Tag Archive: Pollution

Lucie’s terrible idea

Having waited at the side of the Sarajevo road for 3 hours, we eventually caught a ride back to Belgrade with the people that had picked us up on our way to Sarajevo. Given our next destination was meant to be Dubrovnik, this made little sense. In fact, we had turned down a lift going almost all the way to the Croatian town. What happened?

Throughout our trip, our intention had been to go from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, perhaps via Mostar. This made sense. However, we were also keen to meet up with PEDAL, a group of people (some of whom were our friends) attempting to cycle from the UK to the West Bank promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (http://www.bdsmovement.net/) amongst various other things. Frustratingly, this idea seemed less and less likely as although we were going to be in the same places, we weren’t going to be in them at the same times. But then one of our mates in the group suggested we meet them in Prishtine, Kosovo. Lucie somehow persuaded me that this was a good idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them, but rather that it practically made no sense. If you look at our GoogleMap (http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=37.0625,-95.677068&spn=59.249168,135.263672&z=4) and zoom in on the Balkans you’ll almost certainly agree.

So we tried to get there. Having failed to hitch from Sarajevo to Prishtine, instead we headed back to Belgrade where we were met by the father of our CouchHost from before, who offered us home made rakia and seats in front of the tennis – a welcome break from over 12 hours of travelling (or at least trying to travel…). The following day we belatedly arrived in the Kosovan capital, where it started to rain the moment we got out of the car. No matter, we would check our email and surely there would be a message from the PEDAL crew telling us where to meet them as they hadn’t told us where they were going to be after a 2pm meeting in a place with an unfindable address. No email. Perfect. So after attempting to call, email, online text-message and a while of generally waiting around, we checked into a massively over-priced hotel. How the hotel was able to charge that much is beyond me, especially given that Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe.

Eventually we met with PEDAL and they told us all about what they were going to be doing the following day and hoped that we would get involved – we were given directions, buses to catch, and we went off to our separate sleeping places. Unfortunately, we turned up to the agreed meeting point the following day and only 2 of the 20-strong PEDAL crew were there. Turns out that the rest of them had gone to a totally different place. Or at least that’s what we assume happened, no-one’s told us, and the 2 had no idea… The meeting spot (the one we’d gone to anyway) was a community centre run by the Balkan Sunflowers (http://www.balkansunflowers.org/) where Roma children go and are helped with their homework, taught Serbian – which most of them couldn’t speak when they went to school, which is problematic as most are taught in Serbian – and generally entertained. This experience was unexpected, but nonetheless welcome. The Roma community that lives in Kosovo, as we had learned from the end of a film we managed to catch the night before called Never Back Home (http://romawood.wordpress.com/), is pretty screwed, as they are in many other countries. The village that we went to lives in the shadow of a coal-fired power station – they breathe its dust every day which has led to 90% rates of cancer in the inhabitants. Despite the fact that surely this should mean they get compensation, they don’t even get electricity 24 hours a day. Given that we were only there for a few hours, we didn’t get to learn much more, but this was certainly enough.

While we were getting really annoyed by this point, we also learnt that we could have ended up in prison in Dubai for coming in with prescription painkillers (for my knee), as one of the PEDAL crew had been… He told us how he ended up in a Dubai jail for three months for having codeine with a prescription, while others were in for anything from 30kg of heroin to poppy seeds in their chest hair. No joke. Things could always be worse I guess.

So our hopes of meeting up with PEDAL and finding out what they were doing, discussing their ideas, etc, turned into an unexpected education into the suffering of the Roma community in Kosovo, and the stupidities of Dubai border controls, but no PEDAL.

The following day we left, as no-one had been in touch with us at all. It was raining, as it had done throughout our time in Prishtine, we were trying to hitch and no-one was picking us up… This became the absolute last straw. You know you’re at breaking point when sounds come out of your mouth that you’ve never made before, when you want to rip the face off some arsehole who insists on you paying over a pound for 2 minutes of a phone call, or when Lucie almost bursts into tears when the guy on the bus we eventually decided to take offers you both a coffee. It had whipped cream in it…

And so we escaped Kosovo, and probably the worst three days of our trip due to the sheer helpless frustration of the entire experience (with the added knowledge that we could have just gone to Dubrovnik and that would have made a whole lot more sense), were over.

This one isn’t really an interview as such, more a QandA session where a big group of people chatted and we wrote down what they said. Again this was a farming community in Orissa, west of Bhubaneswar.

Due to the nature of the discussion, this article may seem disjointed – this is because the meeting was disjointed…

“GM seeds create negative impacts. More than this, they cross-pollinate with traditional varieties and so destroy them.”

“Once you start hybrid farming, it isn’t easy to go back. It is much easier to shift to hybrid than away from it. Farmers for commerical purposes (big farmers) are interested in traditional seeds, but marginal farmers are. It is these farmers who are the direct victims of climate change.”

How they organise

The group explained how they organise demos and rallies at Block level (a Block is local self-governance in tribal belt areas of small marginalised farmers. Leaders are both male and female and there are approx. 170,000 people in each Block. Communities in the area are approx. 80% Adivasi). Through this they have been successful enough to get a national consultation on Bt brinjal (aubergine). Due to the pressure, the Environment Minister of India has written a letter stating that he will not introduce Bt.

Bt seeds vs. traditional varieties

Officially, all farmers in Orissa do not grow Bt Cotton. Before Bt was unofficially banned through the letter, packets had to be labelled. Now there is no such label. It is unknown whether this is because it is no longer used (which is unlikely) or because it doesn’t need to be labelled because it isn’t supposed to be there.

