Satinath Sarangi and Rahul Bose narrate their inspiring life stories for Tehelka’s Power of Inspiration lecture series held at Park Institutions
On a cold December night in 1984, 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanide leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide factory into the homes of sleeping Bhopalis. Gas filled people’s lungs and over 8,000 choked to death.
“Half a million survivors later wished they had too,” says metallurgical engineer Dr. Satinath Sarangi. He went on to found the Bhopal Group for Information and Action which has represented victims’ voices for the last 28 years. Satinath was in the city to share his story with 800 students from 10 colleges gathered at the Coimbatore edition of Tehelka’s The Power of Inspiration series conducted in 25 cities.
Against a blood-red backdrop of Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel, Satinath spoke of what it took to run a peoples’ movement.
“The Bhopal gas tragedy was a disaster waiting to happen. Untested factory designs had been implemented to cut costs; unduly large quantities of methyl isocyanide were stored; safety valves were malfunctioning; sodium hydroxide to neutralise leaked gases was insufficient; water jets weren’t powerful enough...the list goes on,” he says.
But even in his story of more struggles than conquests, Satinath focuses on the successes his organisation has made. The biggest among them was getting Dow Chemicals’ logo removed at the Olympics. “It’s satisfying when you beat against forces larger than you, such as Governments and powerful corporations, and at least make a dent.”
Satinath’s fight has also been against chemical wastes dumped by Union Carbide from 1969 to 1984, the toxins from which have contaminated Bhopal’s groundwater and led to poisoning in adults and congenital deformities in children.
To right this, Satinath and his team began Sambhavana, an organisation that focuses on community health. It is the day-to-day breakthroughs seen in individuals here that enable Satinath to say of his time, “I’ve lived a more exciting and purposeful life because I could use the training, contacts and talents I had as an engineer to serve something fundamental to society.”
Following Satinath’s powerful story, actor Rahul Bose took the stage to engage the audience on the ‘Politics of Fear’. “What do you feel when you see injustice around you?” he asked. “‘Pain’, ‘Anger’, ‘Helplessness’, ‘Hating it but getting used to it’, ‘Frustration’, ‘Rebellion’, ‘Fear’” came shouted answers. “I’ve felt all of these too,” said Rahul, “Once before a television screen in 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished, and again in 2002, during the Gujarat riots. In 1992, I moved from social consciousness to social awareness and in 2002, from awareness to action.”
On the night of the 2004 tsunami, Rahul watched hundreds of NGOs flock to Cuddalore and Nagapattinam but very few to the Andamans. Ninety-four phone calls later, he was on a flight to the Andamans as a representative of 20 NGOs willing to assist victims there once he returned with a report of ground realities.
“You have to engage with the world around you. Read multiple perspectives written on every issue, hold your observations against your personal moral compass and you’ll reach a stand on unshakeable ground. It’s the only way to push oneself out of the ‘It’s not my problem’ zone,” he says.
This attitude of care is one that needs to be inculcated from childhood says Rahul. “We’ve been trained to always look out for ourselves and hence ceased to be a compassion nation.”
The evening concluded with Rahul narrating the story of a group of children in Kolkata that got together to restore an old-age home. “When kids figure out that working together for a common cause can make a difference, they’ll unleash as tigers in adulthood.”