Pragya Bhagat, Bhopal, March 5, 2007
Her mehndi-colored hair matches her feisty personality. But there was a time when her locks weren’t a rusty orange, but a rich black instead. Shehzadi Bi spent her younger days in Bidisha Dilla, one of four children in a farming community. Her fondest memories as a child are of playing with her dolls. Education was never important in the family, so she did not learn how to read or write. Before she came to Bhopal Shehzadi Bi used to make a living by sewing and rolling beedis. It wasn’t until 1982 that her marriage let her to the city she would now call home.
She remembers that night like a haunting nightmare that won’t go away.
“It was 12:30 am. We were sleeping in a rented room at Kazi Camp when the stench of burning chilies stung our nostrils. All I remember is that I was losing consciousness while running. I was dumped into a truck. When I regained consciousness, I saw that vomit and other bodily fluids had soiled my clothes. It was then that I realized that they were my own.”
She had four children at the time of the gas disaster and has had two more since that time. Her son who was six at the time has now developed a cancer in his leg that had to be operated on. One of her daughters became blind and has to hear the all-too-frequent complaints of her in-laws: we got stuck with a blind daughter-in-law. Shehzadi’s husband was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Everyone suffers from breathlessness, while the females are plagued with menstrual problems. Shehzadi Bi currently lives in Blue Moon Colony where she bought a flat. Little did she know it is a water-contaminated community. The water is dripping with poisons like lead, mercury, and chloroform- substances that should not be ingested-yet her family was forced to drink it until the water tanks with clean water were put into her community. Do they think about moving out of that area into one where water safety is not an issue? “How can we even think about moving to another place when we don’t have the money for it? Only when we have the means can we hope to see such dreams.”
“I fasted on the Padyatra to New Delhi in 2006. That lasted for seven days.” Weakness is inevitable, but Shehzadi Bi has prepared herself for anything that may come her way. Losing her life, for example. “If my death saves another six lakh people from dying, then it’s worth it.”
She was married off at the tender age of twelve. It was then that she had to leave her three sisters, one brother, and the mother that single-handedly raised all five of them in Pathari. Her husband died eleven years after their marriage, and Guddi Bi became the person her mother used to be, raising her three children on her own.
She came to Bhopal three years ago, looking for work, and settled in Blue Moon colony, a water-contaminated community. Guddi Bi does not know what it was like to live through the gas disaster. She was lucky that way. But she sees what the gas has done to the people around her, like the children who are born with enlarged heads and deformed limbs. Ever since she has moved to Bhopal, she has her own problems to deal with. It started with coughing and skin rashes, and the water continued to create a whole new set of difficulties. Her nineteen year old son is unfit to work due to weakness. Similarly, her youngest son suffers from the poisons; “One time he drank the water and blood came out of his mouth.” Her daughter experiences a host of gynecological problems, like white discharge and excessive cramps. Stomach aches are normal now. Guddi Bi struggles to survive by selling what she can find in junkyards heaped with trash. Why not go back to a land that’s not polluted with poisons? “Someone’s got to earn for the family, and you can do that in Bhopal. We can’t go back.” Despite her fairly recent arrival in Bhopal, Guddi Bi has immersed herself in the Bhopalis’ struggle for justice. She went on the march to New Delhi last year with her son. Now she is going on an indefinite fast.
“My father worked in the Railway Service, and I followed in his footsteps for three years. Then I decided I want to do something on my own.” An only child, a lot was expected from Jabbar as the sole male of the family. He wanted to open a tea stall, which he ran successfully. He smiles as he recalls the day he got married to Nafisa: June 15, 1984. Six months later, his life would change forever.
Eyes stinging. Vomit. Running frantically in any direction. We’ve heard it a thousand times before, yet it hurts every time. Jabbar and Nafisa stayed at the train station for two days and then took the train to Beena. Three years later, they returned to Bhopal and made Gupta Nagar, a water-contaminated community, their new home. It is a water-contaminated area which has taken its toll on Jabbar and his family. In 2003, Jabbar’s blood pressure was sky high; at one point his heart stopped. His five children, aged nine to nineteen, suffer from stomach aches and regular fevers.
