The tragedy claimed the lives of at least 3,700 people, and more than half a million more were exposed to the poisonous gases that leaked from the chemical factory.
Many suffered temporary blindness and serious eye conditions or were left permanently blind as a result of the gas leak. At the time of the disaster I was a teenager, and I clearly remember those harrowing images emerging from Bhopal.
Preparing for this trip I learned that Sightsavers, then known as the Royal Commonwealth Society for Blind (RCSB), was the first relief agency to arrive in the city.
A UK disaster appeal was launched by RCSB to fund the construction of a new eye hospital and within days £420,000 had been raised – an incredible response given the British public was already donating millions to the Ethiopian famine. Following the tragedy, Sightsavers immediately scaled up its work in Bhopal.
And so, 30 years on, I found myself in Bhopal. Memories of my India backpacking days came flooding back as we headed out into the Indian traffic and chaos of Bhopali daily life. In sharp contrast to those awful 1984 Orwellian newsreel images, we had arrived, full throttle, in a city resplendent with colour, noise, sights and smells. It was glorious and thrilling – pure unadulterated, unapologetic, technicolour largesse.
As we drove past the most beautiful blue lake (Bhopal is known as the ‘City of Lakes’) I was struck by the greenery. I didn’t expect this. And what a difference to the dense Delhi smog we had flown into 24 hours earlier.
Today, the Bhopal slum population is close to 650,000 (according to the 2011 census), almost 36 per cent of the city’s total population. There are approximately 380 slums, a figure that is growing daily as more and more rural workers head into the city in search of employment.
All of our Bhopal programmes work in the local slum communities to improve access to affordable eye care treatment.
We travelled into the heart of the old town, zigzagging our way through a maze of streets until we reached the Chandbad Vision Centre, one of six static primary vision centres established as part of Sightsavers’ urban eye health programme.
Each centre serves 30 to 50 slums (roughly 30,000 to 50,000 people) and is managed by a team of trained ophthalmic technicians. Given its proximity to the Union Carbide factory, the Chandbad area is home to many people with eyesight issues.
It’s a slick operation: patients are screened, their vision is tested and glasses are dispensed. Reading glasses can be handed out straight away, while prescription glasses for more complex eye conditions take about a week to arrive.
People on low incomes receive free treatment and glasses; patients with more complicated cases, such as glaucoma or cataracts, are referred to Sightsavers’ partner, the Sewa Sadan Eye Hospital, for further tests and surgery.
Of course, these six vision centres simply can’t cater for everyone who needs our help, which is why community-based outreach camps are integral to our urban eye care programmes. We work closely with local health care and community workers, who raise awareness about eye health and eye care services in their communities, and encourage patients to attend the camps, vision centres or hospitals.
Camps are run four or five times a week, with a fully equipped mobile ophthalmic clinic taking eye care services directly to the slums. Up to 100 patients can be screened, treated and, if necessary, referred for more complex treatment.
Those needing cataract surgery are taken to the Sewa Sadan Hospital on the same day. Transportation, surgery, medication, accommodation and food are all provided, free of charge.
During our trip there was also an opportunity to hear more about Sightsavers’ inclusive eye health initiative, part of the urban eye health programme in Bhopal. The pilot is improving access to eye health for people with disabilities, women and marginalised groups (such as people with HIV/AIDs, sex workers and the transgender community).
We visited a targeted screening at a local missionary centre for women with disabilities and mental health issues. The ophthalmic team were fantastic, interacting with the women with dignity, respect and patience.
It was clear that these women would not have been able to attend a vision centre or regular screening camp without assistance, so coming to their home was the most practical, sensitive and unobtrusive way to reach them.