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13 March, 2005:

We were in shock from the moment we entered SIPCOT area…
College volunteers Bhuvana Murli and Lakshmi Venugopal, narrate their recent experience of visiting SIPCOT Cuddalore

Bhuvana narrates…
Bunking college, a bunch of lies to mom. and there I was, on my way to Cuddalore. For a sea loving person that I am, the journey along the coastline was a joy in itself. The articles that we read, the documentaries that we had seen and the first hand accounts by Shweta had made us believe that we knew enough about the problems in Cuddalore. We were in for a shock the moment our auto entered the SIPCOT area. After all, we hadn't known the intensity of the problem all this while! If there exists a word that could describe the stench of the place, I just didn't know it.......

Holding our breaths, we reached the Sangolikuppam village. We were there to be a part of the art workshop for the children of the Government school by Blodsow. As we approached the school with the mental picture of a typical Government school, we were greeted by the bright blooms of a very 'green' and well maintained structure. The children were amazing, giving the circumstances and the surroundings in which they live. They were all bubbly, eager to learn and waiting to exhibit their talents. The kids were too happy to dig into mud and splash it on their charts. Later when Blodsow and the rest of us tried to talk to the kids about industrial pollution, they came out with their own experiences, how their parents have been affected and the time when they went without food for days in a row. We weren't ready for such a matter of fact, plain talk from those young minds. But in a way, it was comforting to know that these kids understood the problem and had a strong hatred for the industries that were playing with their lives. We wound up for the day and the kids would let us go only if we promised to come back the next day.

Travelling back to the town through the same stench, we reached our hotel rooms just in time to crash. When we woke up after about four hours in the evening, we had a horrible headache, a burning sensation down the windpipe and an aching stomach- this was the effect of half-a-day spent in the beautiful but unfortunate village. I was afraid to imagine the health problems that the pollution would have caused in people who lived there permanently.

The next day, we went to the riverbed in the village. We were spellbound by the beauty of the place. Nobody would expect that beautiful river to be polluted with the untreated effluents, acids and other wastes from the industries. But there it was, flowing calm and serene, holding tones of toxic pollutants within, threatening the very lives of the fishermen and anybody else who would dare to touch its waters. When a boatman showed us his hands with the skin and some flesh eaten away by the toxins in the water, we were too horrified to react...the worst part was that he expected the rest of it to be eaten away too, revealing the bones soon! What on the earth has befallen their way? I could think of no logic or reason why the authorities fail to acknowledge the plight of these communities. The villages here are also deprived of drinking water supply with all the ground water being polluted. They've virtually lost everything that would sustain a living- their lands are no more cultivable, their water and air are polluted and there are no fishes in the river. But the fighting spirit keeps them going…

With a heavy heart, we went back to the school to meet the kids. They were taught to sketch with charcoal over the mud background on their charts. Almost every kid drew things that were related to industrial pollution. The teachers of the school are doing a great job, educating these children in the best possible way. Every child plants a sapling and takes care of the plant as it grows. The pride in their faces as they took us around the garden to show their plant that had just flowered, when they sang the songs that they knew, and their dance that they were rehearsing for the annual day can hardly be described. It was their time to 'show off'!

I was talking to the Headmistress of the school, when she said 'these kids used to fight a lot, beat up each other and were very difficult to handle; but the gardening routine has helped hem overcome their violent nature. They now have a sense of responsibility and patience'. The teachers also put in their own money to teach these kids yoga and dance. In all, they have initiated a process that heals the anger in these kids. Kudos to these dedicated people!

When we left the village, we were a little wiser. We silently resolved to go back, to work with those wonderful people and to learn.....

Lakshmi's impressions of SIPCOT Cuddlaore…
One of the smelliest places in Tamil Nadu is how Cuddalore was described in an article I read (by Nity) but I had no idea how smelly it was until I got to breathe in the SIPCOT air!! When the smell ride began, I decided to breathe it all in and feel for myself, how bad it is. As our auto moved further in to the village, the smell, or rather, the smells (every industry had its own characteristic smell) intensified and was unbearable. I was so shocked!!

I looked around and found people there, like any roadside, small shops, cinema theatre etc...And I just could not accept the fact that these people were breathing in the stinking air all day, every day! My shock turned in to anger and my frustration grew as I could not figure out who to be angry with-The industries? The pollution control board? The Government? What? Who? How can these people just live there? I could not take the air for ten minutes, how do they take it for a life time?? I learned from Shweta that these things could not be changed in a jiffy and that many people are trying their best to bring about a change. Also, that she thinks it would take another 2-3 years for any substantial change to happen. It's sad that a problem that's as stark and obvious as this needs such effort and time to be dealt with...

I was still angry and fuming when we reached the school. But awaited me there was a totally different picture! The kids welcomed us with broad smiles and instantly accepted us as a part of the school. They were all ready for the art-workshop with sharpened pencils, scales and rubbers. But Blodsow took them all by surprise when he asked them to leave all the pencils and stuff and led them out to the ground!!

What followed was a very lively interactive session with the kids singing and dancing and clapping and we were all having a blast!! And there, sitting on the ground, they really enjoyed digging in to the mud and doing what ever they felt like with in on the chart paper...

When I got to talk to the kids, I was taken aback by what they had to say..."keerthi's appa went in to the river and got burns all over" "the factories are very bad" "they small very bad" "my dad got hurt fishing in the river and we did not have food that day" "they put acid in to the river" the harsh realities of their daily lives hit me hard and I did not know how to react. I heard a 1st std student, a very cute little girl, say she had frequent head aches and later I learned from a third std student that they all have frequent head aches and cold.

I realised the intensity of the health problems faced by them when, later in the day all of us, drowsy and tired confessed to each other, that our throat was burning, along with head ache, stomach ache etc. we had been in the village for not more than 3 hours and this was the effect.. Imagine spending a life time there...

The next day, we went to the bank of the Uppanar...a beautiful place. If one did not know anything about the place, one could go for a picnic there. The person who rows the boat across the river showed us what the water had done to his hand. It was a horrifying sight.

Their river polluted, their air polluted, their water polluted, their lives troubled, they live there, always ready with a smile. On our way back from the river, we stop to take a snap and some girls ran to us with flowers, we'll look good with the flowers in the photo, they said. We are, but strangers to them. Why do they care?? These loving, adorable people, they need a better life! They are being denied the very basic necessities of life!! Clean air and water is their birth-right!! A voice was screaming inside of me as I walked away from the village to the school...

At the school, the kids had fun drawing with charcoal on their mud painted sheets...they came up all kinds of pictures...later in the day; we had the privilege of watching the kids practise their dance for their annual day. Sitting there, watching those kids dance, forgetting everything else, and enjoying every moment, I realised what a good job that small school has done! The kids of Sangolikuppam come to school and enter a different world... here, they dance and sing and plant saplings...

They are taken care by a group of dedicated teachers, who, in their on expense hire professionals to teach the kids yoga, dance etc. I was happy for these kids, for, at least for some time of the day, they can just be kids and not deal with the harsh realities of their lives.

   
   
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