TRIBUNE INDIA, May 6, 2006
PHOTOS: MUKESH AGGARWAL
While many of their counterparts rock, these youngsters from diverse backgrounds find fulfilment in rallying to a cause. For them, association with social movements is the way forward. They share their thoughts with The Tribune‘s Vibha Sharma in Delhi
This April saw the Capital teeming with hundreds of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and 1984-Bhopal gas tragedy activists from all over the country and abroad sitting on hunger strikes, raising slogans and conducting awareness rallies.
Along with several high-profile supporters like writer Arundhati Roy, Supreme Court advocates Prashant Bhushan and Indira Jaisingh and actors Aamir Khan and Rahul Bose there were some qualified and educated youngsters who were going all out to support the issue-based movements.
Sharing the same platform with tribals and other affected persons from the valley and Bhopal, these youngsters spent days and nights on the footpath adjoining Jantar Mantar, interacting with mediapersons, preparing press notes, and talking to officials.
Highly motivated and imbued with a cause, these youngsters—some of whom studied to become doctors, engineers and managers—talk about themselves, their beliefs, and also about allegations of foreign funds.
Rachna Dhingra, associated with the Bhopal Group of Information and Action: “For me it is not a sacrifice but something that helps me sleep better at night”.
Rachna Dhingra (28), originally from Delhi, was just six years old when the world’s worst industrial disaster struck Bhopal in 1984. She was 18 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 believe: 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. I came to Bhopal to see that demands like better health care system and income generation plans are implemented. Twentyone years is a long time to wait for justice but I am hopeful that eventually everyone will get justice.
On foreign funds: As far as the Bhopal Group of Information and Action is concerned, none of our funding comes from foreign-based foundations. We do get money from individuals, both from India and abroad, besides some environmental groups. But these are individuals who have read about Bhopal and contribute to show their solidarity. This money we use for advertisements, pamphlets, documentation, campaigning, etc. Personally I find these allegations ridiculous. I was a computer consultant in the US before I came here and there certainly are many better and easier ways to make money.
Yogini Khanolkar, studying to be a lawyer, was moved by the “Rally for Valley” call: “The Narmada Movement has been like a university for me. I have managed to learn all I need to know about life.”
Yogini Khanolkar (25) is from Mumbai and NBA leader Medha Patkar’s cousin. “Medhatai’s father and my father are brothers,” explains Yogini. A graduate, she is now studying to be a lawyer. As the NBA leader’s first cousin and living in the same building, she knew about the movement since a very young age. But it was the “Rally for Valley” call by writer Arundhati Roy in 1999 that brought her fully into the fight for the rights of the valley’s people.
I believe: The Narmada movement has been like a university for me. I have managed to learn all I need to know about life, not just from Medhatai but also from tribals, villagers, and other people I have been associated with. I will be with the issue till such time people need me. I don’t foresee doing anything else in the near future, what with government’s policies continuing to favour globalisation. Narmada is not just one issue. There are so many related issues. We are running 13 jeevanshalas for Adivasi children. I wish more youth would join the movement and see for themselves how elected representatives deprive tribals and others of money meant for their betterment. Yes, we do get threats and are also stopped from doing our work so many times. But we know our issue and also know that we are right.
On foreign funds: From being “anti-development” and “accepting foreign funding” to “destabilising the nation”, we have to counter several such allegations. We at the NBA do not accept money from abroad at all. If someone wants to donate, we direct him or her to other organisations. At the NBA we have a system where different families adopt all activists. I have been adopted by a family, which gives me Rs 1,000 every month. This money is more than sufficient to take care of my daily needs. In any case, when we are in tribal areas, our expenditure is limited. We live off jungle resources and need money only for clothes, salt and a matchbox.
Deepti Bhatnagar, an anti-war, anti-racist activist from the US: “The NBA has taught me how people have to fight for something that is so integral to them.”
Deepti Bhatnagar (25) is from “Delhi, Kolkata, everywhere” but was raised in the US, where her family lives. She has a Bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of California and was an anti-war, anti-racist activist in the US. “I became closely associated with the issue after touring states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra with my younger sister in 2002. We participated in programmes, walked for hours, and met people. It was sufficient to make me stay back.” Deepti has been with the movement for two years.
I believe: The movement has taught me how to live life in difficult circumstances and how people have to fight for something that is so integral to them. It has taught me more than any classroom in the world could have. I don’t know what I would be doing five or 10 years from today but it will not be something different from what I am doing right now. I have thought of getting a Master’s degree in a subject that would make me understand the spirit of the movement better. More youth should join such social movements. Being part of any movement is a two-way process—you gain something and you should be prepared to give something in return. It has not been easy to eat that food, drink that water, and walk for eight hours a day.
