We settled in at Sambhavna Clinic which is run by a man called Satu – a farsighted individual, passionate about providing healthcare for the local people affected by the Gas Disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in December 1984. To be as accessible as possible to the worst affected areas and people, Sambhavna is situated only 400metres from the factory site. The factory still stands, deserted and too contaminated to enter safely – the laboratories are still there, equipment and bottles of chemicals strewn around and thickly choked with toxic dust. There is a wall around the site, where here and there are holes bashed in, through which children clamber to go and play, unaware of the danger. Sambhavna provides community health care daily to many people.
Everyone we met there was friendly, welcoming and helpful – none more so than our guide and interpreter, Sanjay. He is a survivor of the Gas Disaster. A baby at the time, he was saved by his older sister aged 9. She awoke on that horrific night to find all her family and neighbours choking to death on the poisonous fumes leaking in a silent lethal smog from the factory, engulfing Old Bhopal. She wrapped Sanjay in a blanket and ran as far and as fast as she could, managing to save them both despite the choking fumes. Thousands were killed, or died later from the effects of the gas. Others were permanently disabled, blinded, and many thousands of people are still suffering with resultant chronic diseases today. Sanjay lost both parents and all but two siblings that night. He and his sister lived in an orphanage for the next ten years. His older brother survived the immediate disaster, but was left to contend with a black despairing depression because of it – he committed suicide some years later. I learned that terrible emotional and mental health problems are a common legacy affecting these people.
Having said that, Sanjay is definitely a Survivor of the tragedy – one of the amazing, strong-willed, hopeful and energetic people we met, all doing what they can to make a difference.
The Gas Disaster devastated not only the lives of people as a direct effect that night, but in far-reaching and on-going effects on the environment they live in. The ground and water were very heavily contaminated with numerous deadly poisons still present and dangerous today. When it rains the ground water rises and the contamination flows freely in the streets where children play. Many communities are supplied from bore holes fed with this contaminated water. Years of being forced to use this for all daily needs results in chronic illness – occurrences of all sorts of cancers are very high, as are other diseases. This situation also accounts for why so many babies are still being born, even today, with terribly debilitating conditions, physical and learning disabilities, chronic illness, facial deformities, and sight, hearing and speech problems.
One community we took our show to was just outside the Union Carbide factory wall. It was built like a sort of shanty town on the sludgey ground which is the result of Union Carbide’s so-called Solar Evaporation Programme. In other words, the toxic sludge from the Gas Disaster was dumped here, and covered roughly in some bin bag-style flimsy plastic sheeting to prevent seepage. We could see the layers of sludge and the now tatty and rotted sheeting. It does not work. The people who live here know the danger they are in, and attempt to keep out of it by way of makeshift stepping stones of rocks and planks. As I tottered from stone to stone, carrying kit for our show from the van to the community building (a concrete-built empty shell), my foot slipped and squelched into the sludge. A boy nearby also slipped, and was sharply scolded and smacked for doing so – a scolding out of fear for his safety rather than anger, I could see. This is what they live with every day. This place in particular made me feel upset and angry for these people. If Union Carbide and the Indian Government did nothing else, could they at least be given safe ground to live on and clean water piped in? It seems that Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemicals) and the Government have washed their hands of them (only of course in nice clean water, far far away from Bhopal).
The CW Team took a programme of interactive fun, games and performance to a variety of schools, clinics and community spaces. In different ways all the places made a big impression on me. Not least was the Chingari Trust – a combined school and treatment centre for children with physical and learning disabilities. Chingari was founded and is run by survivors of the Gas Disaster, notably women who through the loss of husbands and fathers now find their roles and lives completely changed. Previously they would have experienced little of life and people outside the home, and now they are breadwinners, carers for children and relatives, workers at Chingari. These are very inspiring people who have had to find and use a political voice, becoming active in the campaign for justice. At Chingari the children are taught everyday skills, receive physiotherapy, speech therapy and other treatment. They also have the chance to learn, play and just be with other children. Previously a lot of these children would be kept hidden in the home. This place also offers practical and emotional help to families as a whole – particularly to mothers, who in the past were seen as a burden or, even worse, abandoned along with disabled children. Such a place and such a different attitude cuts through the isolation and depression affecting many of the women.
Everywhere the team went, both our work and ourselves were enthusiastically welcomed. Audiences ranged from children and teachers in schools, to families and people of all ages in the clinic, community buildings, open spaces and once squashed into a very narrow street! The open spaces in particular got very uproarious! Not only did everyone very much enjoy the shows, but also really loved the informal contact offered through the more “off the cuff” games and activities. They really wanted to talk to us as much as varied English skills on their part, and practically no Hindi on our part, allowed. Despite language differences I found that through a mix of play, mime and puppetry, quite in-depth conversation was often possible with the children. Many teachers and other workers had a lot of English. And of course Sanjay was on hand to translate too. On one or two occasions the roles were reversed and we were treated to beautiful performances by very small children of song and dance, once in a school for autistic children – and once we were met at the school gate by the children’s band and presentations of bunches of flowers. Probably the nearest we will ever get to feeling like celebs!!
All the people we met were so appreciative of our being there, and for what they saw as proof that they are not forgotten. They also very much enjoyed the creative spectacle of the shows and the time we spent just being with them, playing, talking and listening. I am also very appreciative of the friendly welcome and kindness we encountered there, often from those who have practically nothing themselves. I remember a little boy who I had spent time playing with during the show, coming up to me afterwards, wanting to share his very small lunch with me. I didn’t accept! But hope I left him knowing how touched I was.
I am left with a vivid memory of people working hard in tough times with great energy, practicality, steadfast dedication and active hope that their endeavours will build a better future.