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Insisting on Truth – Bhopal and Beyond

Coined by Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha derives from "satya" meaning "truth" and agraha as "holding firmly to."
Coined by Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha derives from “satya” meaning “truth” and agraha as “holding firmly to.”

“I cut all the pictures out of my textbook…they were so…”

My friend Anu doesn’t finish her thought. She doesn’t have to. I know the words that she can use, but they will never fully articulate the horrific, gruesome, tragic images depicting the event of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster, considered by many to be the world’s worst industrial disaster.

I too grew up with images of death by gas. The mass burial pits. The stacks of shoes. Piles of corpses. My eyes attempted to avoid those images in my textbooks, I flipped the pages as quickly as possible.

Haber’s Rule is a formula that measures how long is required for a poisonous gas to have a toxic effect o an organism. It states that C × t = k , where C is the concentration of the gas, t is the amount of time necessary to breathe the gas in order to produce a given toxic effect, and k is a constant — depending on both the gas and the effect.

The rule is named for German chemist Fritz Haber, who received a Nobel Prize for synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen, a process which greatly increased production of chemical fertilizers and feedstocks for animals. With World War I underway, these chemicals were adapted into poisonous gas weaponry. In the 1920s, Haber’s Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry developed an insecticide from cyanide gas, Zyklon A, the patent of which was purchased by the IG Farben corporation. Rebranded as Zyklon B, the chemical was used to exterminate insects on a farm before it was the notorious substance used to exterminate Jews (including Haber’s Jewish relatives) and other “undesirables” in Nazi Germany’s gas chambers.

Stationed in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, the heart of India, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) ran a plant for methyl isocyanate (MIC) production, the intermediate chemical necessary for the American Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) “Sevin” carbaryl-based pesticide.  Tons upon tons of gases leaked from the facilities around midnight of December 2, 1984.  By sunrise, more than 2,000 people were dead. Within two weeks, 8,000 had succumbed, according to one estimate. Over the past 22 years, half a million more are said to have felt the devastating effects of toxic pollution coating the air, soil, waters, walls — and memories.

Indra, a staff member at Navdanya (the Indian-based agricultural activism and educational nonprofit), recently visited Bhopal, where he met a child playing cricket in the abandoned MIC plant. Indra asked the child if he was afraid after being exposed to the chemicals in the building. “MIC is not only in the soil, but it is in our genes. We are safe – they can’t poison us anymore,” the child responded.

A few theories surfaced explaining why the gas leak occurred: negligence in corporate oversight of maintenance or employee sabotage were among them.  But whatever the cause, the disaster underscores the reality that factories housing tons of poisonous chemicals continue to exist. So many people depend on such a facility for their livelihoods. How many of us live alongside these potentially lethal chemicals?

I grew up down the road from The American Paint Chemical Company in Ambler, Pennsylvania. It was one of the first to produce a 2,4-D herbicide, sold as “Weedone.”  The Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical mixed 2,4-D with 2,4,5-T to manufacture millions of gallons of Agent Orange for the U.S. Army to spray on the forests, farmlands, and civilians of Vietnam during America’s war with that country.

Chemical agriculture may have the intent to feed, but at its core, the technology functions by killing. From weeds to insects to fungus, the chemicals exterminate specific undesirables in a given agricultural system to protect the  product.  It is a war with the living environment from the start.

The Poison Cartel of Agriculture. "Are we just units of corporate consumption?" Indra asks us. (Graphic courtesy of Navdanya)
The Poison Cartel of Agriculture.
Are we just units of corporate consumption? (Graphic by Navdanya)

With frustration in her voice, Anu sighs. “All those years in school, they never taught us about why Bhopal happened. And what happened after…that’s what’s most important…so it doesn’t happen again.”

On November 29, we held a People’s Assembly in the dining hall of Navdanya’s Bija Vidyapeeth Biodiversity and Conservation Farm. Among us were citizens from India, France, America, Belgium, Bhutan, Canada, England and Italy. A People’s Assembly is an opportunity for a collective of community members to share knowledge to better understand the nature of an issue and sort out steps to move forward in their respective local communities. Others around the world in lecture halls, living rooms and community spaces did the same to focus on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, stressing an awareness of the corporate systems involved.

Indra presented his version of the Bhopal Disaster. From his bleak and heartfelt account emerged other instances of social and environmental disasters related to chemical facilities in our countries of origin. Indra remarks that “You go numb when you see the full potential of these corporations. They choose different people to kill…but are always killing.”

Indra speaks at the November People’s Assembly. Visit peoplesassembly.net for more recounts and resources.

We discussed ways to become educated consumers, though admitting the difficulties of sorting through all the contrary (and sponsored) information available to us. What to believe? Who to trust? We realized the necessity to break this cycle of consumption, deeming these systems irrelevant by proving our potential as responsible food producers.

At Navdanya, they strongly believe in resisting the corporate control of agriculture that forces farmers into a cycle of chemical reliance.  So many farmers around the world prove day after day that chemical-free farms can nourish communities. Inputs like pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and feedstock are not required for productive outputs. Navdanya trains local farmers and international visitors on organic farming methods and challenges them to experiment with such techniques to see if they work.

In the scope of plant cultivation, chemical farming is a very recent development. Local and indigenous methods of crop-raising offer decades, centuries even, of more tested methods based on wisdom, patience, and profound respect for nature. Navdanya brings awareness to these practices, urging farmers to empower themselves to grow food without developing dependence on chemicals or the corporations that make them. This is Navdanya’s satyagraha.

Satyagraha is the Sanskrit word which translates to “insistence on truth.” Coined by Mahatma Gandhi, the term refers to a form of active nonviolent resistance, arming the individual with the force of morality or soul, rather than brute physical power. Applicable for political conflict or even interpersonal-struggle, satyagraha breathes the spirit of patience, asking each individual to focus on deeply aligning their beliefs with their actions.

What is your satyagraha?

Lauren Ladov is a local food activist and educator. For the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, she is based in India, creating resources and an interactive open-source digital curriculum for teachers and youth around the world to engage in seed saving and diversity education. Participate with Lauren’s project through facebook, instagram, or sign up for a monthly newsletter with lesson plan challenges and materials. 

Comments

  1. Clay Boswell
    New York
    December 5, 2016, 1:06 pm

    “They choose different people to kill…but are always killing.”

    Is that supposed to be an instance of satyagraha? The author says that satyagraha is “insistence on truth,” but there is a distinct difference between truth and sincere belief. I do not doubt that Anu honestly believes chemical companies “choose” to kill people, but that says much less about chemical companies than it does about Anu’s anger and, frankly, blindness, if not quite lack of charity. Yes, easy for me to say in my first-world comfort, but true. “Corporations” don’t choose, the people who work in these corporations do, and they are not murderers. Indeed, I have no doubt they are just as compassionate as the woman who wrote this article, and perhaps more so. I can only wonder what trauma excuses her own failure to recognize their humanity. It’s notable that her discussion of satyagraha in the last paragraph mentions truth only in passing and says nothing about compassion, without which “the spirit of patience” is a little more than fanaticism.