On foreign funds: Accusations of receiving foreign funds to destablise the nation are not even worth countering. I just wish someone would come and see the way we live. The NBA office was ransacked in Ahmedabad. Do you know how much energy and money it will take us to get that computer, gas cylinder, and those files back. But I know such threats will continue and each time, they will teach us how important it is to carry on. At the NBA, we get Rs 1,000 each, which is sufficient to live decently. It is good that we don’t have much money; at least there are no alternatives as I find consumerism mindless. It is geared to tell you that if you buy all these things, you will be happy. And, this is what is stopping the youth from moving ahead.
Nityanand Jayaraman, a travelling journalist: “We will have to target Dow through legal action”.
Nityanand Jayaraman (37) has a degree in electronics engineering, but worked as ‘a travelling journalist’. His work brought him to Bhopal for the first time 10 years back in 1995. “I did an article on groundwater contamination and got hooked to the issue.” He lives in Chennai and has since been writing research-based reports on environmental and human rights issues. “Companies like the UCC and Dow Chemical are being courted by the country. It means that we, as people, will have to target Dow through legal and direct actions to hold them accountable for their crimes. There is no other way that justice can be delivered to survivors of Bhopal,” says Nityanand, or Nity, as his fellow activists call him. “I don’t travel much any more, but the Bhopal issue takes me out of Chennai for a few weeks in a year. Otherwise, I travel to other pollution-impacted communities in Tamil Nadu and nearby areas.”
I believe: For me working on social issues like Bhopal is neither difficult nor a sacrifice. If the situation arises, I can sleep on the footpath. Lakhs of people sleep on the footpath everyday. The Bhopal issue has been something that has made my life as a human being much better. If journalism and research give me my livelihood, being involved in the Bhopal and other campaigns for justice is food for my soul. Bhopal is an inspiration, and I keep going back to get my batteries recharged. For me, there is no other choice but to fight. Some people are made that way and for me this is the only way.
On foreign funds: By itself it cannot be evidence of anti-development or anti-national tendencies. By that token, the Government of India must also be seen as anti-national because it runs on money borrowed from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. We have lots of supporters in foreign countries as a lot of related work takes place in the US and other countries. It is this support that has kept the issue alive even after 21 years otherwise it would have been buried in official files long ago. You can do without foreign funds but not without international support. Believe me, no amount of foreign funding can keep an issue afloat. It has to be a voluntary effort. I am not saying that people should not get paid, but there are people who are with a movement purely on voluntary basis as well, and the soul of the movement is defined by how many volunteers it can inspire.
Madhumita Dutta, lobbies for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy with government officials and provides research-based support: “I would like to be a part of any change that is for the better.”
Madhumita Dutta (35), with a degree in environmental science, lobbies for the cause with government officials concerned and provides research-based support work. She has been involved with issues related to asbestos mining in Jharkhand and safety of workers ever since she left her job as a reporter with the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) magazine Down to Earth. “I wanted to work freely, pick up a bag and travel. So I left everything and did just that,” she says. What angers her the most is when the government expresses its helplessness to resolve issues.
I believe: I would like to be part of any change that is for the better. I really don’t know what I would be doing five years from now. Maybe I will become a farmer because I find a farmer’s ability to grow food so very empowering.
On foreign funds: I am not working on environmental issues to gain in the form of foreign funding. There will always be people who will call us “anti-development” and “anti-national”. I find their analysis warped because as an individual I am always in a position to decide my own needs and politics. I also get foreign funds but that has not stopped me from speaking against the MNCs. I agree there could be some individuals or NGOs who could be misusing the funds they receive. But largely it is the people with a narrow perspective on the foreign funds issue who speak like this and are behind the entire propoganda.
Satinath Sarangi, metallurgical engineer-turned-activist arrived in Bhopal when he was 32 and stayed on: “It is the spirit of the people I have been fighting for that has made me go on.”
Satinath Sarangi (54) cannot be classified under the “young activist” category but this metallurgical engineer-turned-activist who arrived in Bhopal the day after the disaster when he was 32 stayed on to become a key figure in the Bhopal struggle along with survivor activists like Champa Devi Shukla, Rashida Bee and Sanjay Verma, who was just one year old on that fateful night of December 1984. And this is what Satyu, Satinath from Puri district in Orissa, has to say: 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”.
Bridget Hanna, from the US: “I want to show solidarity with the brave people of Bhopal.”
For 20-year-old Bridget Hanna from the US or Josh Imeson, a French-American filmmaker, who joined Bhopal gas tragedy survivors struggle by joining the hunger strike, it was her way of showing solidarity “with the brave people of Bhopal and an attempt to make up for mistakes of American companies — Dow Chemical and the UCC.”