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Making Life Possible

Twenty years ago, the world’s worst industrial accident killed and maimed thousands in Bhopal, India. Today, a clinic treats those living with the effects of the original accident and the continued contamination from the abandoned site.

Sambhavna Health Clinic
Patients gather at a clinic that treats survivors of the 1984 chemical explosion at Bhopal, India Photo Courtesy of Sambhavna Clinic

Sambhavna is a Sanskrit word which means "possibility." Read as sama (same) and bhavna (thought), it denotes a sense of compassion.

Etymology however fails to convey what Sambhavna means to the people of Bhopal. To them, it stands for the difference between hope and despair, between dignity and humiliation, between life and death. Sambhavna is also the award-winning clinic that provides free medical care to those affected by the Bhopal gas disaster.

The Bhopal disaster is the worst industrial accident in history. On December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide factory spewed 27 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas out across the sleeping city of Bhopal, India, immediately killing thousands of people. Even today, 15 to 30 people die each month due to complications from the exposure. The death toll is now over 20,000. More than 120,000 are still sick, many permanently disabled.

Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical, fled India after the disaster, leaving behind a site so contaminated that its chemicals have seeped into the groundwater. Lead and mercury have been found in women's breast milk, and birth defects, menstrual disorders, tuberculosis, and cancers are on the rise.

The failure of the public health care system is contributing to the continuing tragedy. With no research, long-term monitoring, or established treatment protocols, doctors treat only superficial symptoms. Indiscriminate use of steroids, antibiotics, and psychotropic drugs is compounding the damage caused by the gas exposure. On top of that, patients have to deal with a corrupt and insensitive staff at the overcrowded, under-equipped, and unsanitary hospitals. Not surprisingly, despite the expenditure of millions of rupees, the health of the survivors and their children continues to deteriorate.

In this situation of despair, the Sambhavna clinic creates possibilities by generating compassion. Established in 1996, the clinic offers free medical care and rehabilitation to the gas?affected. Doctors trained in western as well as traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, yoga therapists, and psychiatrists work together to design customized treatment regimens for each individual. Community health workers follow up with patients, spread awareness, and help women break taboos of talking about gynecological problems.

The Documentation Center is a repository of medical data meticulously collected as a part of the clinic's pioneering "Verbal Autopsy" program. Studies done by the researchers at the clinic are published in international journals, including the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

The integrative philosophy of Sambhavna is reflected in the architecture of the building. Its double-skinned walls conserve energy, large windows and skylights provide natural light, rainwater is harvested for washing, a garden of medicinal plants is irrigated with naturally treated waste water, and solar panels generate 10 kilowatts of electricity.

People matter at Sambhavna, and barriers of orthodoxy do not stand in the way. The clinic administration eschews formal hierarchy, and all decisions are made by consensus. A network of grassroots groups and ordinary people work through the Bhopal Medical Appeal to raise money for Sambhavna. The BMA is the main "sponsor" of FC United of Manchester UK, the breakaway fan-owned soccer club started by Manchester United fans fed up with the commercialization of the club by its new American owner. Turning conventional wisdom on its head, instead of asking a sponsorship fee, the club raises money for the clinic. Powered by the support from Bhopalis, the team won its division in the very first year!

With unique partnerships like this, the clinic has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and healed more than 10,000 people. Most importantly, Sambhavna has shown that, even in the bleakest of situations, through creative and collective intervention, it is possible to generate hope.


Somnath Baidya Roy, sbaidyaroy@gmail.com, teaches at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and serves on the advisory board of Students for Bhopal. More on Bhopal is at: www.bhopal.net, www.bhopal.org, and www.studentsforbhopal.org.

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