Survivors’ Saint & Man of the Year: Sathyu

Sathyu at the 26th anniversary rally in Bhopal earlier this month

From The Week online, December 19, 2010

Satinath Sarangi has kept the Bhopal gas tragedy unforgotten in the past 26 years and remains the primary contact for those who are concerned about the victims

By Deepak Tiwari
Photo: Arvind Jain

Suman clung to her running mother’s chest. The six-year-old had no idea what was happening. In fact, neither did Sushila, her mother. Everybody in their locality in north Bhopal was running and Sushila just followed her husband. After a few hundred metres she realised that they were part of thousands of people who were running away from the Union Carbide plant which was spewing deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas.

While running in dark, people gasped, which brought death faster as they inhaled more poisonous gas. More than 2,000 people died in a few hours, and another 5,000 in the next few days. About five lakh people were affected, most of them continue to suffer.

Ignorance came as bliss for those who were oblivious to the gas leak and slept through the night, though they also suffered later as the gas remained till morning because of fog.
Suman’s parents did not last the night. She and her brother did, and they are among the many ‘gas survivors’ of Bhopal.

People woke up to dead bodies all around the following morning. Seema Rafique, 35, a management teacher, was a fourth standard student then. On the fateful night only she, her two sisters and brother were at home, as her father was working in Bhusawal and mother had gone to attend a wedding. “By midnight my sister started feeling uneasy, vomiting and coughing. She had swollen, red eyes and breathing problems. In a few minutes all of us started feeling the same,’’ says Seema. The elder sister consoled them saying it was tear gas, which had been used by the police to curb anti-Sikh riots after the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi more than a month earlier.

“We decided not to come out of the blanket and closed all the doors and windows, putting paper in the gaps to make the house air-tight,” says Seema. “Next morning my brother and me, as usual, were on our way to school and the bus stop was across the railway station. We were thinking why so many people are sleeping outside railway station. An old lady asked for water from my bottle and I gave her. She did not return the bottle but clasped it and slept again. I complained to my brother but he said to leave it.  I cried because the bottle was a birthday gift. We had to jump over the people who were lying on the road to make our way.”

There were dead bodies all over Bhopal as people collapsed while trying to run away. Champadevi Shukla, who lost five family members to the tragedy, says, “I ran away from Hamidia Hospital after somebody put me among corpses thinking I was dead. I was only unconscious.”

Bhopal resembled hell the next two days, with rotting dead bodies of people lay unattended with those of animals. Women and children could be seen everywhere searching for their family members. Army trucks were deployed to remove dead bodies, but soon they had to be used to carry ailing people.

While the dance of death was in full swing in Bhopal, 145km away in Piparia village, a young man was listening intently to the radio reports on the tragedy. Satinath Sarangi, or Sathyu as he is fondly called, was working with a voluntary organisation in the foothills of the Satpura for his PhD. The young engineer was so deeply disturbed that he took a train to Bhopal the next day. He never returned to the world of metallurgical engineering, which he had studied at an advanced level.

In Bhopal, Sathyu became one of the thousands of volunteers who worked day and night to clear the dead bodies off the streets and cremate them. As the dust settled, he joined the fight for the rights and welfare of the gas victims. In the past 26 years, Sathyu and his team have become the primary point of contact for all those who are concerned about the Bhopal gas victims.

While there are many individuals and organisations that keep fighting for the survivors of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, Sathyu’s work stands out in two respects. One, he is a major force behind keeping the issue alive, even after 26 years. Two, he set up a clinic based on the ‘first-do-no-harm’ principle. It was very important as loads of antibiotics had already been mindlessly administered to the gas survivors.

In his towel turban, khadi kurta and a pair of jeans, Sathyu looks every bit a social worker. But his real strength is his organisational capabilities?he created a string of organisations for Bhopal survivors and groomed a number of leaders from them. And they continue to wage their war successfully.

Born in an Oriya Brahmin family in Chakradharpur in Jharkhand, Sathyu changed 10 schools in 12 years owing to his father’s railway job. “I was the youngest in the family and my elder brothers and sister went to boarding schools. Our family stayed in a place for too short a time for me to have friends, so I had books as my best friends,” says Sathyu.

He finally settled for an engineering course in Banaras Hindu University. “Since I was born in 1954 and the sixties were my growing years, the Naxalbari uprising and the victorious struggle of the people in Vietnam impressed me a lot,’’ says Sathyu. In BHU, he tasted a life full of adventure and freedom. He later got a seat in the Institute of Technology at BHU to study metallurgical engineering. After MTech, he started working on his thesis, which he could not finish.

A socialist with a zeal for human rights, Sathyu always stood for the oppressed. He started wearing turban in the 80s when Sikhs were targeted in the west for wearing them. Apart from his principles, his background in metallurgy engineering came in handy in Bhopal. He and his small team started collecting all the physical and documentary evidence in Bhopal and keeping them in his two-room house.

