The long walk of the Bhopali women: the 1989 march that inspired today's Padyatra

“Prepared and yet, unprepared…”
In the summer of 1989 a group of gas-affected women from Bhopal undertook the heroic task of a padayatra [a protest march on foot] from Bhopal to New Delhi. They had no idea how far away Delhi was or in which direction it lay. They just knew they had to go there and present their problems to the Prime Minister. Having no money for train or bus fares, they decided to walk, but being entirely innocent of PR skills, did not think to inform either the press or the Prime Minister. Journalists found out for themselves, and as a result there are a very few pictures of that extraordinary achievement.
Today, 17 years later, for most of the women, the experience is just a blur. The steady walk along miles and miles of endless road is a distinct memory but little ‘wayside stories’ were mostly forgotten. In fact they were probably forgotten at the end of each long day, in the exhausted sleep that overtook the walkers when they stopped to rest. There were a few women, however, mostly the ‘leaders’ of the group who remembered an incident here and there, and the names of places that they stopped at.
This is the gritty story of 75 women, their 30 children and 12 men – all affected by the gas leak from Union Carbide plant – who decided that for their voices to be heard, they needed to take themselves to a ‘higher centre of power’, where they might have a better chance of being heard. So, in May 1989, finding the Government of Madhya Pradesh unresponsive to demands that promises made to them should be kept, the women decided that they should seek justice in New Delhi, by presenting their case to none other than the Prime Minister of India. This they would do, by walking the long distance from Bhopal to Delhi.
“Whenever we announced or stated something, we never went back on our word – everybody knows it by now”, says Rashida Bee, the President of Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh. True enough, belying the press reports which predicted that “looking at the physical condition of the women, it is very doubtful that they will be able to cover the distance on foot”, the women achieved what they set out to do – they got their jobs in the press regularised and their salaries increased.
This hitherto unchronicled effort of the gas-affected women was a turning point in the lives of many of them, and is important to remember, record and appreciate.
The beginnings of the women’s struggle for their rights
A couple of years after the gas disaster, the government, as part of its rehabilitation work, decided to train some women from the bastis in a printing press. When the government announced its plans, there were numerous women who said that this was not for them – even if they did get trained, the printing presses were too far away from their residential colonies and the effort of travel was not worth it: they were content with what they were doing – mostly beedi-making.
Around 100 women took up the offer – they were trained for four months with a stipend of Rs 150/ per person per month. It was hard to make ends meet. After the training was over, the women realised that no jobs were planned for them by the government. They might as well have been trained as astronauts. But the politicians replied that they should be grateful to have received any training at all. If they wanted to put it into practise there would be no government help for them. “Start your own press”, was the advice from on high.
The women responded that without any firm printing orders, or infrastructural support, they would not be able to use their new skills. They also felt that they needed more training.
The women, represented by Rashida Bee and Champa Devi, put their demands to the government through a personal petition to the Chief Minister. They were assured that they would be employed in the stationery undertaking of the Rajya Udyog Nigam [Madhya Pradesh State Industrial Corporation Limited]. It was not explained to them that this would be on a piece rate basis, and that they would be paid only if the corporation’s bosses chose to give them work from day to day.
After a month of waiting every morning outside the gates of the undertaking, the women were given just two days’ work – and the payment came to around Rs 6 – 12 per person, (approximately £0.08 or $0.12), not a very good return for a whole month.
This infuriated the women. They argued to civil servants and corporation bosses that it was hardly their fault that they had not been given employment, when they waited outside the office, day after day. When the women threatened to take direct political action, the officials relented and began giving them more work. For the next two and a half years the women would earn an average 10 – 12 rupees per day. (£0.12 or $0.17)
During the same period, the press made a profit of 400,000 rupees. The women realised that this was happening at their expense – they were grossly underpaid and the profits were not being shared with them. Around this time, a few of them learned of the Factories Act and the Minimum Wages Act and decided to press for their rights: minimum wages and the regularisation of their employment. The management offered a deal which would give them more work with a marginal increase in wages, but the women would have none of it. They were adamant that they wanted the law to be applied and enforced in full.
They began a dharna (sit in) at Vallabh Bhavan – they sat and slept there for several days. There were rallies, meetings, rasta rokos (road blocks) and other forms of protest [a march in the night with torches, for example]. Then the women got wind of the fact that the Chief Minister was canvassing in Kharasia for an election, and issued a press statement saying that half of them would go to Kharasia and start canvassing against him, while the other half would continue the protest at the Bhopal Secretariat.