Traditional varieties of seed are promoted by the group. They have seed exchanges in villages at district and Block level. At the last one, there were 123 varieties of paddy (rice), veg and pulses exchanged. Since 2006, there has been an emphasis in the group on organic farming and traditional seeds. At the last seed fair, the seeds were 70% organic, 30% mixed and none exclusively intensive.

Because of popular mobilisation and knowledge transfer, farmers have agreed that Bt seeds should not be sold in the local market.

Perceived dangers of hybrid seeds

Through eating hybrid crops, people have perceived health hazards and diseases. They believe that hybrid crops increase likelihood of cancer, TB, malaria, skin diseases, stomach problems, diabetes and blood pressure. Traditionally these types of diseases occurred in cities and not villages, this is now changing. Immune systems are also being affected. Antibiotics are not as effective as crops are now full of them.

Hybrid crops also kill useful insects such as earthworms which are beneficial to farming. This reduces soil fertility.

How to fight

The struggle over seeds and farming is different from other struggles such as land grabs and water privitisation. When a mining corporation rips up your land, you know who the enemy is. But with seeds you cannot see the enemy.

While there is support coming from the rest of the world, ultimately change must come from the farmers. They must realise that intensive farming isn’t good for them or the environment.

Reasons gathered from the group as to why they farm in an organic way

1. Their ancestors did it.

2. They couldn’t meet the costs of hybrid farming.

3. They learnt about the negative impacts of chemical fertilisers and intensive farming methods from meetings and so started organic farming.

Further privatisation

The government is interested in registering traditional organic seeds through scientists linked to MNCs. There is a plan to document all seeds which is very dangerous as it allows others to take control of the seeds. Farmers have the right to this information, not governments and MNCs. Let them document their own seeds!

Comments from individual farmers

The individuals we interviewed have been farmers for 10-50 years. Their ages ranged from the 30s to the 60s. They grew a variety of things from paddy to millet and pulses. Some had previously used hybrid methods, others had used traditional methods their whole lives. They all agreed that there are not many difficulties with traditional farming, especially when compared with intensive methods. They were also all of the belief that while intensive methods generally produce high yields in the first couple of years, the returns reduced as the years went by – as soil fertility decreases, useful insects are killed and bad pests become resistant to the pesticides.

“The first year was good, the second year was okay, and the third year was bad. The soil required more fertiliser, and the beds became dry and rocky – the plough could not work as well. This is why I went back to traditional methods.” – RK

Is this a battle you are winning?

“I hope so. I hope by arguments can win. Lots of people are joining. I strongly believe we can win this battle.” – GD

What are the best tactics?

“The unity of farmers through mass organisation. We must motivate, have seed fairs, have hope and meetings. And we shouldn’t purchase any seeds from the market.” – GD

Why do people turn away from traditional farming?

“Farms want to use modern agricultural practices because it yields more, but they are not analysing the cost/effectiveness of the crop properly. They analyse for one year, but if they compare for 2 or 5 years, they will see the negative impacts of modern farming”. – RK

Does the government support your struggle?

“There is no government support promoting traditional organic agricultural methods” – KD

Fact sheet on Monsanto

Monsanto is by no means the only criminal mulitnational corporation in relation to agriculture around the world, but it is certainly the biggest. Here’s a bit of an introduction to the history of Monsanto and its impact on Indian agriculture, courtesy of Living Farms. The following is from Kavitha Kuruganthi and Aishwarya Madineni, Monsanto-ising Indian Agriculture (2010).

“No food shall be grown that we don’t own” – reported objective of Monsanto

Monsanto is an American agri-business corporation which is today the world’s largest seed company. It is also one of the world’s largest agri-chemical corporations. Their seed sales were nearly US$5bn in 2007, constituting 23% of the global proprietary seeds market (the non-proprietary seed market around the world is now only 18% of the world seed market). Monsanto is also the world’s fifth largest agri-chemical company with sales worth nearly US$3.6bn in 2007, which constitutes 9% of the world agri-chemical market share. In 2009, Monsanto’s global net sales were US$11.72 billion.

Monsanto has grown into the largest seed company in the world by aggressive market maneuvers including 60 acquisitions, taking stakes in 14 companies and divesting from 17, between 1985 and 2009.

Monsanto’s history of human rights violations, lies and omissions

For decades, Monsanto dumped highly toxic PCBs in Anniston, Alabama, and then spent years covering up the dumping. On February 22nd, 2002, Monsanto was found guilty of poisoning the town. They were convicted of suppression of the truth, nuisance, trespass and outrage. The residents of Anniston, whose blood levels contained toxic PCBs 100s or 1000s of times the average were given US$700million in compensation from Monsanto.

Monsanto is also known to have covered up toxic contamination of several of its products. In Indonesia, Monsanto gave bribes and questionable payments to at least 140 officials, attempting to get their GM cotton accepted. In 1998, 6 Canadian government scientists testified that documents were stolen from a locked file cabinet in a government office, and that Monsanto offered them a bribe of US$1-2million to pass the drug without further tests.

Monsanto is also known to “routinely falsify data”, especially in relation to glyphosate (Monsanto’s brand of this herbicide is called Roundup). Monsanto’s first mass marketed bio-engineered food product – recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) – was “linked to cancer in humans and serious health problems in cows, including udder infections and reproductive problems”. In the case of GM crops, it was found that Monsanto chose to keep biosafety data away from public scrutiny and has committed scientific fraud by wrongly interpreting its data and classifying a GM product as safe.

