Pragya Bhagat, Bhopal, February 25, 2007
There’s a multitude of reasons why the Bhopal Gas Disaster can be classified as a tragedy. Thousands of people died due to negligence by a multinational corporation whose current owner refuses to recognize the criminal liabilities its subsidiary faces. Tons of chemical waste still lurk beneath the surface, polluting the land and water around the factory site. Despite being the world’s worst industrial disaster, there are plenty of people that have never heard of it or think that justice has been served to the people of Bhopal. The list is long, the reasons are many, and the criminals refuse to take responsibility for their actions. We know this. But the greatest tragedy of the disaster is that it is a monster that is still very much alive, affecting the second and third generations of Bhopalis. These individuals were not even alive at the time of the gas leak in 1984. They might have been secure in their mother’s womb until the poisons permeated through their fragile membranes and killed them in an instant. Others survived, only to lead a life cursed with deafness, mental retardation, deformed bones, and a range of disorders whose treatments far exceeded the financial resources of the children’s families. There wasn’t much hope for these children of the gas. That is, until the Chingari Trust brought some light into their sorrow-filled lives.
In 2004, Bhopal’s very own Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla received the Goldman Award, the environmental version of the Nobel Peace Prize. They donated their $125,000 award to the Chingari Trust, which started functioning in 2006. The Trust sponsors the medical treatment of children under the age of twelve who are born disabled, and is run by three courageous individuals: Hari Prasad Joshi is the manager, Mohammed Israel Khan is the accountant, and Usha Tilwani is the primary caretaker. These individuals as well as thirty children of the 110 registered at the Trust came to the Tinshed today with their families. Of these thirty, eight had recently been sent to Delhi for cleft lip and orthopedic surgeries. The families present at the dharna site held photographs of their children before the surgeries and proudly held their “treated” children with smiles of relief and hope; yes, now their sons and daughters would be able to lead relatively normal lives. And yet there are many more who were still dumb, deaf, blind, and physically and mentally deformed. Clicking cameras and interviews transformed these children from humans to marketable objects of suffering. And for what? So our next door neighbors would spend two minutes reading about the children’s grim reality, and maybe, just maybe, do something about it.
There are children who were poisoned internally due to the gas leak. Then there are children who are still being poisoned today by the contaminated groundwater. They were born without holes in their lungs or fused joints, but the water they drink, bathe, and clean their clothes with is poisoning them by the bucketful. White patches on their faces and the rashes on their skin are only the visible effects of using the murky red water that gushes out of their community hand pumps. Boiling it does not kill the mercury and lead that floats ominously alongside other pollutants in their steel pots. And who is responsible for carrying the empty buckets and oil gallons to be filled with this poison? In Prem Nagar, it is the children that are responsible for undertaking this task. It is the children who suffer along with everyone else, and it is the children who spoke out for their community in a play they performed at New Market’s ice cream hang out place, Top N’ Town. A crowd gathered quickly, curious as to why a group of giggly, energetic children were carrying small trashcans and a broom, among other props. These eight kids- Aarti, Rekha, Sarita, Tasneem, Ajay, Vijay, Pinky, and Nilesh- would bring a smile to anyone’s face. They showed their ice-cream eating audience what happened on the night of the disaster twenty-two years ago, and the difficulties they face while fighting for water at the water tank that is supposed to have clean water. That is, when it has water at all. The play ended with a scene showing the cunning, self-absorbed greed of Tata and Dow, concluding with a staged protest in which the children oozed passion out of every pore while screaming the slogans they know so well by now. Their story is the story of many children in Bhopal, children that are forced to mature because their parents can not work, or because they have to take care of their sick siblings. Schooling is a luxury not everyone can afford. We can learn a great deal from the children who are affected by the gas disaster, for they are the future of Bhopal and deserve to be heard.
Two of the girls in the play, Aarti and Sarita, spent the night at the sit-in site and sang along with the older women. They were hyperactive and chatty, somewhat of a universal trait for teenage girls. At the end of the day, kids will be kids. Just like the Tinshed will be ringing with the sounds of the dhol and loud voices singing wedding songs. Both are inevitable.