After The Gas (Part 2.) Sathyu Saranghi describes the situation immediately after the disaster and explains how Union Carbide did not want an accepted antidote to the poison being given out to victims.
Finding ways to help
The evening sky on my first day in Bhopal was lit by mass cremation pyres. I was told they’d been burning non-stop since the previous day. I met a man whose hands were covered with blisters. He lived next to a Muslim graveyard. Not knowing what else to do, he did not stop digging mass graves for three days and three nights, unmindful of what the work was doing to his unpractised hands. I must have been in a similar state of mind. It was only several days later that I began to make some sense amidst the chaos and uncertainty: Is the water safe to drink? Is the food okay to eat? Many mothers had died, many aborted as they ran, but what of the unborn babies who had no place to escape to from the poison clouds, were they okay? And I found things to do amidst the millions of tasks that needed urgently to be done.
Through chance encounters and word-of-mouth I met local students, activists, social and political workers, as well as volunteers like myself who had come to Bhopal from elsewhere. An organisation committed to the people’s struggle for rehabilitation and justice was formed. An activist scientist, a lawyer and the head of a left political party, were chosen to lead the group, which automatically began to attract victims into its fold. Other newly formed organisations were busy distributing relief material, doing preliminary medical research and running emergency clinics.
Medical help denied
Soon afterwards, we heard that a German toxicologist had arrived in Bhopal bringing with him 50,000 ampoules of sodium thiosulphate. Administered intravenously it helped excrete toxins ingested during the gas leak and thus provided relief. While the ampoules were quickly dished out to government officials and people they knew, the director of health services, claiming that he was apprehensive of possible side effects, passed an edict against administering it to common survivors.
Our own research, with much help from scientist friends, showed that there were no side effects, and that sodium thiosulphate could indeed be effective in removing poisons from the bloodstream – thus saving lives of thousands – especially of unborn babies. But scientific debate wilted in the overheated environment and in the face of powerful vested interests.
It seemed clear to us that Union Carbide did not want the antidote given and results monitored as it would establish that the gases had not just injured eyes and lungs (as Carbide wanted us to believe) but almost all the organs by getting into the blood stream. Those who managed to give the sodium thiosulphate injections through clinics we had set up were arrested. Medical issues in Bhopal in those early days were deeply political.
You can read the complete Bhopal Marathon publication online here