Monsanto also has a habit of suing and jailing farmers for… saving their own seeds and resowing! Since 1996, Monsanto has filed 1000s of lawsuits against hundreds of farmers across the world. In the USA, the Centre for Food Safety investigated Monsanto’s anti-farmer behaviour and concluded that “… Monsanto, the world’s leading agricultural biotechnology company, has used heavy-handed investigations and ruthless prosecutions that have fundamentally changed the ways American farmers farm. The result has been nothing less than an assault on the foundations of farming practices and traditions that have endured for centuries in this country, and millennia around the world, including one of the oldest rights to save and replant crop seeds… Monsanto has an annual budget of US$10million and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers”. Monsanto is currently being investigated by the Justice Department in the USA for its anti-trust behaviour, based on the unprecedented rise in seed prices that began a decade ago. The seed market in which prices have soared higher in an unprecedented way is dominated by Monsanto. In 2009 the agricultural department (the UCDA) figures show that corn seed prices have risen 135% since 2001, and soy bean prices 108%, whereas the Consumer Price Index rose only 20% in the same period.

Monsanto’s sordid history (from the Centre for Food Safety)

From PCBs to Agent Orange to Roundup, we have many reasons to question the motives of this company that claims to be working to reduce environmental destruction and feed the world with its genetically engineered food crop.

Founded in 1901 in Missouri, Monsanto became the leading manufacturer of sulphuric acid and other industrial chemicals in the 1920s. In the 1930s Monsanto began producing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are potent carcinogens and have been implicated in reproductive, developmental and immune system disorders.

The world’s centre of PCB manufacturing was Monsanto’s plant on the outskirts of East St.Louis, Illinois, which has the highest rate of foetal death and immature births in the state. By 1982, nearby Times Beach was found to be so contaminated with dioxin (a product of PCB manufacture) that the government ordered it evacuated. Dioxins are endocrine and immune system disrupters causing congenital birth defects, reproductive and development problems, and an increase of incidence of cancer, heart disease and diabetes in laboratory animals.

By the 1940s, Monsanto began focusing on plastic and synthetic fabrics like polystyrene which is ranked fifth in the EPA’s 1980s list of chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste. During WWII, similar to Dow Chemical (which you now know all about) Monsanto played a significant role in the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. After the war, Monsanto championed the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture and began manufacturing the herbicide 2,4,5-T, which contains dioxin.

The herbicide Agent Orange, used by the US military to maim and murder hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese during the Vietnam war, was a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, and very high concentrations of dioxin. Since the end of the Vietnam war, an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese children have been born with deformities.

In the 1970s, Monsanto began manufacturing the herbicide Roundup, which has been marketed as a “safe general purpose herbicide for widespread commercial and consumer use”, even though its key ingredient is glyphosate (a highly toxic poison). In 1997, Monsanto was forced by the New York State Attorney General to stop claiming that Roundup is biodegradable and environmentally friendly!

In August 2003 Monsanto agreed to pay $600million to settle claims brought by more than 20,000 residents of Anniston, over the sever contamination of ground and water by tones of PCBs dumped in the area from the 1930s to the 1970s. Court documents revealed that Monsanto was aware of the contamination decades earlier.

Monsanto in India

Recent news stories report that Monsanto’s plans to do business in GM material has been okayed by the agriculture ministry which had told the Foreign Investment Promotion Board that Monsanto India should be given the green signal. One financial media report explained that “the FIPB approval is expected to pave way for the Gm giant to bring in its menu of genetically modified food products including GM corn, maize and soya”. Around 95% of the GM crops currently planted worldwide are supposed to have Monsanto’s proprietary traits which also include an in-built market for its herbicide.

In 2006 Monsanto slipped out of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission inquiry into Bt cotton seed pricing – the costs levied for farmers were exorbitant, particularly comparing them to the price in China and the USA. It is estimated that thousands of crores [WHAT IS A CRORE?] of rupees were paid by Indian farmers as royalty/technology fees. Monsanto claimed another company is the technology provider in India, thus avoiding involvement, but financial statements for Monsanto India show 490 lakhs (49,000,000) of rupees as balance due from that other company.

Monsanto is reported to have tried to use its American influence to ensure that its proprietary technologies are not breached. In an infamous incident in 2005 the US Ambassador to India wrote a letter to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, asking him to curb the illegal trade of Bt seeds in the state. Failure to do so, he warned, would “dampen the transfer of technologies and investments from abroad, including from the United States”.

The government of India allowed Monsanto to direct the future course of agriculture as it is a board member of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture. The KIA was the deal signed in 2005 by the US and India to usher in the next “Green Revolution” in India.

Animal’s People, by Indra Sinha

Another book review for you – don’t worry, we’ll get back to writing about what we’ve been up to in the next blog…

“This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead is entirely coincidental.” This is one of those standard disclaimers that stops people from suing the author. As is often the case, it isn’t really true when it comes to Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People.

Animal’s People is written as though transcribed from real tapes recorded by its narrator. Its ‘Editor’s Note’ explains that “information about the city of Khaufpur”, where the novel is set, “can be found at http://www.khaufpur.com.” It’s a real website: it looks like any other Indian city’s slightly cheesy site, and it comes complete with photos and contact numbers for governors. Thing is, what khaufpur.com is describing is the city of Bhopal, because that is what Sinha’s novel is really about. Kampani (company), factory, absent lawyers, birth defects, respiratory problems, grief, multiple losses, memories of chillies to the eyes and running desperately and all, this is the fictionalised story of Bhopal.

