Bhopal diary snippets – first 10 days.

I meant to have written more, to document and describe the situation as I learned, but it is still too overwhelming and confused in my brain. I have been keeping a daily diary, and intend to continue to throughout my trip. So here are some excerpts. I would like to be able to write something more coherent, but nothing coheres, there is just a jumble of feelings (mostly anger and sadness) and images and data swirling around. I could write something but it would be formulaic and I would be more conforming to a rhythm of am article than actually saying anything meaningful because there is no narrative in my head yet.

These really are just snippets from my diary. Its my first time in India so a lot I’m writing is about that too. And a lot is personal. Or repetitive.

12/12/13. First day in Bhopal.
I immediately liked Bhopal. It is unfashionable, dusty, unpretentious, neither too big nor too small. Like Rafah or Glasgow. I’m here for 6 weeks at least and that feels good. I just hope I will be useful at the clinic.

I’m still a bit nervous as I haven’t met the volunteer coordinator yet, or have any clue what I’ll be doing. I’m here in Bhopal, where that deadly gas crept through the city all those years ago. Where the people are still being devastated because corporations won’t take responsibility because the system we have that prioritises profit over all else.

My first full day working with the nurses.

Went to the factory. So close to the clinic – walk along a lane through densely built housing and there it is. Local people were used to grind up some of the materials by hand instead of machines. They carried barrels of toxic chemicals round but did not know what they were. Not treated like humans.

Anger and Sadness.

Decisions taken by privileged few thousands of miles away to save costs by not maintaining the safety equipment and reducing the pressure in the tank directly led to killing and maiming thousands of others. And this disaster was inevitable as we have made the rules of the game to maximise profit – that is to maximise the net difference between income and expenditure. The game is not won by valuing human lives, or the environment, though these might be strategies chosen by individuals and corporations in their bid to maximise profit.

I think there was also racism, othering, in the response. It is easier to be discompassionate about the human lives you are risking and destroying when you do not feel them as fully human. As “teeming masses”, “slum dwellers”, “the uneducated poor” – they lose any sense of individuality, potential and unique spark of life to become replaceable identikit objects to slot into someone else’s plan. They become numbers in a spreadsheet of negative externality rather than daughters, sons, friends, lovers. Would union carbide’s executives make these choices if it was their sons and daughters at risk? Racism serves to allow capitalism to minimise expenditure by othering so many who will suffer as a result of cost cutting.

Reading “Bhopal Marathon” (excellent – highly recommend)

p18 he talks of the mass days long “sit in” (dharma) outside the official’s house to try and force some action for the survivors – I recognise the fulfillment, creativity, sharing, empowerment, hope, strength, humour/fun/good spirits, spontaneity and seeming serendipity of eg school occupation, free hetherington etc – of taking collective direct action. He says it was “magical … powerful spirit of survival and cooperation”. Like those in authority but backed into a corner everywhere, the chief minister agreed to speak, but only with a delegation – because then we lose the power of the mass collective – but that refused and insisted on a mass meeting :)

So much more to the disaster than I realised. So much negligence – knowingly making cuts, designing factory so it was inevitable a disaster would happen. And then aftermath when they were so concerned about limiting their legal liability that they lied about the gas and blocked distribution of sodium thiosulphate – a known antidote to cyanide – so that they could claim people died from TB etc – if the cyanide treatment worked this would have proved cyanide poisoning and therefore proved that the gas leak was more than “like teargas” as UC were claiming.

Absolute fuckers. So horrific. To build such a plant in a built up area and have eg the 3 massive solar evaporation ponds (more on these later) that were predicted to poison local people/water/land and did so. Disgusting beyond comprehension.

Becoming slowly more useful at the clinic. Taking manual BP’s, blood sugars, ecgs, drawing up injections and giving nebulisers. But constantly getting things wrong and needing double checked for everything. Feel clumsy and self conscious – which makes me even worse.

Had teary moment. Don’t know why. Emotionally raw. Feeling like I can’t do anything right. I don’t feel useful. I am frustrated with myself and that I can’t contribute.

Anyway, made neem sticks (homemade herbal mosquito repellants that we burn) this morning. At least that was something I could practically do.

The situation here is so sickening. Walking the streets, talking to people like Aziza who were there that night. And images pop into your brain of terrified families trying to flee, having to step over the dead lying in the streets. Adil who was born years later but will never walk because his mother was poisoned by union carbide. A human who will never be able to walk, his legs malformed in the womb because of decisions taken thousands of miles away, by suited executives, to cut costs.

