Shravanabelagola

Shravanabelagola.  Try saying that five times fast.  Yeah, most of us can’t either.  On our last field visit of the semester, we travelled a few hours away to the town of Shravanabelagola for a crash course on Jainism.  Meaning ‘the white pond’, this holy city of Jainism boasts two major hills where much of the Jain history can be found.  Knowing next to nothing about Jainism, I looked forward to adding this to our repertoire of Indian religions.  So far having covered Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, this marked the last stop on our religious and spiritual journey throughout India.

After dining on a delicious lunch, including a magnificent chickpea sauce critically acclaimed by all, we met with Professor Jeevan Kumar who acted as our window into the religion of Jainism.  We started class that day by first shedding our shoes at the base of the small hill and beginning the climb up to the top.  Walking with all manners of people from children too young to walk to elderly people, we panted our way to the top.  We made a pit stop next to one of the sites of the hill to get a little background on Jainism.  The professor began with the historical side and as we tried to follow the Sanskrit terms, we learned about Chandragupta, thirthankaras, and the flourishing of Jainism in South India.

As we progressed to the main temples, or bastis, of the small hill, these terms began to come together.  Chock-full of Indian history, this little hamlet of temples boasted innumerable examples of ancient architecture and inscriptions.  Each temple was centered around a single, nude statue of a man in either a sitting or standing position.  These men are known as thirthankaras, or path-showers.  Flanked by both a male and female attendant-god these imposing figures are representations of the men of Jainism that have achieved liberation from the rebirth cycle.  When people come to bastis they worship the attributes of the thirthankaras that have allowed these religious figures to achieve the level of liberation.  The five truths of Jainism make up these attributes: non-violence, non-stealing, non-possession, celibacy, and truthfulness.

We wound up our tour of the temples just as the sun began to set.  Looking down from the hill we could see the mist rising up from the town.  With our brains mulling over Dravidian architecture, paths to liberation, and the enormous spider we spotted outside a temple, we began to make our way back down.  The professor sped us along as the town of Shravanabelagola (Have you tried saying it out loud yet?) eats dinner before sunset.  So if we wanted more chickpea sauce, we had to hurry.  Upon reaching the bottom, we reclaimed our shoes and proceeded back to refuel and continue our exploration of Jainism.

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Layers of Tragedy

As we study the structural injustice that is the Bhopal gas tragedy, it is important not to forget that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are still affected by the disaster.  This was made very clear to us in our short meeting with an organization called the Bhopal Gas Pedith Mahila  Udogh Sangathan.  It is also known as Swabhiman Kendra or a self-respect center.  This group provides rehabilitation services for people who are disabled as a result of the gas leak.  The members are trained to hand make items such as clothing and paper bags.  The decision to make paper bags is to discourage the use of plastic bags because Dow Chemicals is a major producer of plastics.

This rehabilitation program provides help to thousands of members, many of whom pay five rupees per month as a donation to the organization.  This group receives no outside funding and relies solely on personal aid from the community.

One important aspect which we have heard in multiple places, is that there is not only one Bhopal.  There are many small to mid size chemical plants just like the one in Bhopal all around India and the world.  The gas leak happened about twenty seven years ago, and still no safety regulations have been tightened for existing plants.  This tragedy is not confined to one city in India, this is only an example of the danger that this type of operation presents.

Corporate greed caused carelessness and a disregard for the lives of the people in Bhopal.  This must call us to question the amount of power and value that corporations have in the United States and the world.  Dow chemicals has yet to be prosecuted in either American or Indian courts.  IT is allowed to continue to generate a huge revenue, while giving minimal compensation to the people of Bhopal.  Each effected survivor was given a compensation equal to about 1,000 US dollars, a fraction of what was asked for and what is needed to pay for medical treatment and damages.