Eighteen years after That Night, Animal is a young man (“I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one”) bent in half:

feet on tiptoe
head down below
arse en haut
thus do I go

Shortly after the disaster, his spine twisted until he could not stand straight, so now he walks on all fours. We saw that man when we were in New Market recently. His situation is representative of so many people crippled and otherwise affected by the gas leak, and of almost hopeless hopes – he tries to hide the hope that maybe some day he will walk upright. Animal, symbol of the victims of the disaster, is no hapless victim, however. Foul-mouthed, mischievous and frequently distracted by thoughts of sex, Sinha has created an amazing mouthpiece for his tale. Animal’s often scathing view of the humans around him is allowed to also carry a great love and passion for the people of Khaufpur. His ability to hear voices no-one else can hear gives him compassion for people like Ma Franci who is insistent that the “Apokalis” will soon be upon them and can only speak French. Not only that, but it draws you ever deeper into his way of viewing the world, which, while scatological, and while it needs a glossary to explain some of the slang (although some words, like Jamisponding, are left up to the reader to work out – hint, think 007), it has a beautiful poetry to it.

Furthermore, its a celebration of the strength and weaknesses of the people who live in the slum areas here. By addressing himself to the “Eyes” reading his story, and through Sinha’s introduction of an American character, Animal sheds light on many elements of life in Bhopal (sorry, Khaufpur…). It would be silly to say that I now have a greater understanding of life in the bastis, but it has been interesting to apply his logic to what I’ve seen around me for the past three weeks.

Sanjay had taken us to the second, larger waste dump from the Union Carbide factory. By the afternoon, it is a playground for children and pasture for the cows and goats, but in the early morning it is the place that people come to take a dump. This is one of the things into which Animal offers some useful insights –

” ‘You foreigners talk as if the sight of a bum is the worst thing in the world, doesn’t everyone crap?’
‘Not in public, they don’t.’
‘There’s a lot to be said for communal shitting. For a start the camaraderie. Jokes and insults. A chance to discuss things. It’s about the only opportunity you get to unload a piece of your mind. You can bitch and moan about the unfairness of the world. You can spout philosophies. Then there’s the medical benefit. Your stools can be examined by all. You can have many opinions about the state of your bowels, believe me, our people are experts at disease. The rich are condemned to shit alone…’ ”

His views on religion, being in the midst of such a mixture of Muslim, Hindu and smaller traditions, are also interesting –

“If religions were true there wouldn’t be so many of them, there’d be just one for everyone. Of course all say theirs is the only one, fools can’t see this makes even less sense. Suppose people talked of beauty in the same way, how foolish would they sound? Times like this I feel sorry for god’s being torn to pieces like meat fought over by dogs. I, me, mine, that’s what religions are, where’s room for god?”

His cut-the-crap attitude is what guides you through the suspicions, paranoia, trust, love, despair and hope of campaigning for justice in Bhopal.

Read this book. It might break your heart a little bit, but read it.

Our shower leaks (yes, at the Sambhavna Clinic we have our own shower, the whole situation is slightly absurd…). This is annoying the part of me that can’t switch off the part of my brain which notices the constant dripping noise, but there’s something that makes this drip much more significant. This is the reason it upsets me. The water in our taps is sourced from Kolar Reservoir and is therefore free from contamination, if not necessarily clean – you drink it filtered. In the midst of mass contamination, much cleaner water is dribbling away down our drain.

I know that Josh already mentioned the lack of both “non-contaminated” and actually clean water in Bhopal in his most recent blog. However, having just read an appalling government report from 2008, approved and financed by the Department of Gas Tragedy, Relief and Rehabilitation (Madhya Pradesh), plus having found out that as recently as November 2009 the State Minister from the same department announced plans to open the Union Carbide site to the public for general tourism with the statement “this is to help people get rid of the misconception that chemical waste inside is still harmful or that chemicals are polluting the water in nearby localities”, I wanted to expose some abysmal research, some outright lies, and generally expand on the whole issue a bit more. In other words, this is a rant that for once isn’t by Josh…

The report is called An Epidemiological Study of Symptomatic Morbidities in Communities Living Around Solar Evaporation Ponds and Behind Union Carbide Factory, Bhopal. Let me break down its argument for you. It basically claims that there is no connection between the “toxicants alleged to be found” on the Union Carbide site and people being chronically ill in the surrounding areas. This is due to the toxicants’ “absence in the groundwater”. Despite the fact that all studies after 1996, both governmental and non-governmental, have found that the groundwater is contaminated, these researchers claim that “no cause effect relationship between toxic substances present in Union Carbide premises and morbidities seen in the study area could be established”. A study by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2009 highlights that in the soil, surface water and groundwater, they found the pesticides carbaryl (trade name Sevin) and aldicarb (Temik), mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, dichlorobenzene, trichlorobenzene, hexachlorobenzene and hexachlorocyclohexane. You can probably guess from the names of the latter that they’re not good news – together, the group can cause liver damage, damage immune, neurological, reproductive, developmental and respiratory systems, mess up your brain, screw up your digestive system and generally make people ill. That’s a shortened version of the list. The World Health Organisation doesn’t have a guideline for ‘Total Amount of Pesticides’ in its drinking water guidelines, opting instead for a chemical-by-chemical analysis, but presumably an average of 0.006 ppm, which is 12 times the Bureau of Indian Standard, is a tad high?

I hasten to add that 2009 was not the first time that these chemicals had been found – sevin, for instance, was detected in groundwater in 1994. However, according to the Epidemiological Study, all problems are basically because these people are too poor and too stupid to not get ill. They blame “filth, water fecal contamination, mosquitoes and flies”, which will certainly play a part in people’s ill health, but they absolutely deny any link between the cocktail of poisons in the water and ground and the continued suffering of the people.