Many patients here have COPD because the gas damaged their lungs. We often get patients struggling to breathe, and, as in the UK we use salbutamol nebulisers. This morning a patient arrived very distressed, struggling to breathe with blood oxygen saturations in their 80s (this is a percentage of how much of their haemoglobin is carrying oxygen. Mine is 99%. Below 95% is abnormal) Despite nebulisers and oxygen therapy his sats stayed below 90% so the decision was made that he needed to go to the hospital to be admitted for a few days. I asked how we called an ambulance but no! This patient who was requiring oxygen went to hospital in an auto rickshaw!!

Surrounded by people affected by union carbide I feel anger and frustration. The injustice is so great. These humans have had their health robbed, their loved ones lives robbed. And there is no justice. Like in Gaza the wrongness, the immorality is so evident that it seems incredible that nothing is being done. That they have received no real compensation or that the area has not been cleaned up. Unbelievable except I know (or think I understand) how power maintains itself. With illusions and by setting up mirages we waste time and energy journeying to – “legal process”, “petition” and “election”. And we waste our energies to find these supposed stepping stones to justice are distractions and illusions. And by then the critical time for action has passed. We have no way of forcing justice. We need international solidarity networks of communities powerful enough to support each other mutually. Like the SolNet seeks to do for individuals but between communities. And in the same way we try with individuals, no community should self identify as a victim solely seeking support from those more powerful. Each community should understand that they too can learn about and support another and in this way they will become empowered. Because racism is really endemic and I constantly feel – both in working class Glasgow and here in a poor community in India – something like deference – like because I have white skin and a middle class accent then that means what I say is more likely to be correct than what they say!! Both times they put themselves lower than me and don’t realise (and in not knowing, do not exercise) the power that they have. I think that if they realised how much they too can help other communities, and that these other communities will mutually be there for them, their self confidence and empowerment would grow until they are unstoppable. Until we, all who take action for a fair, free, sustainable and peaceful world, are unstoppable.

I want to be more useful. I read Ewa’s description of cast lead sent out in memorial of her friend and Gaza human rights activist Dr Eyad Sarraj who has just died of cancer, and I thought that my skills would have been largely useless. I need to train myself more. I must get better emergency care skills and knowledge. I will do the diploma in tropical nursing in September.

Trying to facilitate my brain making sense of and integrating what I see and learn here. I remember from Palestine reaching a point after 2 weeks where I felt it so deeply and acutely. I am coming up to 2 weeks now.

Aziza is a nurse here. She seems to take her role and responsibilities very seriously but is also cheerful and relaxed. Her English is very good. She, unusually for here, wears trainers all the time – I think for warmth.

The story of her “that night” is in the Bhopal marathon and we’ve talked about it. Urine and faeces running down her legs as her nervous system broke down from the gas. She was pregnant with her 3rd child but spontaneously miscarried as she fled through the streets with her 2 young children, over dead bodies, carrying one child, the other clinging to her tunic.

One day as normal I asked her how she was, and she responded that she was “fine, as that is my character”. The next day – the same – and she remarked happily that, unusually, she had not had flashbacks to that night for 2 days now.

Her life is defined by her ongoing, uncompensated trauma that resulted from the conscious decisions of corporate executives.

I did not know about the water situation before I came here.

Built into the design of the factory were 3 “solar evaporation ponds” – features predicted to poison the local people by union carbide’s USA based design engineers before they were even built. Into these concrete hulled lakes would be dumped chemical waste including organophosohates, and all the side products made in the complicated process of making pesticides. So these UC engineers, before the plans were approved, warned in an internal memo that seepage into the local soil and water supply was inevitable. UC decided to continue anyway with these plans to save money on more appropriate means of disposal. Then UC embarked on a global cost cutting effort and the liner of the ponds was further scaled back. This plan would have not been possible in the UK or USA – again this was acknowledged internally. The result was disastrous for the local people.

They are still being poisoned today as UC/Dow chems not just refuse to take responsibility for their poisonous sludge, but despite acknowledging in yet more internal memos what was going on, Dow lied publicly, condemning the poor local population to continue to drink Dow’s toxins … And Dow saved itself the cleanup money.

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  1. January 1, 2018 at 6:03 am

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