An Urgent Appeal on the 25th Anniversary of the Sambhavna Clinic
One night, in an alley of kuchcha huts by the abandoned Union Carbide pesticide factory, an old woman whispered to me, ‘Son, look after yourself, we are living in hell.’
This evening, so many years after that night, I’m again haunted by her words.
They came long after the night of 2nd / 3rd December 1984, in which thousands of lives were lost and destroyed, after tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas gushed, without warning, from a tall vent inside Carbide’s factory. Heavier than air, nudged by a gentle wind, the gas rolled silently towards the tightly-packed houses beginning fewer than 200 yards away, in which tens of thousands of families were sleeping.
A decade on, 14 medical specialists from 11 countries documented long-term injuries to every major system in the bodies of people exposed in Bhopal to that vast poison cloud. Especially profound was damage to the respiratory, reproductive, immunological, and neurological systems.
The specialists found that few, if any, of the innocent people left chronically sick by Carbide’s gases were receiving the kind of care they desperately needed. Instead, a high proportion of the (roughly 400,000) visitors to government hospitals each year were being given medicines that were potentially harmful, and which could make the damage caused by toxic exposure even worse.
So the specialists called for a fundamental change in thinking. To help people coping with lifelong illnesses, they strongly recommended community-based clinics focused on rational, non-harmful medical approaches.
We Began With Nothing
A small group of us had strong ideas about what could be done but we’d barely a rupee with which to do it. So we decided to ask others for help.
A friend in the UK wrote an appeal in the Guardian newspaper to which hundreds of ordinary people responded. Their humbling generosity reinforced our belief that compassion could change a situation of pain, and of despair, into one of possibility.
Soon after we registered the Sambhavna Trust. To house our medical Clinic we bought a small a building as close as possible to Carbide’s abandoned factory and the communities it had devastated most. It was a Sunday on September 1, 1996, so we opened the doors of our Clinic on the 2nd. I still remember the faces of our first few tentative visitors.
In the shadow of the cursed factory, over the last 25 years we have grown like a healing garden. Our first Clinic had two rooms for consultations, and half a room for dispensing medicines. Today, the clinic is spread over almost 2 acres, its built area 10 times larger. We started with 12 staff members, today we are 57. Half of the staff are themselves survivors of the disaster or their children.
What 25 Years of Compassion Has Made Possible
We focused on treatments that would do no more harm to already damaged bodies. With Ayurveda we have relieved thousands of patients suffering with “untreatable” auto-immune disorders such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. With Yoga we have provided sustained relief to hundreds of people with chronic lung disorders, and others diagnosed with sciatica, or cervical spondylosis.
Without using any synthetic chemicals, aided instead by soil microbes that we harvest from nearby forests, our large herbal garden currently grows 100 kinds of medicinal plants, supplying 60 % of the ingredients we use for manufacturing 84 different Ayurvedic medicines.
We published research in international peer reviewed journals on the significant health impact of the Bhopal disaster on the children of the gas exposed. Recently we began providing plant-based medicines in response to an epidemic of fungal infections that are resistant to modern anti – fungal treatments.
Our community health work has ensured zero malaria and dengue positive cases for the last six years, and significantly brought down the prevalence of TB in a population of 40,000 left vulnerable by compromised immune systems. Our community-based response to the Pandemic has earned praise from international experts.
These achievements are not Sambhavna’s alone. They are shared by 30,000 friends, from 45 different countries around the world, who over the decades have collected litter at music festivals, held auctions, run marathons, skydived from airplanes and risked many other challenges to make all of our work possible.
But then, in October 2019, the Ministry of Home Affairs cancelled Sambhavna’s FCRA registration, and we have since been unable to receive even a rupee from our friends overseas.
Our medical work has suffered greatly since. Instead of five doctors, today we have three. Patient visits have reduced by half, and every day we have to send a few back. We are no longer able to produce some medicines. In the face of financial constraints our staff volunteered to take a 30 % cut in salaries yet we still cannot pay them on time. Debts are rapidly rising and, unable to afford EPF contributions, the trust’s managing trustee is facing prison.
We cannot and will not give up. For the survivors we care for our services are as much needed as food or breath. Everyone who comes to Sambhavna, whether still sick from the gases of 37 years ago, or from the ongoing water poisoning, is received with respect and love. Because no matter how hard we work, we can never do enough, it’s unthinkable that our work might end altogether.
Now, with our financial situation so dire that we face a real possibility of closure, the old woman’s words come back to me again. Dark though these moments are, I can’t forget that 25 years ago, from literally nothing, strangers came together to transform the deepest despair through compassion, joy, fellowship and the healing power of love.
We’d like invite you go through 25 presentations we have made to help you understand our 25 years of work in Bhopal. We will upload them to our website each day.
If after you find our work worth saving, please send a donation, and please make it as generous as you can. With heartfelt thanks from us all at Sambhavna.
Satinath Sarangi (Sathyu)
Managing Trustee, Sambhavna Trust