Their most astonishing claim is that “it has been observed that some of the local groups are spreading misleading information among the residents of the study area that the toxic substances present in the water are damaging to their health. This statement repeated time and again made the people believe that they are sick and the cause of the sickness is contaminated water.” What a brilliant get-out clause! Put it all down to the placebo effect, and blame the local activists! Presumably the Madhya Pradesh government is part of this damaging smear campaign falsely accusing the water of being contaminated as well, since they had all groundwater pumps in the area painted red in warning? And the Supreme Court must be in on the propaganda too, since they ordered that clean water be provided to the residents of affected communities in 2004? I’d like to add here that the Madhya Pradesh government ignored this ruling until there were two marches across the country from Bhopal to Delhi to demand that they provide water. Josh has already explored how ineffective that has been. In fact, the study itself points out that the Sambhavna Trust did an investigation in 2005 that showed 881,500l of water would be required for a community based on UNESCO standards of water consumption (50l/person/day), but only 151131l were provided by tankers (730369l shortfall). Presumably no more than a fifth of the required water can be being provided even now, with 30 minutes every other day if you’re lucky..? Never fear, though, because the Bhopal Municipal Corporation claims to provide 45.3l per person per day, so it must all be alright! I also presume that as the Bhopal Municipal Corporation consistently claims they provide this amount of water, the people only think they don’t have enough because of these damned activists.

What is more disgusting about the study is that they cite the fact that only a small proportion of those they referred to hospital actually went as proof that they must have not really been ill in the first place. “Out of 150 or so referred persons only 24 visited the hospital”. Obviously they must be making up their complaints if they don’t go to the hospital when referred: why else would they not go? It probably has nothing to do with the fact that few people have the time to visit a clinic if they are having to work a 12 hour day to have enough money to eat, or that people do not have the money to pay for treatments from other hospitals nor for that matter the money to get to hospital in the first place, or that government hospitals have a rather bad reputation here… It’s just these pesky activists duping the stupid locals into telling the valiant researchers that they are ill when they aren’t. Well, I say “they” as though each individual was asked, as you might expect would be the case in a scientific experiment. It wouldn’t be the case that researchers would ask a young boy questions about his mother’s menstrual cycle; that would be absurd. How should he know? If that was standard practice in a study such as this it would probably discount much of what they concluded, right? In any case, “investigators have notice [sic] that the water in large quantity is being wasted” so that’s probably the main problem. If only these stupid slumdwellers would learn, eh?

Sarcasm aside, I just thought I should vent my rage that bullshit like this can come out of supposedly prestigious medical colleges (Ghandi Medical College, Bhopal) – it so obviously serves simply to cover up the stark realities of life here in Bhopal. The most appalling sentences are those which describe the Union Carbide site itself as an idyllic paradise – there are people “enjoying bath [sic] in piped water supply… The area around the evaporation ponds was lush green with local wild grass and buffalos cooling off in the rain water lodged in the solar evaporation ponds”. I wonder whether the researchers would have been happy to “cool off” in the evaporation ponds. More likely they went home to cool off in under their air conditioning after washing themselves thoroughly and changing their clothes because they had been near so many poor people.

This study very clearly demonstrates the ongoing collusion between supposed ‘professionals’ and a government which has consistently secured the interests of itself and of corporations over the interests of its people. In an interview a few days ago, Sathyu said that he thinks the campaign has gone beyond convincing people that there is contamination on the site. Since the CSE report, which hopefully succeeded in setting the record a bit straighter, I really hope he’s right.

Visiting the Union Carbide site

Having spent almost a month in India and the majority of that at the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, my thoughts are confused. What strikes me most is the poverty and powerlessness of the people. This may be highly unoriginal, but it is one thing to read about it and another to be surrounded by it. People live in abject poverty. In Bhopal, it is all the worse due to ongoing consequences of the gas leak and Union Carbide’s subsequent negligence.

Last week we went to the Union Carbide site and on our way there and back we walked through the communities who live a throwing distance from source of the greatest industrial disaster ever. A site that 26 years ago leaked 40 tonnes of MIC and Phosgene (better known as Mustard Gas), as well as at least 18 other toxic gases, killing thousands of people. It is impossible not to feel a cocktail of emotions as we walked through the bastis (local communities). On the one hand, you have to have absolute admiration for these people. They continue to fight come what may. But the problem is, they don’t have a choice. They fight, because the alternative would be to die: something which has become all too normal in these areas.

Resting in the shade on the way back – we stupidly decided to go to the factory during the hottest part of the day – we chatted to some local residents. The government states that the communities around the factory now receive “non-contaminated” water. For those that don’t know, Union Carbide dumped all its toxic wastes in its virtual back-garden: in other words, on the doorstep of thousands of people. They claimed this was totally safe as they put what can best be described as a massive tarpaulin under everything. However, unsurprisingly, this did not work and so deadly toxic waste leaked into the soil and groundwater, leading to the solar evaporation pond (a smart way of saying liquid toxic waste pool) now commonly being known as the ‘Death Lake’. The government currently holds a fundamentally contradictory policy, but the important part is that they toe the corporate line, claiming there is nothing wrong with the ground water or soil. They therefore have not attempted in any way (other than by collecting some of it together in a big warehouse on the site) to clear up the toxic mess. Saying this, after mass public pressure they now claim all the communities now receive “non-contaminated” water. It’s called “non-contaminated” rather than “clean” water because the civil and sewage lines often get mixed leading to obvious consequences. How the government can say any of this when they simultaneously claim the water was never contaminated is confusing. However, from talking to the communities we discovered that the claim that “all communities get water” in reality means that they are meant to receive half an hour of “non-contaminated” water every other day. This week they hadn’t received any. As a result, they go to the old groundwater pumps which years ago were painted red by the government to indicate their contamination, and pump for hours to get the poisoned water to drink, cook and wash in.