Swabhiman Kendra reminds us that a disaster such as this is so tremendous it calls us to action on three levels.  First, the immediate needs of affected people cannot be ignored.  Thousands of people continue to be born mentally or physically disabled.  Working directly with them through the rehabilitation centers we have visited has immense positive effects on their lives and the lives of their families.  Second we must look a the broader aspects of the issue.  The Indian government has yet to give any aid to the area and the American government has refused to even acknowledge the disaster.  Law suits have been filed against Dow Chemicals with few results.  A fight must take place on this larger, governmental level as well as a local, personal level. We must demand justice and compensation from both the government and the company because rehabilitation efforts should not have to rely solely on personal donations.  Finally, we must question why this situation was able to happen in the first place.  Why is it that the Indian government is siding with an American company rather than its own people? Dow Chemicals has bribed government officials to allow chemicals which are banned in the United States to be produced in India.  Dow continues to claim no responsibility for the issue and the US government has yet to acknowledge that it has happened.  The third level we must think about is the priorities in our modern society.  We now live in a world where a corporation’s interest is more important than hundreds of thousands of lives.  We must work for this structural change, if we want to have any hope of having a government which remains accountable to its people in the future.

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Factory Visit

On Tuesday, we visited the abandoned factory responsible for the 1984 Union Carbide gas explosion. Although we had been learning about the incident for a few days beforehand and had met with survivors the day before, it was extremely sobering to visit the site itself. The nightmare I had been learning about became considerably more real the moment I stepped onto the premises and saw corroded pipes, holding tanks, and broken windows. In a way, it felt like I was in a ghost story—but this was not a story at all, and it continues to be the chilling reality for hundreds of thousands of Bhopalis still living with the effects of the leak, more than 25 years later. We stood in silence for a while, looking up at the factory piping and imagining the 32 tons of toxic gas that escaped from the pipes that night, spreading as a dense fog across the landscape. Dabish, an employee at a local NGO who accompanied us to the factory, explained that Union Carbide’s emergency plan had six different security measures, all of which were grossly ineffective. Some had malfunctions—and a few were not even in operation at the time of the incident. It was revolting to stand at that site, knowing that Union Carbide’s willingness to cut corners contributed to such a catastrophe. For me, the most disturbing part of all is the fact that it’s still not cleaned up. Lurking under the very ground we walked on was the untreated toxic waste Union Carbide buried under the site—the waste that is now responsible for the contamination of the drinking water of more than 200,000 people. We walked through one of the research and development labs, where bottles of chemicals still remain beneath a workbench, covered in a thick layer of dust. I knelt down and read a few of the labels. Methyl tetrachloride. Chloroform. Potassium hydroxide. These are all extremely harmful reagents—to the environment as well as to the human body. Yet here they sit, abandoned, a chilling reminder of the greatest industrial disaster the world has ever seen. It’s so frustrating to see this with our own eyes, knowing that CEOs are sitting in the United States, unbothered, with their wealth intact. It is estimated that giving proper compensation to the victims would amount to a figure around 7.1 billion dollars. This sounds like a lot, but it’s less than two percent of the company’s annual profits. If corporate greed and neglect caused a disaster like this in the United States, there is no question that the victims would be compensated almost immediately. In fact, all victims of 9/11 were compensated within a year. But here we are, 25 years later, and Bhopal is yet to see justice. This is grotesque inequality in its purest form. The victims of the incident are not a random sampling of people. It is no accident that the factory was erected in a slum area, inhabited mostly by impoverished Muslims and Dalits, none of whom benefited from any of the products manufactured with Union Carbide’s chemicals. Yet citizens are still living with the effects. The nightmare continues. And until the ground contamination is cleaned up, it’s hard to imagine how things will ever get better.

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Museum of Mankind

On Thursday morning, our class visited the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, or the National Museum of Mankind in Bhopal. Its sprawling campus includes not only a large indoor museum, but a number of interactive outdoor exhibits. Focusing on the lifestyles and cultures of India’s indigenous people, these exhibits are not meant to glorify the grand achievements of man. They are not about showcasing our “progress,” or showing how far humankind has come in development. Rather, they are about reminding us of where we have come from, of what values we once held.

This is a museum that inspires its visitors to think about their connection to nature, a connection that humans have so long forgotten. Too often, we place ourselves outside of nature and cease to recognize how our actions are affecting not only the environment we live in, but also ourselves. We are a part of this world, but for some reason so many of our actions are bent on destroying it. The values and cultures of indigenous people, though, show us a lifestyle that is much more connected to the earth.