Despite the anguish he lives with, Jabbar has dreams of his own. After his father passed away, he discovered his passion for cooking. “My favorite food of all time would have to be Gajar-Matar Sabji,” he says with glittering eyes. He wants to open a dhaba, “the kind they have on roadsides.” He has even thought of a name. “We’ll name it after my youngest daughter, Yasmeen.”
Her life has been a series of one struggle after another. For Rashida Bi, going hungry is nothing new. “My father was always sick. We had to send him to Indore for treatment, but we couldn’t afford the train ticket. Sometimes we wouldn’t get anything to eat for two, maybe three days. One day when he was on the train, he died. Just like that.”
Born in Suhagpur, Rashida Bi was the eldest of seven children. “My parents didn’t believe in educating us at a school, so they only taught me how to read Urdu, not write it.” She was married at thirteen, and rolled beedis for a living, trying to support herself since her mentally sick husband couldn’t. “He would leave randomly, sometimes for years, and then come back and not remember anything. He left while I was pregnant with our son, and came back after our boy died from pneumonia.” Her son was seven days old. Her mother-in-law would not let her eat until she rolled four thousand beedis; one thousand beedis gave her two rupees. That was life before December 2, 1984 happened.
“We couldn’t walk for more than half a kilometer. Our eyes were swelling, we could hardly open them. Even if we did open them all we saw was corpses. Tons of dead bodies. It was better to keep our eyes closed. Bodies were dumped by the truckload into the Narmada River. People thought to be dead were burnt, only to start flailing in pain. When we went to the hospitals to find our missing relatives, the families were being given Rs. 10,000 per death. We refused the money; what would we do with it if we did not have those we cared for?”
Those that she cared for suffered the wrath of the gas. Her father, two sisters, and her sister-in-law died due to cancer. Her husband could no longer use his arms and legs. After six months in Suhagpur post-gas leak, Rashida Bi came back to Bhopal to find work. She signed up for the tailoring jobs the government was providing, but after a three month training and work for a few more months, she was told that the work was not needed anymore. After another bout of unemployment, she started working at a government-sponsored stationery unit. At the end of the month, she received six rupees. “Six rupees for a month of work? We should have gotten at least a hundred and fifty rupees. The anger I felt that day is still in me.” It is that anger that has fueled Rashida Bi’s motivation to do all that she has done. A leader of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, she is fighting to ensure that the gas-affected women get the same salary and employment benefits as their peers at the government stationary unit. In 2004, she and Champa Devi won the Goldman Environmental Prize for their environmental activism in Bhopal. She is also one of the Managing Trustees of the Chingari Trust which provides medical treatment to chidren with congenital deformities as a result of the gas and contaminated ground. “We aren’t asking for much, just the right to live a decent life,” she says about the current campaign. This will be her fourth hunger strike. “We are ready to lose our lives. Maybe the government will open its eyes with our deaths.”
Rachna Dhingra is originally from Delhi, and was just six years old when the world’s worst industrial disaster struck Bhopal in 1984. She was 14 when she moved to the US with her mother and later joined a student group that took up the issue of the Bhopal gas disaster. Rachna graduated with a business degree in 2000 and came back to stay in Bhopal in January 2003. Now she is associated with the Bhopal Group of Information and Action. What is interesting is that before coming to India she was associated with Dow Chemical, the parent company of Union Carbide Corporation. It was the UCC factory in Bhopal from where methyl isocyanate gas leaked, killing thousands. “Dow was a client of the company I worked for,” says the computer consultant.
“I love what I am doing. For me it is not a sacrifice but something that helps me sleep better at night without any regret. What angers me most is that even 21 years after the disaster, the government can allow people to drink contaminated water. Every person is moved by something in his or her life. For me it was the fact that the company I was working for was more concerned about profits than lives of the people. Twenty-two years is a long time to wait for justice but I am hopeful that eventually everyone will get justice.”
Satinath Sarangi is a metallurgical engineer-turned-activist who arrived in Bhopal the day after the disaster when he was 30, and stayed on to become a key figure in the Bhopal struggle along with survivor activists. “When I compare myself with my friends who were there with me in engineering, I find myself much happier. It is the spirit of the people I have been working with that has made me go on. Looking back, I would not like my life to shape up in any other way. The Sambhavna Trust Clinic, where I work, is funded by individuals. We do not take money from foundations like Ford or Rockfeller, which give huge amounts. To earn a living, I have worked as a feature writer and also as a contract labourer in a paper board mill”.