As the old women were telling us their stories they also asked us what we were doing here. Which was followed by, “What are you going to do about this situation?” What could we say, “write a blog”? “Make a short documentary”? “Just observe your suffering then piss off back home”? Maybe add to that, “Oh, and no thanks, we don’t want that water you’ve just offered us, we don’t want to be sick like you!”

So what set of emotions does one express? Pity? Anger? Astonishment both at the situation and how they continue to survive..?

Our guide, Sanjay, told us a joke as he was taking us around the Union Carbide site. The day before we had all had to go to the Collector’s Office for a dose of Indian bureaucracy (another blog to come). We were on time, but became late due to someone being “helpful” and so Sanjay (one of the few Indians I’ve met who turns up on time) waited outside for us. While there he spoke to the official bureaucrats who laughed at how little he was wearing given it was “only” 25 degrees. They joked that he must have hot blood, being young and all. He responded claiming, “It’s the MIC, it thickens the blood”. Everyone laughed.

He told us this joke shortly before he told us that on December 2nd 1984 he had a mother, father, 3 sisters and 2 brothers. On the 3rd December 1984 he had 1 brother and 1 sister. Now he just has a sister. This type of story is not uncommon. 25,000 people have now died from the leak, so many people you speak to tell us a similar tale…

On the way out of the factory we spoke to the men who are meant to guard the place, but they recognize that given there are numerous holes in the walls, people will come in and graze their cattle, pick up firewood and dry their clothes. They asked us, How had we found it? What did we think?

What could we say? When Sanjay asked us the same question a few days later, I had an answer: Surreal. What can you think when you walk around what is basically a toxic waste dump covered in trees with even a bee hive in the structure of one of the MIC tanks? How can you comprehend that this actually quite calm place had 26 years ago led to the death and suffering of over 100,000 people? Also, why the fuck is it still here? Other than the last question, it distinctly reminded me of Auschwitz. But when the guards asked us this question I did not know what to say.

The guards told us how they had no desire to work there, but they needed a job. They knew they were getting ill because of working there, something their employer (the state) did not recognize, but what were they supposed to do, they needed a job. They told us how they felt helpless to change anything and laughed when Lorraine suggested their employers should come and guard the place instead of them.

My emotions were only made more complicated when we interviewed some of the victims of the gas leak. I asked them if they were angry at Union Carbide and the government. They responded that they couldn’t be angry as it was “God’s will”. Talking to some of the staff here, it seems that this is a common response. What are you meant to do when someone says this? “No, it’s not God you irrational fool. And if it were why would you believe in such a wicked god?” But it’s not their fault they believe this nonsense. Education is for the rich and they are not rich.

Those that are angry burn effigies of Warren Anderson and want him to be hanged. Compensation they claim will not bring back the dead. It will not stop their suffering. In fact, after they have paid off the corrupt middle-men they employ to write their documents because they are illiterate, it might not do anything at all: they are often worse off. One man we interviewed today told us that those responsible should be brought back to Bhopal and be put in front of the victims, who should be allowed to do what they wish to them. The implications were clear.

Learning the Ropes

The resultant hangover from New Year’s Eve led to a slow first day at the Clinic – luckily everything was closed, so we were free to get to know the place a little better.

The Sambhavna Clinic, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention and haven’t been to our justgiving website (which, incidentally, is here – http://www.justgiving.com/joshandlucieheadoverlandtobhopal), is the only place in Bhopal where the victims of the 1984 gas leak can receive free health care. On the 3rd December on that fateful year, 40 tonnes of toxic chemicals including mustard gas burst from its cracked concrete casing in Union Carbide’s pesticide factory. The official statistics of how many were killed within the first 72 hours is 1-2000, but the reality is somewhere between 15-20,000 people. One of the most common causes of death was drowning, as the irritation the gas caused in people’s lungs prompted them to produce sufficient fluids to drown them. In others’ bodies, the blood completely coagulated, causing death presumably by heart attack… The list of excruciating deaths goes on and on.

Yet, as Dr Gupta explained to us when we interviewed her for a documentary we are putting together, the ones who died had it easy, in a way. They don’t have to live with the ongoing pain and suffering that afflicts over 100,000 people in Bhopal.

A haven in the midst of the grim city pollution and the weight of ongoing suffering is the Sambhavna Clinic. Sambhavna can be read two ways – as a Sanskrit/Hindi world meaning possibility, or as Sama Bhavna which means similar feelings or compassion. The clinic offers a holistic approach to healthcare, providing allopathic (western), ayurvedic (traditional methods involving herbal remedies and massage) and yoga.