One of the first exhibits we visited was the Tribal Habitat, which is built on a large hill overlooking the main museum. Here, we were able to learn about the different dwellings that each indigenous community had created. Exploring the inside of each house and discovering all of its contents was like stepping into another life, another way of existence. I was continually struck by how varied the structures were from tribe to tribe—each had adapted their dwelling to the environment that they were a part of. And though these were only replicas, they were constructed with the same materials that each tribe traditionally used. We also went through the Technology Park, which showcased different traditional tools that were used. The ingenuity of their tools was impressive, and it gave a clearer picture of how sustainable their practices were.

My favorite part of the Museum of Mankind, though, was their Mythological Trail, an outdoor exhibit that displays the creation stories of different adivasi tribes. Reading each story and seeing it played out in the traditional artwork of each tribe was unbelievably amazing. In those stories, humanity sprang from the earth, from rock, and even from animals. The interconnectedness of everything, of us, of animals, of the earth—all of that was so clear. It is stories like this that we need to value and respect. We cannot dismiss them just because they are different from what we know and understand. They show us something about humanity that we have forgotten.

In today’s world, we lavish chemical fertilizers upon the land. We dig deep into the earth, wounding it with our machinery. We consume more than we need, mindlessly tossing our waste aside. We treat animals as if they are “just animals,” forgetting too that we are animals as well. All that we rely on, from our systems of food production to transportation, requires “resources” from the earth. We take them without giving anything back.

There is no better place for the Museum of Mankind than in Bhopal. We have spent the last week learning about the gas leak that occurred in 1984 at the Union Carbide factory (now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical). Union Carbide was welcomed into India at the dawn of the Green Revolution, when chemical agriculture was being embraced. Their factory in Bhopal manufactured pesticides, but over the years it began cutting corners to save costs. Safety measures were dropped. Equipment wasn’t properly maintained. And unbeknownst to the people of Bhopal, Union Carbide was burying toxic waste throughout the city and within the factory grounds. The health affects resulting from the water contamination and the gas leak on December 3, 1984, have been disastrous.

Why does it take an industrial disaster to make us realize our mistakes? Why has little changed since the Bhopal tragedy? Why is Dow Chemical trying to sponsor the London Olympics, other than to green-wash their company and further convince people that their chemicals are indeed “sustainable”? Why can they do that when they refuse to clean up the Union Carbide factory or address the water contamination caused by the company they own?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But walking through the Museum of Mankind, I could not help but think of all these indigenous cultures, all these people who knew so much about how to work with the earth, not against it. How did the world manage to move so far away from that?

To learn more about the Bhopal incident, please visit: www.bhopal.org
To sign a petition to remove Dow Chemical as a partner for the London Olympics, please visit: http://www.change.org/petitions/drop-dow-chemical-as-partners-for-the-london-2012-olympic-games-bhopal

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Choosing Justice

Our field visit on Wednesday began with a journey by van into the middle of Bhopal, navigating through narrow streets and intertwining neighborhoods. As our van came to a stop we all piled out and began walking between rows of houses, smiling at the children who passed by and wondering what our final destination would look like. Upon turning the corner, we were met with the sudden presence of an open, sunny courtyard and a two-story brick compound with flowers trailing along the walls. After walking inside, we met with a woman named Rachma and began to learn about this organization.

Sambhavna Trust Clinic was started to provide assistance to the victims of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak and the resulting water contamination. Through speaking to Rachma and touring the campus, it became apparent that Sambhavna works at all levels to address this disaster. At one level, Sambhavna provides medical treatment to those affected by the immediate and congenital effects of the gas leak, as well as those harmed by the water contamination. Victims can come to Sanbhavna and receive treatment free of charge, whether this involves healing through yoga, therapeutic massages, or Ayurvedic herbal remedies that are made right at the clinic. To provide continually effective treatment, Sambhavna employs psychologists, pathologists, and community health workers to go out into surrounding areas and work with community members. Employees of Sambhavna are also continually conducting research on the effects of the 1984 disaster.

In addition to this important work, many such as Rachma and her husband are fighting to receive legal justice from Dow/Union Carbide and the Indian government for the spill. One of the main aims of these workers is to pressure the Indian government to present correct data on the number of people that have been affected. While the government has correct data, the numbers presented and used in court cases are much lower than the actual count. Another focus of current activism centers on the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which will be hosted by Dow. Through letters and public outcry, these activists hope to convince the London Olympic Committee to not take money from Dow, and to convince the Indian government to boycott the Olympics. Ultimately, activists from many different groups fighting for justice for Bhopal are demanding more compensation from Dow, around $8.1 billion dollars, to truly cover the costs of this disaster.

