Pamela Philipose Source: Women's Feature Service, Date: March , 2010
Feature Service) - It is the face of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The photograph of
an unnamed child, barely out of infancy, looking out with an unrelenting gaze
upon the world from the soil of a newly dug grave, was taken soon after the gas
leak from the Union Carbide factory. It continues to symbolise the incalculable
human cost of the world's worst industrial calamity. Today, a full 25 years
later, another generation of children, born to parents from the gas-affected,
poverty-stricken neighbourhoods of the city, continue to bear the footprint of
that fateful night when a cloud of deadly methyl isocyanate enshrouded the
"We are now witnessing
the impact of the Bhopal gas leak on the lives of the second generation of
survivors," says Rashida Bi, a gas survivor herself, who along with Champa
Devi Shukla, another survivor, has been working tirelessly in the affected
neighbourhoods almost since that fateful day. Awarded the Goldman Environment
Prize in 2004, the two women decided to invest every rupee of the Rs 55,00,000
(US$1= Rs 46.6) that came with the award for the community.
Today, the Chingari
Trust they set up together in 2005 runs a rehabilitation and education centre
for the disabled children from strictly gas-affected families. Two criteria are
used to establish this: Either the families had to be located in colonies that
had been exposed to the gas leak or had consumed water contaminated by the
toxic residues from the Union Carbide factory premises.
Recalls Champa Devi,
"We saw so many cases of handicapped children being born after the gas
leak that we knew that this was what we should focus on." A survey was
done to identify affected families, but the biggest challenge was to get
parents interested in the idea of rehabilitation. They invariably regarded
their children as "kissi kaam ka nahin" (of absolutely no worth) and
saw little point in the whole exercise. Being poverty stricken - a recent
survey of 200 households in some of the worst affected colonies revealed that
73 per cent families had incomes below Rs 1,500 a month - they were also
worried about the likely costs involved. Rashida Bi explains, "We told
them that we will pay for everything, just send them to us for a month. And
that's how it started. Slowly we were able to win their confidence."
rehabilitation and education centre has 250 children registered on its rolls,
with 70 children attending classes regularly along with their mothers. Says
Nirmala Karunan, a social activist associated with the Bhopal struggle for
these last 25 years, "It's amazing the impact that Chingari has had on the
lives of these children. You just don't feel like leaving these kids. The
approach is to treat them as equals, as children who need love, attention, care
and education, like any other child. The mothers too have benefited. They leave
the isolation of their homes and now feel they are part of a larger community of
people like them." The Chennai-based group, Vidya Sagar, designed the
curriculum and helped train the teachers.
Visit this modest
facility located in the heart of the gas-affected region of Bhopal, and the
first thing that strikes you is the energy and commitment behind it. Teachers
point to the paintings of clowns and rising suns done by their students with
immense pride. The salaries they draw may be paltry but they all feel they are
contributing to something of great significance, inspired as they are by two
quiet, unobtrusive, hard-working women. As one teacher put it, "If Rashida
Appa and Champa Didi can do so much, we can do our bit."
trained in physiotherapy, explains that most of the students here are affected
by cerebral palsy. "Their young bodies are stiff because their brains
don't cooperate. IQ levels also vary greatly so we try to form batches of
children with similar IQ levels and work with them."
Making change happen
is a slow, time consuming process with almost 40 minutes having to be spent on
each child individually every day. Almost everyone needs speech therapy. Prem
Narayan, a trained speech therapist, points out that children with cerebral
palsy cannot articulate vowels and suffer from uncontrolled tongue movement and
drooling. They need special exercises to work the muscles around the mouth and
jaw in order to get the organs associated with speech working.
But once the children
learn to express themselves, they just love to do so. "You should see them
as I take the attendance roll call. They enjoy it, alerting me to their
presence through a sound or a gesture," smiles Usha, another teacher.
milestone reached is cause for celebration. There is Mohammed Faizan's
colourful clown smiling down from a wall in one of the classrooms. When he came
to Chingari he was just two and half feet tall, with his legs twisted and
folded into the lower part of his body. Within eight days of physiotherapy, his
limbs had loosened up. Today, Mohammed is a confident little child who is
clearly the Picasso of Chingari. The boy who had who never responded to anyone
when he first came in, is today never without a smile.
Ten students from the
Chingari centre have now joined regular school with special permission to sit
for examinations separately and the most recent piece of good news is that two
of the children have been selected to participate in the Special Olympics
But there are also
reverses. Around Diwali, the school lost Apeeksha, a five-year-old severely
affected by cerebral palsy, who had been responding very well to therapy.
During the holidays, she came down with a fever and died soon after. Says
Rashida Bi, "We felt terrible when we heard the news. These children need
regular care and exercises. If she had been coming to school, perhaps she would
not have died." According to Rashida Bi, discrimination between girls and
boys happens even in families like these, "The feeling among many parents
is to let the children die, especially if they are girls."
Justice for the
survivors of Bhopal has many dimensions - and it includes the recognition that
there are helpless, limb-locked, smiling children out there who are paying a
terrible price for a disaster that had occurred long before they were born.
While medical personnel
have noted the strikingly high incidence of genetic diseases and birth defects
in children of gas-affected families, and the fact that the morbidity rate here
is nearly 20 per cent as against 5 per cent in the unaffected population, the
correlation between the gas leak and genetic abnormalities have never been
scientifically established. The one attempt to do this by the Indian Council of
Medical Research, the country's premier body for biomedical research, has long
been abandoned -- yet another instance of the apathetic and callous
governmental response to the tragedy.
In many ways then the
work of the Chingari Trust facility is also a battle of memory against
forgetting. Champadevi puts it this way, "Despite the great odds,
Chingari's children will blossom. That is our conviction. We will continue to
motivate parents to send their children to our centre. We will continue to run
the centre. And we will also fight for justice for Bhopal."