The way that we initially got involved in the workings of the clinic was through the garden. I think the gardeners were quite pleased to have people swing pickaxes at the ground as it meant they could dedicate themselves to more skillful jobs. Josh found this particularly satisfying as he has been complaining for months about how he is fading away…

We had arrived with several ideas as to what we wanted to do while we were at the clinic, but it seemed a bit arrogant and unrealistic to turn up with a fully fledged plan. So we spent our first few days trying to get to know some people (mainly other volunteers) and figure out a plan. Now we are decided – make a short documentary for the BMA website (www.bhopal.org) about the clinic, write at least one article for publication in the UK (2011 marks the 15th birthday of Sambhavna), continue to work in the garden several mornings a week, and head to the Chingari Trust where children born with physical and mental difficulties as a result of the gas leak spend their afternoons. We’ve also, on an unrelated note, been re-writing an article that Josh wrote (with a bit of my help) previously, for the Plane Stupid e-book to be published some time in the future. Here it is in its original form, for anyone interested – http://www.ctrlaltshift.co.uk/article/plane-stupid-blog-%E2%80%9C-where-would-all-workers-go%E2%80%9D

The body of volunteers here expands and contracts. When we arrived there were 8 of us, and this has now dwindled to 4, though 2 people did come for 3 nights (which doesn’t really count). The youngest, Erik,  was here for his winter break from 6th form college – I was quite impressed by this. Will, the oldest, is a lobbying liberal jargon-junkie. Through his organisation Beyond Bhopal, he has significantly helped in the pursuit of clearing up the Union Carbide site (which might happen in the future), but seems overly committed to working through the EU on almost all issues… Lorraine, the Scot we have already mentioned, previously worked as a nurse in a Glasgow prison. While here she has cleaned the kitchen top to bottom and wants to do community health work while she is here, but secretly wants to go and open an organic yoga/meditation retreat plus restaurant on the beach in Thailand. Ben, the four-layer-wearing-at-all-times (even at 25 degrees) Belgian, has dedicated himself to translating the BMA website into French – an epic task which confines him to a sunless interior (hence the layers). Brenna has just left, but lived here for 5 months helping in the panchakarma (massage) room and documenting plants from the garden. We have already mentioned Adriano, the Italian anarchist, who was only in our lives for a few intellectually combative hours.

We are only just getting to know the staff, other than Shahnaz, the librarian, whom we’ve gotten to know quite well. “Librarian” is, quite frankly, an understatement when you realise how much work she does. Plus, she often finds time to translate for us, which is brilliant.

The library itself is chock-full of fascinating stuff, from a chronology of the disaster up to 2005, through Where There Is No Doctor and community health work books, to multiple newspaper articles relating in one way or another to Bhopal. A whole mine of information.

On Wednesday we were introduced to the way the clinic organises. Friday meetings are generally where this happens, although we were invited to the Wednesday one – people share their ideas, bring up problems and make criticisms. And by “people” I mean everyone, from the managing trustee, to the physicians, cleaning staff and office workers. A different person chairs each meeting, though “chairing” seems far more like “crowd control” as everyone gets to voice their views!

After spending the last few months growing increasingly tired of sight-seeing, and frustrated at our lack of activism, we feel that the next few months (after this we’re headed to Orissa to do research into anti-GM campaigning) the opposite may be the case!

Our experience of China was…mixed. That is not to say there weren’t positives, but there were certainly negatives as well.

While there was no fresh tap water, there was hot water everywhere. As this water had been boiled it meant that you could get free drinking water almost everywhere, including train and bus stations, hotels and shops. In England there are many places where drinking water is not available, but is an alternative usually provided? Also, hot water is much more useful than cold – although we’d thought we would never look at another pot noodle again, they’re pretty handy train food.

Due probably to the fact the people piss everywhere, there are free public toilets everywhere. You can’t go more than 200m without finding one (at least in the big towns – in the small ones there are simply walls that people seem to go behind). The condition of them is another matter, but at least they are there. However, this doesn’t stop children from pissing and shitting everywhere including train stations. Parents put their children on their knees and away they go…

Once you are outside of Beijing the landscape is generally incredible. “From another planet” as Lucie described it in Quiko. There is a lovely combination of mountains, rivers and greenery. It was a bit odd to get used to the fact that Xining sits against a backdrop of stunning mountains (this happened more and more as we entered Tibet). However, the locals don’t seem to appreciate what they have as far too much of it is being used as a landfill – the beautiful hillsides are often scarred by streams of rubbish.

While Beijing would certainly fall into one of the cons in our experience (although many of the people we met thought it was great), the underground there is amazing. Its reliable, fast and cheap. Plus, since the Olympics were held in China’s capital they re-vamped the entire thing. The stops are announced in English, and there is even a light to signify which side of the train you should get off at! ‘Where’s the fun in this?’ Asked a Dutch guy we met at our hostel. After the bonkers Metro in Moscow (this was incredible for different reasons, as we’ve mentioned), this was amazing. On the flip side, everyone else seems to have also realised this and therefore it is always busy, but nonetheless a positive.

Unfortunately, the negatives outweigh the positives and the rest of this blog, will be devoted to the negatives.

Spitting is incredibly prevalent. Everyone spits, everywhere. In the major cities its not that surprising given the amount of pollution, but this does not detract from how disgusting this habit is.

In Xining we were reassured that not only do you have to have a licence, but you have to pass a test to get it in order to drive in China. Before that, we hadn’t been so sure. Lanes don’t seem to mean anything and neither do red lights. Honking seems obligatory.  As we have written previously, pedestrians have no rights.

