is still agonizing. The ayurvedic medicine I’m taking is effective, just slow. I still have the runs, though less than before. I hope to be functional soon! Thank you all for your support!

Teaching at Orya Basti, a slum school close to the UC factory

I got to Sambhavna thinking I had some sort of vague idea of what I was going to do. Lorraine, a past volunteer, who left a few weeks before I arrived, had told me that she started a project involving children and drama in order to raise their awareness on basic hygiene and simple cures to common illnesses. I was very excited to continue that project as I had spent a whole year doing interactive theater on campus at UNC, Chapel Hill, and I had lots of ideas about activities that I could do with the children. It was going to be such fun! So after a few days at the clinic, I met with Sathyu and told him that I was interested in continuing with Lorraine’s work. Sathyu burst my bubble, however, by telling me that it required knowledge of Hindi and that I wouldn’t be of much use unless I was able to communicate properly with the children as their English was very poor. Not so great. But Sathyu told me that if I was interested in working with children, I could teach English at Orya Basti school and given that I’d be spending such a long time in Bhopal, I could start a heath project with them instead. He said that they had a huge garden surrounding the school and if I could help turn it into a herbal garden like the one we have here at Sambhavna “that would be good” (one of Sathyu’s favorite sentences).

I was thrilled, more so by the garden project than by the teaching part, especially when I realized that teaching English still meant that I needed some Hindi to make sure that the kids understand the meaning of words. So the first few weeks were a time of adaptation for me, my fellow teachers and the kids. But after two weeks, I quickly realized that I had become really attached to the school and that I would look forward to getting to the school, especially every Saturday where I would teach the kids “American” dance and they would teach me Bollywood dance! The herbal garden project was no longer my primary goal with kids. I realized that I was living a very unique experience at the school and that I should follow the rhythm of the kids and the teachers rather than my own. So yes, the herbal garden project has taken time to start, especially because two staff members– community health workers– are the ones responsible for the project and I’ve been following their schedule. They said that we’d be planting seeds in July and that, for the time being, the priority was to get the garden cleaned and ready. However, weeding the garden is easier said than done! Just imagine, eight- year old kids digging, huffing and puffing to clean a tiny piece of garden! And I’m not doing much better, because the weeds are so deeply rooted in the ground. Anyway, we’re doing our best.

I’ve been having a very very enriching experience teaching at Orya Basti. From waking in the morning, having a quick breakfast, biking to the school amidst the puddles, the traffic and the noise, arriving at the school welcomed by a warm choir of “GOOD MORNING, DIDI”, to small talking with the teachers, to teaching my English class, to having lunch with the kids, to playing games with them, to letting them ride my bike, to saying bye to them: my Orya Basti experience has become a ritual and my most favorite part of the day.

Thank you SEVIN: Union Carbide’s image, then and now.

Union Carbide was an already established and prestigious American multinational that provided the world with lamps, batteries and photo-paper (among other useful daily products) when it sought to penetrate the Indian market. When it did, its revenues rose to unthinkable new highs. Never had the company been so successful, so rich, so powerful. Why? Because UC had offered what was billed as a definitive solution to Indian farmers’ troubles with failing crops and plants ravaged by insects every new season. A very potent insecticide that would kill any insect, regardless of its shape or size was at last going to solve all their problems, and this miracle product was called SEVIN.  SEVIN was the world’s newest and most potent pesticide, capable of annihilating any type of insect or parasite.

It sounded great but a major drawback was that SEVIN was made out of an ingredient that outranked all the other chemicals placed at the very top of the “DANGER- HIGHLY TOXIC” list, methyle isocyanate, aka MIC.  But it didn’t matter:as long as the MIC was sealed in its own special tank, the pros outdid the cons. SEVIN and thus Union Carbide were going to bless India with its innovative genius and finally make crops grow plentifully. As it promised, Union Carbide was going to “help build a new India”, an India totally sold on the use of ever more chemicals and pesticides in its agro-industry.

SEVIN, Made to Serve India! Or so they thought.

Indian agricultural industrialists viewed Union Carbide’s product as a blessing. Finally a reliable, strong insecticide that would turn the sterile Punjab fields into lush, productive and lucrative crops. Finally, our farmers will not starve! Union Carbide’s was held in awe!

I never quite realized the extent to which Union Carbide had been revered before the gas tragedy actually occurred in 1984. For me, Union Carbide was a powerful multinational that committed an unforgivable crime that it never owned up to. Resorting to bribery on a massive scale, it got away with murder. Literally. And in the thousands. To this day! Union Carbide represented everything that a company could do wrong in a foreign country. But UC’s practices were not an exception. A terribly immoral Western economic model and system tacitly allows, even encourages,  corporations to disregard Western labour and environmental laws when they set up shop (or sweat shops!) in developing countries. Our corporations often disregard or simply bride their way out of following local laws and regulations; they wreak havoc then leave, not having paid any price for the social, environmental, health and/or other disasters they visited upon a community. Hardly ever do they face the consequences of their criminal acts. Union Carbide is not the only corporation that has not paid for its terrible crimes. Nestle, Nike, Starbucks, Dove, and Dole are but a few of the world’s most powerful and hugely profitable corporations. They are known to have exploited workers, to have destroyed protected forests, to have employed children, among other unethical actions. Everyday, we find out about more examples of corporate irresponsibility. The Western Corporation, when it operates in developing countries, becomes a model of corruption and negligence. Like children who party in the house when the parents are gone. Except that the parents are not gone; they are just bribed into closing their eyes to the unsafe, immoral practices of those Western factories and plants.

From Union Carbide to Nestle and beyond. History repeats itself and will do so until we in the West apply pressure on corporations and on our governments to demand higher ethical standards and accountability out of our corporations.

I’m glad that I stumbled on some books and articles that describe the admiration Indians had for Union Carbide prior to the tragedy, as that is an attitude I would have never imagined possible. These readings made me realize that there was a pre-Union Carbide era and a post-Union Carbide era in India. We, and by “we” I mean most people aware of the Bhopal gas tragedy, just happen to be living in the post-Union Carbide era and in an era in which people have become more aware and more critical of Western corporations in general. We definitely don’t live in a post-corporation era, but we’re slowly opening our eyes to the many shortcomings of the current system.