When this news reached the Chief Minister. He immediately instructed his officials to meet the women’s demands – the Factories Act was implemented by registering the MPSIC Press under the Act, and the salaries fixed at 535/ rupees per person. But the women had their sights set on full justice – for skilled workers like them, the law provides for a salary upto Rs 2700/- per month. Their vision was set on securing this. “But we did not know what exactly to ask for, other than these two demands. If the dharna at the Vallabh Bhavan had been clearer in its set of demands, we would not have had to undertake the padayatra at all”, explains Rashida Bee, looking back at that time. “We had no idea of what posts to ask for, what roles or what designations for ourselves – we were just happy that they removed us from a piece rate system, and put us on a fixed salary”. Now, the idea was to get their jobs regularised and salaries increased as per the rates fixed for skilled workers.
Thus began their long struggle through the summer of 1989, which took the shape of a padayatra in June that year.
“We have to go to Delhi….”
The idea came suddenly, out of nowhere. The dharna in front of Vallabh Bhavan in Bhopal was creating some ripples, but not the desired effect. The demands of the women were not being met. One day, Rashida Bee hit upon a thought: they all needed to go to Delhi – that was the only place where they might be heard. And they should walk the whole distance, so that their effort would be visible.
The rest of the women in the sanghatan (union) agreed readily enough. “Whatever baaji suggests, we are ready for that – we trust her completely. Even our men folk do not object when we are with her and are doing things as per her advice”, the women explained. Despite their unpreparedness regarding the journey [the details of the distance, the route, the practical needs and problems etc], the women did something very intelligent. They warned the Chief Minister, through the media, that they would be undertaking this campaign for justice from the 1st of June, 1989, and that if something happened to any of the women enroute,it would be the responsibility of the Chief Minister, since he had driven them to it!
This warning had the Chief Minister taking serious notice of the intentions of the women. He tried dissuading the women from undertaking this journey. When this did not work, he arranged for a medical team to accompany the women, a police team for their protection and a water tanker to go along with them. These turned out to be a great support, as the days passed.
“We were ahead, and the rains behind us…”
“Even the gods cooperated with us – all the while that we walked, the rains were either before us, or behind us – we were never lashed by the rains!”, recounts Rasheeda Bee.
They set out in the month of June, the month in which the monsoon sets in. The women set out not knowing how far away Delhi was, where the route lay, how long it would take them to get there [since they had as yet no idea of what distance they would be able to walk each day]. Nor did they have any inkling of what difficulties lay ahead, what they were going to eat or where they were going to sleep – or how they could meet the Prime Minister of this large country or how to publicise their cause! All that they knew was that they had set out to do something, and achieve it they would.
Many of the women set out on the trip with their children. There were a few men who accompanied the women. In each district, they were accompanied by the local medical personnel and police, uptil the end of the district, before another team took over. “We saw the world in all its colors during that period,” Rasheeda Bee recollects. “We faced love and affection from unknown people, we faced rejection, we received support at times, we faced hardships, we bonded more strongly amongst ourselves, we experienced a strong sense of solidarity. Most importantly, the women would assure me from time to time, especially when I was feeling completely down and depressed – they would tell me that I should go on till I reached Delhi, even if some of them dropped dead from exhaustion. This gave me tremendous strength to move forward.” And some of the women, who are 12 years older now, told me that one thought was always inspiring during that period – “If Gandhiji could do it at his age, why can’t we?”

“We saw the world in all its colours during that period….”

When the women set out, for the first few days they could cover only 8 – 10 kilometres a day. As the days progressed, the pace increased and stabilised. They soon reached a stage where they were walking around 35 to 40 kilometres each day, children and all. They were also carrying small sacks with a few essentials thrown in – a blanket and a bed spread each, and a pair of clothes.
Many did not have more than thirty to forty rupees with them when they set out. Some of them pawned a few ornaments along the way to get some cash. And before long, this little cash would be spent on medicines or food for the children. Genda Bai once found a five rupee note that somebody lost on the road… it was a great saviour – with that money, she bought her son medicines that lasted for around a week.
The food they packed when they left Bhopal lasted just one day. At the end of the first day, the women found themselves begging in the village where they had decided to rest for the night. Later in the trip, on some days they would be given cooked food. At other times people donated the materials, and the women found themselves cooking dinner on open stoves at the end of a long day.