Throughout our visit, the contrast between the disaster in Bhopal and Sambhavna’s work was clear. On one hand, the forces of corporate greed, capitalist irresponsibility, and a lack of regard for human life created death, illness, and suffering for thousands of people. Just ten minutes down the street, hope and healing overflowed from a group of people fighting for justice. Two completely opposite sides of the spectrum; and yet two sides of the same species.

As humans we are tangled in injustices; but we are also liberated by goodness, by the fight for humanity. Both are in our nature, but neither is inevitable; we have the power to choose. In the midst of violence and destruction, Sambhavna created a beacon of hope and healing. Their choice was to fight for justice, to strive to restore the best of human nature. We all have the power to choose; the work done at Sambhavna inspired me to strive for hope and healing, even in the very midst of injustices.

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Seeing Hope

Although it seems impossible, we have now embarked on the final stage of our month long journey. Our group is now in our capstone course: learning about the gas disaster that took place at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. On December 2-3, 1984, a gas leak occurred at the Union Carbide Factory, sending a cloud of poisonous gas over the city of Bhopal. This initial gas leak claimed the lives of thousands; however, it was soon discovered that there were more long term ramifications connected to this tragedy. It became apparent that in addition to leaking toxic chemicals, the factory had also been incorrectly disposing toxic waste by burying it in the ground. The chemicals were then able to contaminate the water supply and infect even more individuals with toxins.

Upon our arrival in Bhopal, we visited the Chingari Trust. The Chingari Trust is an organization that helps children of victims of the initial Bhopal incident and the resulting water contamination. Many of the individuals who either breathed toxic chemicals at the time of the gas leak, or who ingested toxic chemicals through drinking contaminated ground water, gave birth to children with a great deal of birth defects. Many of these children are severely mentally and physically disabled.

The children require extensive physical and speech therapy, as well as special education services. The staff at Chingari provide care free of charge to any child who is suffering from disabilities. Along with administering services to the children, professions will also educate family members on how to administer therapies at home. This combination of these services has caused children to improve drastically. It is clear that this organization is doing everything they can to improve the lives of the children and families affected by this tragedy.

Throughout my time at the school, I felt very inspired by the women who started this organization. Hearing their story was exactly what I needed. Throughout our time in India, our group has been exposed to topics that are very complicated and overwhelming. Many of the problems that we observe are byproducts of large and complex system. It is easy to give up and think that there is nothing I, a single ordinary person, could ever do to fix these injustices. However, hearing the story of these women reminded me of the power one person can have. We must not lose sight of the power each of us has to make a change.

During my time at Chingari, I was reminded that I do not need to have an extensive list of credentials or massive amounts of support to make a difference. Being filled with passion and a willingness to donate your time is much more important. As I prepare to return home and start thinking about what I am going to do with all the important information learned throughout my time in India, I will keep the story of Chingari close to my heart. I hope all of us will remember that if we follow our passions and put all of our energies behind those issues that really fire us up, we can make a difference.

 

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Life by the River

While in Varanasi, we woke at the crack of dawn one day to go on a boat ride on the Ganges and see the sunrise over the river. It was quite an interesting and beautiful sight that brought to light what life by this holy and revered river is like. Following is a poem of that experience.

Before us is a river,

A river according to Hindu tradition manifested from the goddess Ganges,

Who came down to earth to purify the souls of all those who bathe in her.

 

In the cool morning the sky becomes light,

But fog obscures the sun from sight.

We go down the steps leading to the water,

And set off on the Ganges,

Observing several facets of life.

 

Colorful flowers and little candle lights,

Left over from an evening prayer and offering,

Floating among the ripples.

 

People bathing and playing in the water,

Their colorful clothes lying out to dry.

 

Various Hindu temples and a mosque,

Side by side along the bank.

 

Sounds of laughter,

Alongside morning games of cricket and badminton on the ghats.

 

Scripture reading and hymn singing,

Accompanied by the beating of a drum.

 

Individuals standing in reverence,

Hands together by their heart,

In deep respect of the river that connects them to the heavens.

The sun peaks from behind the clouds,

Which casts a stream of soft radiant light,

On the water’s ripples,

On our faces,

On life by the river.

 

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