Thursday, March 26, 2009

No More Bhopals - Part II

I have spent the past few days developing instructional materials to encourage teachers in the US to teach their students about the Bhopal tragedy as a part of Social studies curriculum. While browsing other examples of social justice teaching materials, I came across an awesome video and accompanying site, “The Story of Stuff”. This video conveys more concepts and information about our global economic system than I learned in 6 years at university – and it is aimed at middle and high school students! It is simple without being patronizing, and clear but full of weighty ideas. It manages to connect the dots between the major trends of the last century – environmental degradation, third world poverty, the growth of corporate power, pollution and the resulting health problems, over-consumption in the developed world, and the explosion of marketing and advertising in the last half-century – and explains how these trends are all part of the same global system, the system that makes it possible for us to have so much stuff.

Watching this simple little video affected me in two ways. First, I realized that the Bhopal tragedy can not be taught without the proper context. Everyone in the world should be aware of the specific events that took place in 1984 and the tragic aftermath, but Bhopal must be viewed as one of many disastrous consequences of the global economic and political system, not as a isolated industrial accident. If studied in isolation, it is easy to conclude that improved safety standards can prevent a future accident – case closed. When studied in the appropriate context, it is impossible to ignore the larger problems that led to the disaster and its tragic aftermath. Bhopal can be used to illustrate so many abstract academic concepts;

Why was a US factory put into a poor section of an Indian city? Globalization and the trans-national movement of capital (economics), a growing market for synthetic fertilizers (agriculture), and environmental discrimination against the poor (sociology). What happened on the night of Dec 3rd, 1984? Lax safety restrictions due to poor management (organizational behavior), poisonous gas killed thousands with no emergency assistance (public heath). Why have the victims not received adequate compensation? No international body to penalize trans-national corporations (international relations), poor corporate ethics (economics), and prejudice against the poor and minority groups (sociology).

The “Story of Stuff” had another affect on me; it increased my desire to become an educator. I am passionate about social, environmental, and economic issues (an obvious fact considering my recent postings), so having a captive audience to educate about these issues is the perfect career move. Obviously I'll have to teach more than social justice issues, but a good teacher has a responsibility to teach his or her conscience. I can see myself becoming a teacher because informing the next generation about the world's problems is vitally important – but, of course, having summers off helps too.

The original intent of this post was to inform you how to help the Bhopalis cause. There are some specific things that can help, but I really believe that educating yourself about the tragedy, especially its economic context, is the most important way to express solidarity with the victims. Of course, donations to Sambhavna Clinic and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal are always appreciated. There is also a really awesome fundraiser, “Cycle Bhopal” which is a week-long bike ride across central India in November. Since most people can't afford this, the ICJB lists 20 Things You Can Do to Make Dow Responsible. On the 25th anniversary (December 3rd, 2009) there will be many opportunities to get involved and, hopefully, a lot of media focus on the issue.

Honestly, I don't expect you to picket a Dow office or plan a fundraiser, but I do hope that information about the Bhopal tragedy has led to increased awareness of the fundamental flaws of our global economic system; we need to rethink a system which allowed an organization to kill thousands of innocent people, poison thousands more, avoid the legal and financial consequences, and still operate successfully. Many of the Bhopal victims are illiterate, uneducated, and isolated from the world, but they have an sophisticated and painful understanding of the global economic system; it controls nearly every aspect of their lives but is not willfully blind to their needs, demands, or wishes.

* * * * *

I have reached the half-way point of my Bhopal stay. In about three weeks I'll be in the only other country as overwhelmingly large and complex as India - The People's Republic of China. I'll have to figure out how to get around all the censors and walls that the Chinese government uses to prevent people from putting controversial political messages on the internet. Don't be suprised if my posts from China are a little more tempered and mild - maybe even avoiding politics all together. I'm sure it is irrational to fear becoming a political prisoner, but China doesn't have the best human rights record and I don't have the best record of keeping my mouth shut. But in meantime I'll enjoy the relative freedom of India.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"No More Bhopals" Part 1

Bhopal, with its crowded streets and choking pollution, may never feel like home, but I'm finally comfortable and settled here at Sambhavna Clinic. I now have a meaningful (although sometimes monotonous) project and I have become acquainted with the local microbiological fauna (my digestive system flushed itself clean thanks to some unknown bacteria in the water). So I’ve been enjoying the wireless internet, delicious Indian meals, and being a part of one of India's most innovative and progressive organizations.

It isn't hard to be comfortable here since they treat volunteers so well - I hardly have a reason to leave the property except to remind myself how lucky I am to be staying in this oasis of calm in a sea of chaos. Sambhavna is located in an impoverished, chaotic area for a reason – it is only meters away from the site of the Union Carbide pesticide factory which caused the world's worst industrial disaster 25 years ago. Union Carbide chose the slums of Bhopal because there was plenty of cheap labor, the property was inexpensive, and the disenfranchised neighborhood was unlikely to protest when the plant emitted foul gases or toxic materials.

