Pragya Bhagat, Bhopal, March 2, 2007
Government spending on economic rehabilitation of the gas survivors: Rs. 60 crores.
Government spending on training the survivors in sixteen trades:
Rs. 11 crores.
Government spending on building one hundred and fifty-two work sheds to employ ten thousand people: Rs. 8 crores.
The survivors doing an indefinite sit-in demanding that these ten thousand actually be put to work instead of the meager seventy-nine that are currently employed: priceless.
There are some things money can buy: Food, clothing, jobs… Count on the Madhya Pradesh government to provide you with your daily dosage of disappointment.
Yes, they have disappointed us time and time again. So we though we’d let a few people know by holding a press conference highlighting the dire need for economic rehabilitation of the gas survivors. In fact, there was a time when 2300 gas-affected women were given jobs by the government. Hajra Bi was one of the lucky ones who sewed pants and shirts for school children. “The two hundred rupees wasn’t a lot, but it kept our stomachs full and our families happy,” she reminisces. In 1992, S.K. Guru decided to relocate the garment factory to another city. No reason was cited, nothing was thought of the thousands who would lose their family-sustaining income. For two obstacle-ridden years Hajra Bi fought along with her fellow women. They fought until the government heard their outcry, only to spit it back in their faces. How can one possibly justify snatching the livelihoods of those who had already lost so much? It is an inexcusable crime for which our government is responsible.
That was 1993. Fourteen years later, the women somehow manage to keep afloat on their meager savings. Some roll beedis while others sell wood. Many are too old to work, their brittle bones incapable of physical exertion. Some scrounge for plastic products in junkyards while others repair plastic sacks to earn fifty paise per bag. One hundred paise make one rupee. Forty-five rupees equal one dollar. You do the math.
The seventy-nine individuals that do have jobs don’t have it much better. For twenty long years, the women of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh (Bhopal Gas Affected Women’s Stationery Workers’ Union) have been struggling as victims of blatant discrimination. They make the same brown envelopes their counterparts at the government printing press do, yet they are given only Rs. 2000 per month while the permanent employees are recipients of Rs. 7000. Why does the government refuse to recognize them as permanent workers? When the time comes to justify their actions, the people in power become mute.
This is what the lives of the survivors have come down to – living from one measly earning to the next. Even though the situation appears hopeless, these spirited women refuse to be defeated. “Bhopal ki jo nari hai, Phool nahin chingari hai!” has become a trademark in the campaign, a symbol of strength. We are flames, not flowers. We have fought for twenty-two years, and will continue fighting all our lives, even if it takes every ounce of energy out of us, even if we go hungry, even if we lose everything we hold dear. But the one thing we’ll never lose is hope- hope for a brighter tomorrow, for clean water and stable jobs, for the long-awaited justice that one day will prevail.