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What to Do in the Aftermath: Sambhavna Trust
June 7, 2000

The details of the worst industrial accident in history are well known.

  • The Date: Late on Sunday evening, December 2, 1984
  • The Location: Storage tank No. 610, at the Union Carbide C pesticide factory, in the northern end of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India
  • The Situation: During routine maintenance operations, water leaks into a tank with Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) in it. A runaway chemical reaction occurs, increasing the temperature and pressure inside the tank. Between 11:00 pm and 3:00 am, a deadly gas cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, mono methylamine and other chemicals leaks out. The wind carries this cloud over 40 square kilometers to the neighboring communities.

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Some call Bhopal the "Hiroshima of the Chemical Industry" because of what happens next. Methyl Isocyanate, a pesticide, poisons human bodies at low concentrations. It can enter through the mouth, through skin contact, or through inhalation. That night, 43.6 tons of the poisonous gases circulate through the city of Bhopal. Thousands of residents start to die as toxins damage their eyes, lungs, kidneys, liver, intestines, bowels, muscles, brains, reproductive organs, and immune systems. People flee into the night streets in panic as the gas sears their eyes, but they cannot see because of the thick cloud. They cannot breathe as their lungs begin to swell. Bodies pile up as people start choking to death on their own bodily fluids. Through it all, Union Carbide never sounds the emergency siren.

Union Carbide's first notification that anything is wrong happens at 3am, when officials tell authorities there's a plug in the leak (at this point all the poison gas has leaked out, so there is nothing left to plug). J. Mukund, the works manager, says, "The gas leak just can't be from my plant. The plant is shut down. Our technology just can't go wrong, we just can't have such leaks."

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By morning, the calamity becomes chillingly clear. Dead bodies, both human and animal, block the streets. Leaves on trees and plants are black. Union Carbide officially counts 1408 dead, but their number is a gross underestimate. No one will ever know the exact number of people dead: thousands live in communities like Jaipraksh Nagar, without an official address or an official head count. In the days after the gas leak, religious organizations distribute more than 6000 burial shrouds.

The Aftermath

Some say that the ones who die the night of the gas leak are the lucky ones. Tens of thousands of the survivors continue to face long-term problems like asthma, chest infections, tuberculosis, early cataracts, immune system damage. Forty percent of the women who were pregnant at the time of the gas leak aborted. Gas-affected girls, now young women, continue to be faced with difficult gynecological problems like increased cervical cancers and late onset of their first periods. The gas symptoms can cross generations, too; large numbers of survivors have chromosomal aberrations, which mean that their children will also probably suffer from deformities. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, and irritability are also common among the gas-affected people.

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What if this happens elsewhere? This question haunts me. When I visit the Sambhavna Trust Bhopal People's Health and Documentation Clinic, a five-minute walk from the site of the old Union Carbide plant, I see the virtue in clinic administrator Satinath Sarangi's comments, "We finally realize we need to take care of our own, because neither the Indian government nor Union Carbide is going to help us." In 1989, Indian compensation courts settle with Union Carbide for $470 million for more than 550,000 gas-affected people. This works out to nothing when you compare the amount with the expensive long-term medical treatment that survivors must pay for, out of their pockets. The former Union Carbide plant, now empty, continues to create poison from toxic leakage which contaminates local residents' water supply.

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The International Medical Commission, made of a group of 14 scientists from 11 countries, studies the disaster's aftereffects and recommends community-based health care. Following this, worldwide individual donations pay for creation of the Sambhavna Trust in 1995.

The word "sambhavna" means "possibility" in Hindu. The Bhopal People's Health and Documentation Clinic opens in September 1996. This clinic, set up solely for survivors, is the first to provide traditional Indian medical care (ayurvedic medicine) as well as Western (allopathic) medicine, free of charge. When I visit the clinic, everyone greets me with enthusiasm and friendship. Sushmita explains the yoga treatment while Amita busily inspects samples in the in-house lab. The ayurvedic doctor, Dr. Deshpande, presses some herbs to cure a cough into my friend's hand. I also visit the roof, where staff members grow plants for natural treatment and help patients with herbal steam baths.

Link List
Essential Action has a Bhopal campaign
Pesticide Action Network North America

You may measure the success of the clinic by the satisfaction of the patients. In the first month, the clinic staff treat nearly six hundred people. For many of these people, it is the first time they receive treatment with professionalism, caring, and respect. Gas-affected clients often face ostracism within the community, but here the warmth flows freely.


calamity - An extraordinarily grave event marked by great loss and lasting effect
gross - Big
aberrations - Things that are different from the standard

Volunteers arrive from abroad, like Tim, who cycles here from England, and Becky, who maintains the website. There are also locals; for example, Farah helps translate documents. In the trust's annual report, Managing Trustee Sathyu writes: "I am happy that in Sambhavna we do this and other work in a participatory manner and with a sense of collective responsibility. I have always had a distaste for authority and am glad that I do not have to act like a boss." Those who work here make most, if not all, decisions on how the clinic is run. Most often they do this through consensus.

It sounds ideal, and it works. The clinic shows what can happen when a group of like-minded people get together to make something work. It's amazing that they're so nice, too: right now I'm sitting in Sathyu's chair typing this dispatch!

Sambhavna Trust
Bhopal People's Health and Documentation Clinic
44, Sant Kanwar Ram Nagar, Berasia Road
Bhopal 462 001
Telephone: +91 0755-730914


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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