My project is to digitize Sambhavna's comprehensive collection of news clippings concerning the gas tragedy. Every article ever written that is related to the gas leak and its aftermath is housed in the clinic's library. In order to make this information more durable and accessible to people doing research I am reading, scanning, and categorizing each article in chronological order. At times the project is really engaging – I get an in-depth look at the history of the tragedy and the legal battle that follows – but it can also be monotonous – scan, save, scan, save, scan, save. I'm just happy to be contributing in a measurable way. Once the project is complete, researchers and lawyers will be able to make use of the database of articles without having to come to Bhopal, they can just download pop in a disc.

Reading the daily reports describing the suffering of thousands of people and Union Carbide's shameless evasion of all responsibility has forced me to think about three questions:

  1. How was it that a corporation killed thousands of people due to gross negligence and faced almost no consequences?

  2. What should have been done after the disaster to give justice to the victims?

  3. What needs to change in order to be sure that something of this nature never happens again?

How was it that a corporation killed thousands of people due to gross negligence and faced almost no consequences?

First it is absolutely necessary to recognize a fundamental fact about corporations – they have no souls, no conscience, and no ethical responsibility towards anyone or anything. Corporations have only one motive – profit. This isn't some left-wing, anti-capitalist view, it is economic fact. CEOs and corporate boards are bound by law (a Supreme Court decision, no less), to act in the interest of the corporation's bottom line. If a CEO makes a decision based on ethics that negatively affects the bottom line, he can legally be sued by the shareholders. There is no room for good-deeds, except those trifles which are necessary for good PR. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it is the result of the current legal and economic framework within which corporations operate.

Following the disaster the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, did his duty - evade responsibility and minimize costs. Luckily for UC and Mr. Anderson, the global economic/political system is stacked in favor of trans-national corporations. Union Carbide simply left India. There is no global political structure which has the ability to control trans-national corporations, despite the fact that they exert an enormous amount of influence everywhere in the world. It is like the old Wild West where a bandit could simply cross state lines to evade justice.

Despite UC's best efforts, they were eventually pressured to pay a settlement to the victims. How much for a permanently injured victim? $500. How much for the family of someone who was killed? $1000. How is it possible that Union Carbide could get away with paying such a laughably small amount? Simple, all the victims are poor and brown. Indian lives are worth less than American or European lives. The settlement would have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, per person in the US, but as a UC official put it, “500 dollars is plenty much for an Indian”. The fact that he said this during my lifetime gives me chills. After the settlement was announced, the price of UC stock instantly rose. Investors knew they got off cheap. In an audacious speech meant to reassure stock holders, Warren Anderson stated that the entire “Bhopal incident” cost the company 43 cents per share. $0.43 PER SHARE! What does message does that send to other companies with dangerous operations in the developing world? Get in, make some money, and buy your way out of any messy situation for mere pennies.

So, to get back to the original question, UC was able to avoid any substantial consequence because it did its best to avoid responsibility and there was no legal body which could force it do to otherwise. When it did dispense money, it calculated the health and life of an Indian the way tourists haggle for souvenirs – things are cheap here, including the people’s health and lives. Sickening.

What should have been done after the disaster to give justice to the victims?

It is not only the amount of compensation from UC that is so insulting to the victims in Bhopal, it is the fact that a billion dollar corporation can destroy a community and environment, make a paltry one-time payment, and then be off the hook. Handing victims a large check does help to make their life easy for the short term, but that should not be the end of it. Union Carbide should be responsible for cleaning up its mess and setting up a healthcare and economic stimulus infrastructure to lessen the suffering caused by its negligence. It should also be forced to undergo a thorough review of all of its facilities to ensure that the kinds of safety lapses that caused the Bhopal catastrophe won’t happen again. These steps would begin to give justice to a people who were first exploited for cheap labor and then poisoned and killed by a multi-billion dollar corporation.

The Indian government has been attempting to extradite Warren Anderson for the past 24 years. There is a warrant for his arrest, and if it is actually served, he will be tried for culpable homicide in an Indian court. I really don’t know how to feel about extraditing an octogenarian to India to be tried for murder. Realistically, as CEO of such a large corporation, he did not know that the Bhopal plant violated nearly every safety measure and regulation in the chemical industry, but maybe he should have. Maybe if he is tried and convicted and imprisoned future CEOs will ensure that such disasters don’t happen, since they could be held responsible. Someone has to be held responsible. Anderson surely was given credit for UC’s financial success while he was CEO, so why should he not be held responsible for its mistakes? Thousands of innocent people are currently being poisoned by contaminated water. Thousands more are chronically ill due to the disaster. Thousands more lost family and friends in one horrific night. These people deserve justice, so who am I to tell them that it would be unfair to interrupt a wealthy old man’s retirement?

