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.