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Satinath Sarangi’s Bhopal Group for Information and Action runs a small allopathic dispensary and an Ayurvedic clinic, Sambhavna Trust, for those exposed to the methyl isocyanate gas released from the Union Carbide factory. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Satinath Sarangi’s Bhopal Group for Information and Action runs a small allopathic dispensary and an Ayurvedic clinic, Sambhavna Trust, for those exposed to the methyl isocyanate gas released from the Union Carbide factory. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

NGOs innovate to keep Bhopal issue alive

The annual Bhopal pilgrimage made by journalists on the anniversary of the city's gas tragedy can be easier than a paid junket

Bhopal: If activism is an experiment in innovation, Bhopal is the perfect lab. Ask any journalist who has been to the city.

Thanks to the zeal of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the annual Bhopal pilgrimage made by national and international journalists every December on the anniversary of the city’s gas tragedy can be easier than a paid junket.

Don’t know the language? No worries; you’ll have a translator. Not sure of facts? Here’s a dossier, chronology of events and the latest press release for you. The Bhopal activist will even provide you with a helpful angle for your report, so that no two journalists write identical stories. The NGO will be happy to arrange characters to liven up your report—a victim, a survivor, a doctor, a lawyer. They’ll even pick you up on arrival and help you find hotels closer to the sites.

Keeping an issue alive despite three decades of political apathy can do that to civil society organizations. The most high-profile NGO here is Satinath Sarangi’s Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA). The organization, which is globally known, also runs a small allopathic dispensary and an Ayurvedic clinic, Sambhavna Trust, for those exposed to the methyl isocyanate poison gas released from the Union Carbide factory.

The trust is fully funded by individual donations as well as royalties from Five Past Midnight In Bhopal, a book by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro on the accident. The trust was set up in 1996, with donations received after a series of advertisements named Bhopal Medical Appeal were placed in UK newspapers on the 10th anniversary of the gas leak.

Sarangi may not always be the most accurate provider of happenings related to the gas tragedy, but he is, at any given point of time, the most convenient link between events unfolding in Bhopal and the outside world, which has always been in a rush to move on.

On 30 October, while news of the death of Warren Anderson (Union Carbide’s chairman at the time of the gas tragedy) was breaking internationally, BGIA was already emailing journalists with a prepared statement. For those who could not access the Internet, text messages were sent, incorporating just the operative part of the statement.

In the past five years, Sarangi’s NGO has partnered six other local civil society organizations, all of whom were recently in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to protest against the government’s indifference to their cause. However, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, one of the city’s most important organizations led by survivor-activist Abdul Jabbar, was not among them.

“While the goals of all NGOs are the same, the methods are hugely different. Without going into specifics, I decided to stay away from the gimmicks because our priority is attending to the needs of the survivors," said Jabbar, who runs a small centre providing vocational training for survivors.

As a PhD student in metallurgical engineering, Sarangi was visiting a village near Bhopal when he heard on the radio that something had happened and many people were dead. “I thought I should go and see what I can do. When I got to the station, it was completely deserted. Outside, people were in excruciating pain, thousands were already dead. Many of them were women. All of them were poor. I decided to stay and help," Sarangi says.

The man sums up the nightmare unfolding in Bhopal as follows: “It came without warning in the dead of the night. Most people drowned in their own body fluids… It was a total failure of all systems. The 574,000 people who survived wish they were dead too. A whole generation born after the disaster is marked, damaged."

When the world’s worst corporate crime plays out in a land where few speak English, men like Sarangi are the stuff journalists dream of. Most organizations do not have any Web presence and none can match the library of precious, countless documents concerning the subject that Sarangi has created.

“Unlike other places in India, the activist community is well-organized in Bhopal," says Mandakini Gahlot, India correspondent for France24, a television channel. “They seem to work in sync with each other, which is not usually the case. It took me more than a couple of visits to understand they have internal rifts. The bigger issue, however, is that after a point, everything they say sounds very rehearsed because they have been telling this story for 30 years. It is hard to get them to speak candidly. For a journalist who works for an international channel, BGIA is a one-stop shop for all things Bhopal, but are they doing the most work on the ground? I don’t know," she said.

Sarangi explains how he started his work. “I realized soon as I reached Bhopal that knowing English and a little bit of science could be immensely helpful. Our organizations evolved as we adapted to technology, carved out an international audience for the stories of survivors," Sarangi says, sitting in his office in old Bhopal. “If we are to deal with powerful multinational organizations, our public relations (PR) machinery has to be just as competent," added Sarangi. “Why do you think during London Olympics, Dow Chemicals received so much negative publicity?" he asks before answering his own question, “because that is how good we are. We were able to deal with their PR, at their level." Union Carbide was acquired by Dow Chemicals in 2001.

For those who know the city and the subject well, the real story lies with the smaller organizations that work with victims who will never speak a word in English or get on the Internet to rant about the injustice done to them. But it will take more time than the annual two-day media visits ahead of anniversaries to reach them.

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