Bravehearts in the fight for holocaust victims (25 years after Bhopal gas leak)

November 30th, 2009 - 6:51 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sanjay Sharma
Bhopal, Nov 30 (IANS) For 25 years, they have fought tirelessly and are not giving up yet. Staging demonstrations, lobbying with the government and filing court cases, they are the band of men and women who have waged the war for justice to the victims of the Dec 2-3, 1984 gas leak that killed more than 3,500 people instantly and maimed several thousand others for life.

Of the more than 300 voluntary organisations that sprung up, only a handful remain. Abdul Jabbar, Rashida, Rachna and Satinath Sarangi are amongst the few activists who have persisted with the cause of getting justice for those who suffered — and continue to suffer — from the world’s worst industrial disaster.

They have faced an indifferent and sometimes hostile administration, often being beaten and arrested when they protested for more compensation or pointed out corruption and misallocation of resources.

“This tragedy is living on,” says Jabbar, who is convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, which has over 30,000 members.

Jabbar, 52, has been fighting for the gas leak victims since that night when poisonous methyl isocyanate rolled through the lanes of Old Bhopal from the Union Carbine plant. His father and brother died due to lung ailments caused by the gas leak and he himself has fibrosis in one lung.

But none of this has stopped his activism. He has made more than 3,000 visits to Jabalpur and Delhi in connection with legal cases for the gas leak victims in the Madhya Pradesh High Court and the Supreme Court.

He still conducts weekly meeting at the Yaadgare-Shahjehani park here to meet people from the affected neighbourhoods. Most are women, among them destitute widows, victims who cannot get hospital admission and the elderly who cannot fight their own compensation case.

“While minor problems are mostly solved at the individual level, for the bigger ones, we opt for the legal resort and agitations. We have held at least 500 demonstrations in the past 25 years. I am now tired and vexed but not disappointed,” Jabbar says.

Jabbar also runs a stitching centre for widows of gas leak victims at his organisation’s office premises. Besides, there are computer classes for their children.

From a poor orthodox Muslim household to the global spotlight, Rashida Bi, 53, is another local resident who became an activist and has remained so despite her constant dependence on medicines for the last 25 years.

Rashida, president of the Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, even took her fight with Union Carbide Co and its new owner Dow Chemicals to the streets of New York, an action that won her the 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize.

She had to seek employment a few months after the gas leak disaster when the medical bills piled up.

“I went and joined a rehabilitation centre that trained 100 women in producing office stationery. Many things were not okay here and this was my schooling in fighting for the rights of the dignity of labour, for equal wages and for proper work conditions,” says Rashida.

Their cause is the same, their backgrounds different.

Rachna Dhingra, 32, was born and brought up in Delhi and moved to the US with her mother when she was 18. Graduating with a business degree from the University of Michigan in 2000, she got a job with Accenture and was assigned to work with Dow Chemicals — a dream start.

But Rachna was so moved by hearing the plight of the gas leak victims that after two years, she gave up the job and moved to one of worst-affected neighbourhoods in Bhopal.

“To me, it has never been a sacrifice,” she says. “On the contrary, this work rewards me in ways that a regular job with a corporate could never have.”

Working to get more compensation for survivors, initiating efforts for clean drinking water, generating employment and mobilising local and global communities, Rachna says: “What angers me most is that even 25 years after the disaster, the government can allow people to drink contaminated water.”

Rachna is now in the Bhopal Group of Information and Action, where her mentor is Satinath Sarangi, the metallurgical engineer-turned-activist who arrived in Bhopal a day after the disaster and has stayed on to help the survivors in every way.

Better known as Sathyu, he is a founding trustee of the charitable Sambhavna Clinic for the victims.

Sathyu has been involved with relief, research and publication of studies on the ongoing health impacts on the victims.

The clinic, started in 1995, has grown into a modern facility with two general physicians, a gynaecologist and three consultants in psychiatry, ophthalmic care and pathology.

“Located in the heart of the severely affected communities, the clinic provides free medical care to the more than 18,000 chronically ill survivors and people exposed to contamination,” Sathyu says.

(Sanjay Sharma can be contacted at sanjay.s@ians.in)

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