Behind the Banners:
Sambhavna gets ready to welcome the Lapierres

25-27th January 2001
By Poornima V
(Sambhavna's Documentation Centre Librarian)


Gynaecology at Sambhavna
The Sambhavna Clinic opened its doors to survivors of the Union Carbide gas disaster in September 1996. It soon became apparent that specialised gynaecological care was needed for the women and girls who had survived the gas. The Sambhavna Gynaecology Clinic was later established to provide safe, simple, effective and inexpensive care. It also runs women's health education programmes in the affected communities and monitors the alarming rise in cervical cancer over recent years.

The long awaited inauguration of the gynaecology clinic had been provisionally planned for January. The question was who would inaugurate the gynaecology clinic? The obvious choice was Mr Dominique Lapierre, whose City of Joy Foundation had been funding the gynaecology programme at Sambhavna since its inception in March 1999.

Dominique Lapierre is author and co-author of some of the most widely acclaimed international bestsellers of our time: Is Paris Burning, O Jerusalem, City of Joy and Freedom at Midnight. For the last 20 years he has been involved in humanitarian work in India and first visited Bhopal in 1997 to research his latest book, It was five past midnight in Bhopal, co-authored with his nephew, Javier Moro. Publicity for the book, fundraising for survivors and keeping the Bhopal issue alive were on the agenda this time, as well as introducing first-timers to a city that he had 'fallen in love with'. He was anxious that Bhopal should be depicted as much more than a city of suffering and spoke often during his visit of Bhopal's rich cultural heritage, beautiful palaces and the great friends he had made on previous visits.

Dominique was accompanied by his wife, also called Dominique, who is equally active in the City of Joy Foundation projects. Along with them came the representatives from many of the most widely selling newpapers and magazines in Europe as well as three television crews. It was to be three days of intense media interest that Sambhavna patients, friends and staff had not experienced before and will never forget.

Preparations begin
Sambhavna had started preparing for the visit of the Lapierres and their media friends several weeks before. By Dominique's own insistence, Sambhavna staff had squeezed as much as possible into their three day schedule, also allowing time for engagements organised by others in the city. The group were to visit a bewildering combination of glittering dinner functions, severely gas affected communities, survivors organisations' meetings and of course Sambhavna Clinic.

For Sambhavna staff the focus was on four main events: the reception at the station, the welcome and announcement of Dominique's visit at the Minto Hall, the inauguration of the gynaecology clinic and the group visit to two of the most severely affected communities. Though Sambhavna had started preparations immediately after the 16th anniversary, the real buzz started around the 20th January - this was the day when everyone took on their own individual responsibilities for the smooth running of the programmes, in every capacity, from making tea to booking the marquee that would transform Sambhavna for a day.

Monday, 22nd January
A very hectic day for everyone in the clinic. Staff were busy doing their usual jobs as well as preparing for the visit: some were finalising the wording for the Hindi and English banners, some were preparing reports of their activities, some were writing their speeches and others were cleaning their rooms and work areas. The gynaecology clinic inauguration invitation cards were ready and the staff were allotted different areas of Bhopal to deliver to. The health workers were busy visiting Sambhavna patients in their communities who were making their own arrangements for Dominique's visit.

Wednesday, 24th January
The last day of preparations - everyone was busy, excitable and trying to finish off. Nearly all the inauguration invitations had been distributed and almost all the necessary arrangements had been made. However, one issue remained unsolved and that was the final 'yes' to using the Minto Hall (the old Legislative Assembly Hall in Bhopal) for the welcome programme of Mr Domininique Lapierre. Biju, the clinic pancha karma chikitsa and massage therapist was constantly meeting government officials and buraeucrats to gain permission but had been passed from one to the other and nothing had been confirmed. In our afternoon staff meeting it was decided that a press statement stating the change of venue would be released if nothing was finalised by 5pm. Everyone was tense. Biju and Sathyu, our Managing Trustee, were in contact on a borrowed mobile phone. Finally the phone rang at exactly 5pm. Permission had not been granted. Sathyu demanded this in writing from the officials but eventually Biju confirmed that everything was settled and that hire of the Minto Hall had been granted.

