Last Monday morning, I awoke in my guest room at Sambhavna Clinic after a long night of record-breaking monsoon rain to the sound of voices in the distance shouting. I was sure it must have had something to do with the rains, so I looked out and saw that behind the Sambhavna grounds a river was raging in spate where none had existed the night before. The flash flood lasted for about eight hours. I saw all kinds of things floating in the water – plenty of plastic bags, but also barrels, chairs, plant life, and unidentified debris.
Today, I saw where all of that water and flotsam ended up – in the ironically-named neighborhood of Sunder Nagar. The name roughly means “beautiful place.” There is nothing beautiful about the pools of stagnant water and mud throughout the neighborhood today. Sambhavna staff and volunteers took action today after conducting a survey of flood-affected neighborhoods this week. The water washed away the homes, food supplies, and household belongings of people already suffering the after-effects of exposure to Union Carbide’s methylisocyanate gas in 1984 and decades of neglect in the communities they have built themselves with the scarce resources and materials available to them. In the meantime, the flood delivered water-borne and mosquito-borne diseases to the doorsteps of the residents of Sunder Nagar.
I was privileged to accompany the Sambhavna staff on their visit to Sunder Nagar today to distribute free medications to the residents there suffering from those diseases. As soon as we arrived, word spread of the arrival of help and residents flocked to the distribution point. The staff members, Tasneem and Jyoti, carefully recorded the names and symptoms of each person they spoke with as well as the medications distributed. Meanwhile, Anand went door-to-door to distribute a 4-day supply of water purifyng tablets to the householders.
I recorded the scene of terrible adversity that the already-afflicted people of Sunder Nagar face in the wake of the flood. Several people I spoke with said that no local officials had yet surveyed their houses for damages, let alone distribute assistance. When I asked one man who has helped them, he responded, “Only Allah.” The flood deposited a thick layer of mud and garbage throughout the neighborhood, including the interior of the houses. Those homes nearest the small creek that runs alongside the neighborhood suffered the most damage. Many of these homes consist of one solid room of brick and concrete and adjoining rooms built of whatever material is available.
In this neighborhood, the available building material appeared to be two-foot square metal vents, wooden poles, and blue plastic sheeting. Those makeshift rooms were mostly washed away.
The man in one photograph wearing a turban told me how his chickens literally flew the coop to escape the floodwaters.
The chickens were his livelihood as he planned to sell them in the market. Other people lost goats. In many houses, I saw grains drying on the ground that had been spoiled by the waters.
As I stood surveying the muck that the residents must wade through just to reach their front doors, I realized that there were indeed some things about Sunder Nagar that remain beautiful. The rains did not wash away Bhopali hospitality. One man whose meager existence was made worse by the flood invited me repeatedly inside for some tea. In many houses where I was invited to take pictures, people offered me water to drink. In many of the pictures that I took, I found people smiling amid the devastation in the photographs, as happy as ever to greet a foreign visitor.
Most compelling, however, were the young men who quickly came over to us when we arrived. At first, like many idle young men, they engaged in typical male joking and posturing for the attention of my camera. After a short while, though, they had assumed responsibilities for helping Anand on his door-to-door delivery of water purifying tablets and one-page sheets of health information. Soon, they were also helping to carry the bags of medications for us and leading us safely through nearly impassable alleys filled with muck and sludge. After having joked with me at the start, one young man told me a few times that he hoped he wasn’t being a bother to me. At the end of the afternoon, they came back to Sambhavna Clinic where they joined our meeting in order to learn more about volunteering for the Clinic in their own neighborhood.
Treated with dignity and realizing the opportunity to do something meaningful for their community, they were rapidly transformed into health education volunteers under Anand’s guidance.
Making a donation to help the flood relief work
Donations can be made online to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which funds the work of the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, by clicking here now.
Please note, the Bhopal Medical Appeal is a project of the Pesticide Action Network, UK, and so the receipt on your credit card statement will say PESTICIDE ACTION NETWORK.