Sometimes, when they went begging, they would be reprimanded – “you seem healthy and capable – can’t you work and earn some food, rather than beg like this?”
There were also times when people would respond with cynicism; “you would all have received good compensation from the government after the disaster – why are you still chasing more demands?”
They often found themselves getting up very early – at around 3 am – and setting out so as to escape the cruel sun. When the footwear no longer withstood the constant walking, some of the women continued the padayatra with leaves tied to the soles of their feet. There would be times when the local people, to show their support, would accompany them for some distance along the way.
One night, when they could not find anywhere to sleep, they lay down by the side of the road – an open dormitory under the starry sky, while the occasional truck roared by. Three or four women lay awake all night to watch out for the sleeping women. In the harsh morning light, the discovery of what had laid in store for them shocked and dismayed them – dead scorpions and snakes killed by the passing vehicles! There would have been many more which must have passed among the women, but fortunately nothing untoward happened to anyone.
Help and rebuffs
Sometimes, local police would feed the women. They would be lodged in government rest houses with a few security guards posted outside for their protection. They once came upon a place called ‘moti quarters’ where the accompanying security personnel advised them not to leave the rest house in the night – they had not cooked dinner and the police would not allow anyone to go outside! “It was a terrible night – children were crying of hunger and troubling their mothers – none of us could sleep – as soon as dawn broke, we all rushed out, and the local hoteliers were kind enough to give fresh glasses of milk to the children. That was when the crying stopped”.
All along the way, people would stop by and question the padayatris – “why are you doing this?” The women would take time to explain their cause and move on. When the women walked, they would do so in smaller groups – the ones who could walk faster would obviously be outstripping the others, and to show the way to the others, they would leave pounded rice on the road. The groups behind would trace their way along the same route, based on these signs that the other women had left. In the evenings, the ones who went ahead would usually scout around for a place for the group to rest during the night.
When they approached the Chambal ravines, people started warning the women about the notorious ‘killer’ dacoit gangs that haunted them. The women were unruffled. They were sure that the dacoits would only support their cause and not trouble them. Even the local police official told them so – he assured them that the dacoits would not come anywhere near the group. And to lend his support, he walked alongside the women along with his men, for a distance of 40 kms. At the boundary of the district, when he had to hand over his duty, this police official was in tears at the prospect of parting with this brave group of women. He told them, “if I had the required powers, I would have agreed to all your demands long back and saved you from this trouble”.
As soon as they entered Rajasthan [Dholpur area], the women received the worst treatment yet in store for them – the Commissioner, the police, the local Parliamentarian – everyone that the women approached there refused to support them. “Who asked you to set out on a task like this?”, they demanded. There was nothing to eat, no place to sleep, not even to rest. This was the lowest point in the entire journey for the women. But their determination only strengthened.
It was also time for the women to experience the best sides of communal and caste harmony. Their local hosts treated them without any discrimination related to caste or religion creeping in. Similarly, within the group, any such differences melted away completely – they would all cook together, eat together, sleep together and share all the troubles together. The women began bonding very firmly with each other.
“We are all one!”
In Guna, the group was about to decide to spend the night in a mandir [a Hindu temple]. It was then that some of them noticed sign boards which said that Muslims were not allowed inside. It planted a sense of apprehension in the minds of all the Muslims in the group … where would they go tonight, if they are not allowed in?
Suddenly, some of them began shouting slogans: “hum sab ek hain” – “we are all one, we are united”. Soon, they had the head priest of the temple joining them in the slogan-shouting, and then, he cordially invited everyone to spend the night in the temple. “That was one of the best places that we stayed in throughout the trip”, recalls a muslim woman. “We were fed excellent food, and inside the temple there were numerous rooms and we could sleep very comfortably that night”. One of the women distinctly recollects the taste of the louki ka kheer that they were fed there.
In Gwalior, some local political leaders gave the women groceries to last them for a few days. This, this stocked in the vans accompanying them and the next few days passed by relatively peacefully. Sometimes the local media covered the padayatra – mostly they were ignored. The women had no idea whatever about how to seek out the media. Through what coverage they did get, a few labour unions and political parties expressed their support for the women’s demands.
Not one of them said “Let’s go back”. Soon after the arduous march began, several women and children had boils on their feet. They would treat them with some herbs that they found on the way, and walk on.