In an effort to build a proper resource centre for those who wanted to write and research on the tragedy, he set up Bhopal Group for Information Action (BGIA) in 1986. Now BGIA has more than 2,000 photographs, medical documents between 1985 and 2005, a collection of media stories on Bhopal since 1960 and millions of other documents that are made available to journalists, students and academics.

As part of Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha or the Poisonous Gas Episode Struggle Front, Sathyu started a small clinic in 1985. “Immediately after the gas leak, there was no treatment protocol,” he says. “Doctors did not know the antidote of the toxic methyl isocyanate and they gave symptomatic treatment.”

The clinic started giving sodium thiosulphate injections, which had detoxication properties. Dr Max Daunderer, a German, supplied it initially. In fact, it was Daunderer who came up with the idea of administering the drug, as an antidote was not known.

But the government did not like it and the clinic was raided. “My doctor friends, who had come here to volunteer in the clinic, were thrown in jail along with me,” says Sathyu. “Giving the injection was like establishing that the poison had crossed the lung barrier and had gone into the bloodstream. We were denied supply and it was only later, after the intervention of the Supreme Court, that it was allowed. Recently, research agencies published a report showing that sodium thiosulphate would have been helpful, had it been given immediately.”

A year later, he again started a clinic with the help of Sunil, a local activist, in JP Nagar. The same year he started an organisation called Children Against Carbide which motivated kids for the welfare of the survivors and to fight against the injustice.

Sathyu’s love for children made him write a children’s book?Anarko ke Aath Din (Eight Days of Anarko). In his initial days in Bhopal, the money from his hobby of writing for children helped him survive. His articles were published in the Hindi children’s magazine Champak. He also worked in Bhopal Puttha Mill (a paper mill) for a living.

“Though my parents died 20 years ago, my brothers were kind enough to support me in my cause. In fact, my parents, too, never objected to my way of life. They, however, were of the view that I must first earn and then do social work using that money,” says Sathyu.

In 1989, he spent a few months in the submergence area of the Indira Sagar dam in Narmada. There he brought out a newspaper called Baandh Samachar (Dam News). But realising that the media coverage of the gas tragedy had drastically dropped, he returned to Bhopal and became a link between the local and international media.

When the government settled for a $470-million compensation from Union Carbide in 1989, Sathyu made several visits abroad educating the world about the ‘ground situation’ in Bhopal. “I even threw pamphlets at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Carbide in Dallas,” he says. He was arrested there on a trespassing complaint by Union Carbide.

When the Indian Council of Medical Research stopped its work in Bhopal, Sathyu worked hard to form the International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB), wherein 14 professionals from 12 countries participated. These experts were chosen on the basis of their medical expertise and experience in environmental health, toxicology, neurology, immunology, and respiratory and family medicine.

In 1995, Sathyu started a fully-equipped medical centre, Sambhavna Clinic, where the gas victims are given holistic treatment?a blend of modern medicine, ayurveda, naturopathy and yoga. The clinic, which started in a rented place, has now a two-acre campus located a kilometre away from the Union Carbide factory.

The campus houses a herbal garden. People who visit Bhopal to see the remains of the disaster often pay a visit to this garden. Terry Allan, an American organic farmer who visited Bhopal to see the Carbide plant, stayed back for three years at Sambhavna to make the herbal garden. “She trained two staff members to manage it round the year,” says Rachna Dhingra, Sathyu’s wife and long-time associate.

Sambhavna Clinic and its six community health centres are the only non-government health facilities in Bhopal specifically for the gas victims. The four government hospitals include the super-speciality Bhopal Memorial Hospital Research Centre, set up using compensation given by Union Carbide.

“Over the years, with continuous medical interactions with survivors, Sambhavna Clinic has developed treatment protocols for specific symptom complexes that combine therapeutic intervention through modern medicine, ayurveda and yoga. We have demonstrated the possibility of developing safe, simple, inexpensive and effective therapies for exposure-induced health problems,” says Sathyu.

Eminent author and copywriter Indra Sinha played an important role in setting up the clinic. He was writing something on the Halabja poison gas attack in Iraq and wanted to know the effects of poisonous gas on people in Bhopal. In 1993, he contacted Sathyu and visited Bhopal. Sinha realised that Bhopal disaster was worse than any such tragedy and came up with the idea of raising a fund in the UK for the people.

He wrote the famous advertisement ‘Bhopal medical appeal’ for The Guardian with Raghu Rai’s photograph of the burial of a dead child. This campaign raised around ?70,000. Sathyu and his team set up a trust using the money and it runs the Sambhavna Clinic. Later, Sinha wrote the novel Animal’s People (shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize) in which he wove the story around Sathyu and Sunil.

Rachna, who manages BGIA, says, “As a principle we do not accept donations and funds from government or corporates. We believe in getting small contributions from a large number of people.” Geneva-based Foundation Pro Victimis also supported in setting up the Sambhavna trust.