What needs to change in order to be sure that something of this nature never happens again?

Everything. The entire, supposedly inviolable, idea that a corporation has all the rights of a person without the accompanying ethical and moral responsibilities must change. Trans-national corporations must be reigned in by an effective international body that is able to enforce safety standards, environmental regulations, and human rights laws. The age of outsourcing our dirty work, which damages the environment and health of employees, to poor countries must come to an end. If a job is unsafe for an American, it is unsafe for an Indian, a Malaysian, or a Mexican.

We can not continue to exploit the poor in order to have “Everyday Low Prices”. Our entire economic system, which is pathologically driven by wealth production, must begin to factor in the costs to human beings around the world. It may mean that Americans will have to pay a little more for the endless array of unnecessary consumer goods at their local Wal-Mart (actually in my perfect world Wal-Mart would be broken up since it has a veritable monopoly in many locales). Globalization works great for the top 1% of the world’s population, and for the rest it means long working hours, miserable manufacturing jobs, and being exposed to products and lifestyles which they will never be able to afford. It is time to include the rest of the world into our decision making. If we don’t, we should no longer be considered the “Home of the Brave”.

Good News! People awareness is growing and you can help!

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is an acute symptom of a larger global malady. It is a case study in globalization’s discontents. Never before have the winners and losers in the trans-national-capital-game been so clearly demarcated. Thankfully there are brave and persistent people in Bhopal who are not looking at the tragedy as an event which occurred in the past, but rather as a part of an ongoing battle against injustice on a global scale. Check out the video below if you want to get really riled up (I got goose-bumps).

It is an example of how the tragedy has resulted in a city full of motivated and talented activists who are keenly aware of their place in the global socio-economic scheme. It is unfortunate that it took the world’s worst industrial disaster to wake up a community to the shenanigans of global corporations, but now they are unstoppable.

Part 2 will be about ways that Americans can help the fight for justice in Bhopal and to ensure that there will be “No More Bhopals”.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Holi Cow!

If I've learned only one thing during this year of traveling it is how to quickly adapt to new situations. I arrived at Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal on Tuesday evening and woke up Wednesday morning to my fellow volunteers sneaking into my room to cover me with colored powder. This wasn't a new volunteer initiation or a hazing ritual, it was the morning of the Holi Festival, possibly the most colorful festival in the world. Literally.

The clinic was closed for the holiday, so we left early to go to a party nearby; more colored powder, lots of music, and a potent beverage brewed with bhang and milk. By early afternoon everyone was exhausted and brightly hued (inside and out), so we went to the local samosa stand before we cleaned up and relaxed on the clinic roof for the rest of the day. All in all, not a bad first day on the job. Now it is time to get serious and determine how I will spend the next four weeks. I know that I will be helping in the garden in which all the clinic's medicine is grown, and I'll also probably be helping to digitize the clinic's extensive library about the Union Carbide gas leak.

For those of you who are not aware of the Bhopal gas tragedy, here is a quick synopsis. At midnight on December 2nd, 1984, a chemical plant operated by Union Carbide (Now owned by Dow Chemicals) leaked 27 tons of poisonous gas, killing thousands instantly and leaving tens of thousands more injured. Twenty-five years after the disaster, victims are still suffering from the effects of the gas and the soil and water of Bhopal are still contaminated. The company refuses to pay for the clean-up or medical expenses related to the disaster, but there is still a case in court which could give additional compensation to the victims.

This isn't just another case of corporate irresponsibility, it is the largest chemical disaster in history - one which continues to harm innocent people. The Sambhavna Clinic was set up for two main goals; to help the victims through the use of alternative medicine and to serve as a center for research regarding the gas disaster. I'm only beginning to understand how the clinic functions and what my role can be, I just hope that I can find a meaningful way to contribute and earn my free meals!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sweating the Big Stuff, Enjoying the Small Stuff

First, an apology for the last post. A travel blog to keep family and friends up on my whereabouts and activities is probably not an appropriate venue for a controversial and personal political rant, so now back to our regularly scheduled programming from Sadhana Village . . .

As I expected, I learned more from the people at Sadhana Village than I could have possibly hoped to teach them. The way of life in this enclave of acceptance and good-will has made an indelible impact on how I envision my future career and lifestyle. It really is the little things that make all the difference. Sadhana Village does not aim to change the perception of people with disabilities in India, there are no plans to expand globally or even regionally – Sadhana is content to remain a quiet community in a remote location. This does not mean that Sadhana isn't making a difference, only that the organization is doing it individual by individual. People come first at Sadhana, not publicity, recognition, or finances.