Thursday, 25th January
All the clinic members reached the clinic before 9am ready to tie up any loose ends. Another hitch - part of the press pack wasn't ready - it was still being collated and bound at the printers. Poornima and Sushmita rushed over to the other side of town hoping that they would be ready by the time they arrived. They didn't have long to wait but were still in a big hurry to get back. Another hitch - they collided with a jeep on the way back on the bridge that divides the Upper and Lower lakes. Thankfully they weren't hurt but the bike took a bit of a beating.

Dominique and Dominique's arrival
1.45pm: the Shatabdi Express from Delhi pulled into Bhopal station - 25 minutes early! The band weren't ready. Not only that but the first class carriages that are normally at the front of the train were today at the back. There was then a mad rush from one end of platform one to the other as the band, survivors' organisation representatives, people who Dominique and Zavier had based their characters on, clinic staff, assembled local media and friends and supporters ran as fast as they could from one end to the other. Dominique Lapierre and his friends greeted everyone waiting (and panting) with big smiles and they in turn were welcomed with garlands and banners, oblivious to the blind panic created by the train unusually running well ahead of schedule!

Dominique and Dominique made their way to the station memorial and paid homage to the railway employees who died on the night of the gas tragedy. Mr Lapierre also spoke beiefly about his reasons for the visit and garlanded the memorial itself. The group then moved on to Neelam Park to meet the Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal - a survivors' organisation that pays special attention to the elderly, widows, orphans and others dependent on social security - and Sambhavna staff made their way to the Minto Hall to make the final arrangements for the official welcome.

5pm: Dominique and friends arrived at the Minto Hall. Chandana Chakrabarti, one of Sambhavna's Trustees and Dr Deshpande, our Ayurvedic doctor, anchored the programme. Sambhavna Trust's Chairman, Dr Bhargava welcomed everyone followed by a rousing speech by Dominique himself. The programme concluded on a musical note, by Ustad Abdul Latif Khan, Bhopal's world class maestro sarangi player.

Friday, 26th January
Everyone reached the clinic early again. We decorated the doorways and main hall with fresh flowers and garlands. The gynaecology clinic plaque positioned in the main waiting area was covered with hanging garlands to be pulled aside for the official inauguration. The gynaecology clinic room itself had been transformed with streamers and Divali-style decorations.

Posters highlighting the damage done to gas affected women in particular were put up and seating arrangements were being made as the marquee was being constructed in the street outside. 2.30pm: Dominique and his party arrive to a great welcome by the guests of Sambhavna and of course Sambhavna staff and Trustees. There were brief speeches by Dr. Asha Jain, Aziza, Poornima and gas affected women regarding their experiences of the health effects of the gas. Several people from the nearby severely affected communities attended the programme, with some of the patient leaders (who work to improve the health of their community with Sambhavna healthworkers) helping to distribute the tea and snacks that were served to everyone throughout the afternoon.

Saturday, 27th January
Dominique and Dominique and friends visited Atal Ayub Nagar, a settlement that runs along the eastern wall of the factory where around 5000 people have no choice but to drink, cook and wash with water laced with around nine different toxic chemicals, two of which are known carcinogens.

Ramesh, Diwakar and Ritesh (three of Sambhavna's community healthworkers) had made all the visiting arrangements with the community patient leaders. Mr Lapierre was welcomed with garlands and 'dhols'. Patient leaders explained their community's problems while Mr Lapierre sampled the foul-smelling water for himself. He was quite horrified by the look, taste and smell - the water had a rainbow film of oil sitting on the surface and stung his lips immediately. He later promised to build a community clinic with a doctor and two healthworkers that would operate under the Sambhavna Trust with the initiative, planning and staff to come from the community itself.

At times the three day official visit was quite overwhelming as well as exhausting. However, a deep sense of pride in what Sambhavna has achieved so far and having the opportunity to welcome and honour such genuine, compassionate people as the Lapierres was paramount. Sambhavna has grown, changed and improved considerably over the years and now, with the Lapierre's generosity, has the ability to screen, diagnose and treat women for cervical cancer - a procedure that isn't available anywhere else in Bhopal.

The clinic staff learnt alot from the Lapierres' visit as it once again threw up very valid questions and discussion as to how Sambhavna and survivors of the Bhopal gas leak deal with the media, and how to keep the issue alive and new without using the same stories and the same people who have already suffered so much over the last 17 years and known few days respite from their medical, social and economic problems.