The generally shared mentality that, as a Londonite who has lived in China for the past eight years put it, ‘if you get there first you win’, makes a lot of everyday experiences more stressful. This covers the driving (and the tendency for people to simply overtake on roads if someone slows down in front of them, which led to complete gridlock one day when four lanes of traffic were all facing in the same direction – the police had to come and encourage the cars onto the right hand side of the road…), the queuing (which does happen as a standard practice, but it is just as standard to find that someone slips in front of you just as you reach your destination) and the dash for the trains at every station (the queue starts half an hour before the gates open, and then people literally run for their seats. The only reason we could fathom as to why this could be rational is to get there when there is still space in luggage racks). Occasionally people were exceedingly friendly – a man went totally out of his way to help us onto our bus, writing things on a clip board as he understood written English better than spoken, and on the sleeper bus to Xi’an the man in front of us kept offering his food, insisting we partake in cakes, gum and bananas, but these were the exceptions to the rule.

Staring and lack of non-verbal communication have already been discussed and certainly form a negative.

The negative consequences of smoking don’t seem to have reached Chinese lands yet – at least not for men. No women smoke, and all the men smoke. Again, they do this everywhere. Buses, trains, restaurants… Makes you become all nostalgic for those days in the past when we went into pubs when the smoking ban had begun!

Neither of us are keen to go back to China in the forseeable future, but we’re both glad we’ve been. We’ve even gained a T-shirt with pandas doing martial arts. Awesome.

Beijing…the dark side

Where to begin. I think I should start by apologising to the Polish. While at first the Polish car and road system seems rather shabby, compared to the Chinese (or at least Beijing’s) system it’s a pedestrian’s paradise. Apparently tens of thousands of people die on Chinese roads every year, and when you experience them for yourself, you’ll understand why. Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development is of clear pertinence when considering the Beijing car system: 15 years ago there were still very few cars in Beijing or China at all, with the majority of people getting around by bike. In the last 15 years there has been a massive boom in car production and use, which is in part directly linked to the growing middle-class. However, while Beijing now has more cars than any other city, they do not seem to have the regulations to go with them. Regardless of the colour of the light, cars speed by. All a green man means is that you might have an extra couple of seconds to get out the way before the car mows you down.

Instead of safety and regulations, they honk their horns – constantly. Not in any meaningful or useful way. They just do it almost out of boredom. No seems seems stressed when they do it, and they are certainly not alerting anyone to danger – in fact more danger is probably created by them honking. Some motorbikes seems to have the horn buttons glued down.

On top of the horns, there is also the pollution. You can see it everywhere. Or to be more precise, the pollution means you can’t see at all. The tops of buildings are hidden by the smog and at night, what appears to be a mist floating around the car headlights is actually smog. Then there’s the effect it has on you. Your eyes and lungs hurt and your skin feels horrible.

At least you can descend to the metro, which is amazing. Unfortunately everyone else seems to have also had this idea, as the two levels of busyness it has is ‘busy’ and ‘very busy’. At first we thought their rush-hour must be at a different time, then we went into the metro at what I would consider rush-hour and we realised that this was also their rush-hour… Apart from this, the metro is amazing though. Oh, other than the adverts on the tube. Not only do they have adverts in the tube, but as you are travelling along there are moving adverts outside of the tube – on the inside of tunnel walls as the tube is moving!

Queuing, or lack of it, is also something i had not realised would be like it is. I know that Britain has the label of somewhere where “everyone loves a queue”, but Beijing isn’t a place where no-one queues, instead you just get people all the time who jump in front of you. You will queue for 30mins and as you get to the front, some bastard will try and get to the ticket desk before you. Most people don’t seem to mind about this, which I find even more odd.

Attempting to communicate with people who don’t speak English is also proving more troublesome than anywhere else. Of course there is no reason why people should speak English and if anything I should speak one of the many Chinese languages, but there are other ways to communicate and there is also common-sense – both of which have been missing from most the people that we have attempting to get directions or information from. One such example. We were at the train station, which similarly to Poland is built in an amazingly stupid way, and we couldn’t find the ticket desk. We followed the signs to the ticket desk and when we got there were moved across the hall to another ticket desk. This wasn’t the place either. Our attempted signs as to where it was proved useless. All the women could say was “Bushi” (means No). So we walked down the stairs and were pointed to waiting room 7, which upon arriving there was simply a waiting room – no ticket desk or anything else other than being a room for waiting in. Eventually we found the ticket office outside of the station where we queued for 30 mins (see above). This was made even more exasperating by the people working in the ticket office all simultaneously going for a 10 minute break when there were several very long queues. Great idea! Another good example demonstrates how inclined many people are simply to say “Yes”. We were asking for directions from someone who worked in a hostel and spoke English. After a long chat we I pointed right and she replied “Yes”, Lucie then thinking it was in the other direction pointed left and she said…”Yes”. We repeated this farcical interaction a few times, before we worked it our for ourselves.

Then of course there are the scams. Locals generally don’t seem that inclined to talk to you or be helpful other than when they are trying to scam you or sell you something massively over-priced. The moment we arrived were greeted by a man asking where we were going and whether we needed a lift. We told him where and asked how much. “Y150,” came the reply. “Y150?!!” I replied, “Y25!”. “No, you joke.” Luckily, I already knew that the trip to the hostel should cost no more than Y30. We ended up getting in an official taxi which cost Y21. This twat not only wanted to scam us, but when I gave him a totally normal price he walked away. He wasn’t going to work unless he was scamming you. Funnier is how the hostels con you. Everywhere in the hostel are signs saying ‘Don’t be scammed’ which then explain how people might try and get extortionate amounts of money out of you. What they miss out, is how they will scam you. There signs ought to read ‘Don’t be scammed otherwise you will have less money for us to do it to you’. Their tours constitute the best way they wring the yuan from your pockets…

Right, I think that is the end of that rant. Beijing is not a place that I want to come back to, but there are many nice things as well as all that is rubbish about it – though right now I can’t think of what those things might be…