The clinic which began with just six people now has a staff strength of 60, many of them gas victims. It has so far provided direct treatment to more than 45,000 people and support to an equal number through its health centres. Apart from the regular staff, there are more than 70 volunteers who work in various centres. The clinic is managed by an eight-member board of trustees who are scientists, doctors, editors and activists who have long been involved in the rehabilitation. Sathyu is the managing trustee.

Sambhavna’s surveys and studies have played an important role in shedding some light on the health problems of the gas survivors. “Through house-to-house surveys we generated important data on the health consequences to over 20,000 people of toxic exposure in 1984 and contamination of groundwater. Our research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (October 2003), was the first to show health problems among children born to gas-exposed parents,” says Sathyu.

It was a study by Sambhavna which revealed that a majority of women gas survivors were suffering from gynaecological problems. Says Rachna, “Women in gas-hit colonies were suffering from menstrual irregularities, delayed menarche, early menopause, cervical cancer and anaemia. Alarmed by the trend, Sambhavna started educating them to come out of the social taboos concerning gynaecological health. A booklet was prepared to encourage women to cross social obstacles and speak out their problems.”

The trust has set up a special gynaecology clinic called  the Dominique Lapierre Gynaecology Clinic. The writer donated the royalties from India of his book Five Past Midnight in Bhopal to the trust.

Sambhavna manufactures about 60 ayurvedic medicines from locally collected herbs. It has developed a successful programme for control of tuberculosis. In four years the incidence of TB in the community came down ten times. Says Dr Rupa Baddi, a volunteer at Sambhavna, “Poisons from the gases, circulated through the bloodstream, had caused damage to eyes, lungs, kidneys, liver, intestines, muscles, brain and reproductive and immune systems. Our concern is to detoxify the bodies of the patients who were loaded with antibiotics over the years for want of a proper protocol.”

Says Gulabchand Jain, one of the 35,000 registered patients of Sambhavna Clinic, “I have taken medicines from all hospitals in Bhopal but the ayurveda-allopathy blend here has brought relief to me.” Some 150 patients are treated every day at the clinic.

Shahid Noor, 32, and sister Neelofar, 27, were among the 28 children who were, according to official records, “orphaned due to Bhopal tragedy”. Neelofar was just one year old when they lost their parents. “Our world changed from that day,” says Shahid. “We became dependent on our relatives. We were shunted from one house to another. I took a loan for my treatment and studies because the 230,000 given to us after the tragedy could be used only when I became a major.”

Sathyu came to his rescue through Greenpeace. The organisation gave 30 solar lanterns to Shahid and other gas orphans. These lanterns are given on rent to local vegetable traders during market day at Kenchi Chhola market. Later, when Shahid left the work, Satish, another orphan, and his sister started running the business. Today, Shahid is an active member of Bhopal Ki Awaz, an NGO formed by those orphaned by the tragedy.

Sambhavna runs a school in the Oriya settlement in Bhopal. It has more than 150 students and three teachers. The school functions in a shade built with the money given by Lapierre. Sathyu was the master brain behind the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, which had leading environmental activists and organisations at the forefront. In 1999, he took Janaki Bai Sahu, a gas survivor, to the US and made her an intervener in the court where the case against Union Carbide was being fought. He also supported Rashida Bi of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh and Champadevi, who were made legal interveners in the court cases in the US. They became the international ambassadors for Bhopal gas victims when they went to the US, the UK and Australia and gave brooms to the officials of Dow Chemicals, which now owns Union Carbide. The brooms had the contaminated soil and water from Bhopal.

Sathyu, along with with Rashida and Champadevi, played an important role in getting a 214 crore assistance from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a drinking water project for the slum dwellers around the Carbide plant. He organised an 800km  march to Delhi and a 19-day hunger strike at Jantar Mantar for this.

When Union Carbide claimed that the gas leakage was the act of a disgruntled employee, Sathyu challenged it in international courts. To counter the company’s propaganda through its website, he created two websites, and  “The advocacy of Bhopal survivors through digital medium on the internet is a remarkable feat of Sathyu,” says journalist Shivanurag Pateria. Realising that media attention on Bhopal was waning with time, Sathyu and BGIA started publishing an English newsletter for international distribution and a Hindi newspaper for local people.

Sambhavna attracts hundreds of volunteers from all over the world. While writers like Lapierre, Sinha, Suketu Mehta and Arvind Rajagopal have written for the organisation, photographers like Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh, Andy Moxon, Richard Grove and Maude Dorr have given their photos.

Sathyu keeps a tab on the criminal cases against Warren Anderson, who headed Union Carbide when the gas leaked, and the company, and organises attorneys for the gas victims who are interveners in these cases. He was even asked by a Bhopal court to help the CBI in the trial because of his efforts to document the tragedy and his understanding of the subject.

Sathyu continues his battle even 26 years after the tragedy. Now he is busy fighting against the toxic waste that still lies in the Union Carbide plant and pollutes the groundwater. And his efforts keep reminding us why there should be no more Bhopals.

Girl with candle Bhopal

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