When confronted by a problem, such as how to help people with developmental disabilities live a happy and healthy life, I too often focus on the macro-scale, societal level solutions, but the best place to start is by focusing on individual people. Finally the classic “top-down versus bottom-up” distinction makes sense to me. Any solution that is formulated by bureaucrats (as well-meaning and educated they may be) at the top of an organization or government is unlikely to be effective at the local level because the it will not be ideally suited for every environment and group. A solution that is formulated by the people working at the grass-roots level will be much more effective because they are more knowledgeable about the local environment's resources and specific individual's needs. Furthermore, they are working with people, not abstractions, and are immediately aware if an aspect of their program is not working. Since it took me two degrees and almost a year abroad to figure that one, I guess I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Although it is not their intention, Sadhana is making a global impact. People from all over the world visit to volunteer or to learn about Sadhana's system so that they can bring it back to their home country and organization. There have been numerous articles published and several new organizations have been spawned using Sadhana as a guide, a perfect example of “bottom-up” or horizontal movement of an innovative idea.

When I arrived here I immediately wanted to work on towards increasing Sadhana's organizational capacity through grant-writing, staff training, fund-raising, technology acquisition, etc. I think I'm attracted to this type of project because I can walk away in a month with a quantifiable result, which may or may not become a line on my resume. I quickly learned that this is not my role at Sadhana. I was welcomed, fed and housed so that I could enrich the lives of the residents. After this realization, that I'm here to work with the residents rather than the organization, I experienced an unexpected wave of relief. Instead of worrying about funding organizations and grant deadlines, I could slow down and get to know the unique and interesting residents. I helped Sarang learn how to use my digital camera, upload photos to his personal computer, and put them into a presentation that he will show to all guests and new volunteers as the official welcoming committee of Sadhana. I worked with Yetin to practice his English writing and eventually compose a short biography which he read at a community meeting. I had long and interesting discussions with Vankadesh, who is a linguistic savant and speaks seven languages, about geography and linguistic anthropology. These may be small contributions, but I left Sadhana knowing that my presence made a few people happy; something I couldn't be sure of if I had spent my time editing grant applications.

These experiences working with individual residents are what have made an indelible impact on how I envision my future. I still vacillate between the macro and micro ways of helping; a career in the United Nations or as a social worker, making public policy or teaching children, international NGO or local non-profit. While these alternatives are not mutually exclusive, they represent two different ways of doing good in the world. I am coming to realize that both are equally important means to an end, but that I must first ground myself in reality by working at the micro/individual level before I can be focused or effective on a larger scale. Getting your hands dirty, sometimes literally, working directly with people is the only way to learn how to help. I guess that is why I am on this trip – to figure out what it is I need to learn in order to be useful to those in need. In other words, find a niche for myself.

I don't know if I've found my niche, but everywhere I go I learn something new about what it takes to be helpful and what I should learn to make myself more effective in that role. What have I learned that I need to learn? Here is an abbrieviated list:

1) Language – because not everyone in the world, or even the US, speaks English
2) Language – because you can't get much done without it.
3) Language – because being mono-lingual is seriously not-cool
4) Hard-skills – because just being well-meaning and well educated only goes so far.

As far as the first three are concerned, I am committed to building on my meager Spanish in the next few years to become competent enough to have a casual conversation. The issue of hard-skills is a little more complicated. I have witnessed other volunteers who are useful no matter where they go because of their skill-set. These skills are as diverse as teaching music, massage, construction, yoga instruction, physical therapy, gardening, and teaching art. For example, two occupational therapists just arrived at Sadhana and I am amazed that I have never looked into this profession previously because it is so aligned with my interests and experience; helping people with physical or mental limitations to reach their goals by using their unique skills and interests to overcome environmental obstacles. That is the extent of my knowledge of what an occupational therapist does, I just find it interesting that so many means exist to the same end; helping disadvantaged individuals live a happy and healthy life.

So to get to the point of this post, I still don't know what I want to do with my life, but I know that the best place to find my niche is by working with individuals. As some of you know, Jess and I are returning to the US of A in July/August and will be seeking employment as teachers! Becoming an educator will undoubtedly teach me a great deal and open many doors to other possible careers. Maybe I'll never know what I want to be when I grow up, but at least I'm having fun trying to figure it out.

My next, and final, stop in India is at the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal. I have almost no idea what my role will be, but it is a worthy organization with a good reputation, so I'm looking forward to my time there. Also, I should have regular internet access!!!! Thanks to everyone who has read this far – you are my blog super-stars!