Health problems
There were times when they were so exhausted at the end of the day that they had no energy to cook or eat. But they would force themselves to eat, and feed others. “Otherwise, how can we walk on the next morning?”. The accompanying doctors would sometimes hand out vitamin pills to boost their energy levels.
Around the 23rd of June, gastro-enteritis struck many of the padayatris and about 35 of them had to be hospitalised. But the group moved on soon after. During these 33 days, the women who were menstruating were the worst sufferers… women use folded cotton cloth as padding during this time [clothes were packed beforehand in a sack, to be used as sanitary napkins and these would be distributed around to whoever needed them], and walking with the cloth on created rashes on the tender skin of the upper thighs for these women. Walking became extremely painful thereafter, but they kept on.
Yashoda, who was five months’ pregnant, faced a painful personal loss. The strain of the walk caused her to lose the twin babies in her womb soon after the group reached Agra.
And then there was Abeeda who would faint every few kilometres. She was healthy enough when they set off, and held up for around ten days. And then, the fainting bouts began. She would just fall backwards when each such spell hit her. The other women would spend some time reviving her and then move on. Gendabai remembers that her seven-year-old son Rajendar was very sick during the journey. His head would reel and his legs would give way under him.
In Dholpur, where the local administration as well as communities were hostile to the padayatris, the police accompanying them offered to take the women in their vans and quickly get them out of the district. The women rejected this idea. They insisted that they would walk, because that is what they had set out to do – while the headlights of the van pierced the darkness of the night and showed them the way, the women trudged along throughout the night.
In spite of all of these hardships, the group of women kept walking towards Delhi. Not once did even one of them say “enough, let’s go back”. They told themselves “ab nikal pade tho nikal pade hain. Dilli to pahunchna hai aur pradhaan mantri se milna hai” [We have set out now and there’s no going back – we somehow have to reach Delhi and meet the Prime Minister].
The entry into the rajdhani (capital city)
After traversing twelve districts in four states in 33 days, the women finally reached Delhi.
They were utterly exhausted and there was little comfort in having reached the destination since it soon became clear that their travails were not over. They did not know where the India Gate was, nor how to meet the PM.
“We did not know how to announce that we had reached!”, confessed the women. When they tried contacting Rajiv Gandhi, they were told that he was not in town – that he reserved the weekends to meet his family, and from that Monday onwards, he would be travelling abroad for ten days. The women found themselves in a quandary – should they wait for him to return? They had no food, no money and nowhere to stay. And whereas during their long journey through the countryside, many villagers had supported them, Delhi was cold. Nobody came forward to help them. Moreover, many people warned them that in a few days’ time the monsoon rains would begin in earnest, a bad time to be without shelter. As it was, the women were camped onthe open lawns of India Gate. They had nowhere else to go.
Misled with false promises
Delhi was indifferent to them. No one would give them an audience. Devilal, a prominent politician [once a Deputy PM], who was passing by India Gate, stopped his car to find out from the women what the issue was. He listened to their story. He said that although he could not help meet their demands, he gave them Rs 2000/- (£25, $40) to help keep them fed during their stay in Delhi.
Next they met Suresh Pachouri, the MP from their own state, who convinced the women that they should now go back to Bhopal. He assured them that once they got back matters would be resolved and promised personally to take care of their case and get their demands met. With this assurance, the women decided to return home. The promises were not kept.
Today, this group of women is still together. Although they feel that they should not have come back empty-handed, they know that this padayatra bonded them into a determined and gritty group. Some time after the long walk, many government-supported centres were closed. “1300 women in other centres were displaced. Our centre was not closed. That is because the government is afraid of us,” the women claim.
The women did in the end get their audience with Rajiv Gandhi. He was visiting Bhopal, addressing a public meeting. The women forced their way in, despite attempts by the police to stop them. “Having walked all the way to Delhi to meet Rajiv Gandhi, we weren’t going to let a few police wallahs stand inour way.” They interrupted the meeting and told the Prime Minister their grievances and their story.
Rajiv Gandhi apologised for the fact that they had not been able to meet him in Delhi, after such an arduous journey – “I did not even know that you had come all the way from Bhopal on foot to meet me. Nobody told me. If I had known, I would have come to meet you at India Gate myself”. This in itself was a great consolation for the women.
Today, the women earn salaries of around Rs 2000/- each, on a fixed basis in the press.
They are still going strong – when they decide to do something together, they believe that no force on earth can stop them.
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