Tag Archive: tragedy

With Marija’s enthusiastic streak for hitch-hiking running through us, we decided to head from Novi Sad to Sarajevo by thumb. Five hitches in, we were only 50km away from our starting point – not good. That’s not even ‘not a good start’, that’s just not good. Luckily, as has occasionally been the case on our trip, we got lucky just when things were looking really crap. We got a lift all the way to Sarajevo, or so we thought. A few hours in, they suggested we take a ‘thirty minute detour’ to Srebrenica. Thirty minutes turned into five hours. Literally. We got so lost at one point that the driver had to genuinely ask the border guard whether we were entering Bosnia or Serbia… Nonetheless, the detour was worth arriving somewhat later than expected.

Before we arrived in Srebrenica, our knowledge about what happened there was severely limited and while that is still the case, we now know a little more. Srebrenica and the area around it is the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII, and one of the UN’s notorious failures. The civilian Muslim community at Srebrenica, fearing ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs, fled their homes and sought refuge at the nearby UN base of Potočari. Having declared a “safe-area” to the besieged Potočari, for some reason still unclear to us, the UN stopped protecting these people, refusing entry to many and kicking others out of the compound. In effect, the UN had helpfully rounded up thousands of Bosnians for the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Serb forces were somehow allowed to enter the refugee camps where all of the ‘men’ (some as young as twelve) were separated from the women and children. What followed was the massacre of over 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys. They were buried in mass graves which sometimes they had to dig for themselves, and many of which are yet to be discovered. Here is a witness account of the massacre from the Guardian archives – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrested-srebrenica-massacre

The Memorial and graveyard in Potočari is a hillside covered in thin white headstones. The green markers are for more recently buried bodies. There is an ‘open-plan’ mosque at the entrance, which seems strangely modern and out of place in the countryside. Squares of white marble show thousands of names, and, separated from the rest of the stones is a cross for the only Christian buried at the site. It was quiet, peaceful, difficult to imagine thousands of people clamouring at the entrance to the compound opposite over fifteen years ago.

If you follow the industrial-looking track on the other side of the road in between old factory buildings, you find yourself in what was the UN compound. Once you have found the man with the key, he will let you into a small room to watch a video about the massacre. Some of the most awfully memorable moments are of the women weeping for joy as the UN makes its (in)famous declaration of safety, and of the general who engineered the massacre (Ratko Mladic) openly stating to a television camera that today would be the day that they would take revenge on the Muslims. One woman talks about how she goes to the various graveyards regularly in the hope of finally finding her husband’s name on a marker. A man explains that he was working in the compound and was forced to tell his own family to leave with everyone else – he hasn’t seen them since.

Afterwards you can walk around inside the empty building, past maps of mass graves, communications between Mladic and his subordinates, and personal items belonging to the victims which are accompanied by descriptions of the people – how their wife remembers them, what they were doing when they were last seen…

It wasn’t what we had been expecting from our day when we started hitching towards Bosnia.

From the harrowing experience of Srebrenica we then got lost for several hours to the point where we were no longer appreciating the ‘scenic’ness, but eventually we reached Sarajevo. Throughout our time there it was hard to forget that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and the city was besieged for months on end – a street was even nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’ as it provided a prime opportunity for distant shooters to pick off civilians trying to cross to safety. From the fortress that gives a superb view over the whole city you can see various graveyards with the same slim white grave markers all around the town. This somehow makes the majesty of the city even grander, particularly as now the churches and mosques stand side-by-side once again. The bustly, beautiful Old Town has been very well restored, and provides the perfect place to relax in the sunshine and enjoy a ‘Bosnian’ (read: Turkish) coffee complete with Turkish delight. Away from the centre, a path stretches alongside the river where locals rollerblade and people come to lead climb the craggy rockfaces.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend one full day there as we intended to hitch to Prishtine the following day. This turned out to be an abysmal idea, but we’ll come to that later…

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!