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Bhopal: "until my last breath"

Remembering the women survivors of the Bhopal catastrophe who are at the forefront of the fight for justice and a clean future in Bhopal, India.

Madhu Malhotra is Director of the Gender Identity Sexuality Program at Amnesty International - International Secretariat.

This article was first published in July 2012 and is republished here on the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal Disaster

“I will fight for our rights and justice until my last breath so another Bhopal doesn’t take place in this world” “It’s high time Dow took responsibility for 30 years of suffering. The compensation I received is a mockery and a dehumanizing experience. I want the next generation to have happy lives” -  Rampyari Bai, aged 85, activist and survivor of Bhopal industrial disaster

What links the London 2012 Olympics to one of the biggest industrial disasters in history? I met the women at the forefront of the fight for justice and a clean future in Bhopal, India.

“Are you here about the disaster?” asked the rickshaw driver taking me around in Bhopal. “It’s been a big problem for us. Many people in my family got sick. You’ll still find a lot of sick people here.”  I had just arrived in Bhopal earlier this year to meet survivors of the huge toxic gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant.The leak, which began on 2 December 1984, killed between 7,000 and 10,000 children, women and men in just three days. Another 15,000 or so died in the following years. A hundred thousand or more were left with serious health problems, including respiratory illnesses, neurological damage and gynaecological disorders. The disaster and its aftermath raised fundamental questions about the morality and accountability of the world’s giant corporations.

Almost 28 years later, the former plant still hasn’t been cleaned up. There has been no thorough investigation into why the leak happened and the impact it has had on local people’s lives. Survivors have not been offered the medical care they need, nor fair compensation. No wonder people here are still angry.

Bhopal recently came into the spotlight when the London Organising Committee for the 2012 Olympic Games (LOCOG) chose The Dow Chemical Company to design the decorative plastic wrap for the Olympic Stadium. Dow bought the Union Carbide Corporation in 2001, but fiercely denies any connection with the disaster. When LOCOG supported Dow’s stance, its Ethics Commissioner, Meredith Alexander, resigned in protest in March this year, saying she didn’t want to become “an apologist for Dow Chemicals”.

Amnesty International is calling on LOCOG to retract its statements denying a connection between The Dow Chemical Company and the 1984 Bhopal catastrophe. We are also calling on the Indian government and the companies involved to reach an agreement with Bhopal’s people to clean up the former Union Carbide factory site, make the drinking water safe and clean, pay adequate compensation and hold those responsible to account.

The rusty industrial skeleton of the former Union Carbide factory in Bhopal is striking. Built right in the middle of the buzzing city, it can be seen from almost anywhere. Inside it, a pile of toxic waste still rests cheek by jowl with the poor neighbourhoods that surround the plant. Here, the catastrophe is not just a memory.

 I met Safreen, a smiley student, in her family’s leafy garden close to the old factory. She wasn’t born when the disaster happened, but it still affects her life. She has joined a children’s group fighting for survivors’ rights, and dreams of becoming a doctor to help people cope with the health problems that still linger here.

 “Young children are forced to give up school and work because their parents have been affected by the gas”, Safreen explained. “Others are born with deformities and illnesses. I want children in Bhopal to breathe fresh and clean air, drink clean water and stay healthy. I dream that Bhopal will be a better place to live and that the companies will take responsibility for causing so much of suffering.”

The following day, the weather was steaming hot as I reached Jaiprakash Nagar, a neighbourhood rolling out from the south side of the former factory. At the foot of the 1985 memorial statue to Bhopal’s victims, I met Hazra Bi, a Bhopal activist and survivor.

“My whole life changed after the gas leak,” she told us. My husband was so severely affected by the gas that he died. Raising four children alone was traumatic.” Her children and grandchildren were born with medical problems she thinks were caused by the gas leak. The official compensation her family received was too little, too late.

“It’s been round the clock physical and mental agony for almost three decades,” Hazra Bi said. “But I won’t give up the fight. It’s a question of Bhopal’s future generations.”

A dusty ride across town took us to Rampyari Bai, aged 85, who has taken part in every single march organized by survivors in Bhopal. Showing me a bruised ankle, she said the police beat her up during the last anniversary rally. In her small, dark flat lit by a neon lamp even in the mid-afternoon, I had to speak up so she could hear us. But her fighting spirit is still intact. In a strong, firm voice, she explained how difficult it had been to get even meagre compensation and basic health care.

“I will fight for our rights and justice until my last breath so another Bhopal doesn’t take place in this world,” she said. “It’s high time Dow took responsibility for 30 years of suffering. The compensation I received is a mockery and a dehumanizing experience. I want the next generation to have happy lives.”

These are just some of the women at the forefront of Bhopal’s struggle for proper compensation, for a clean-up of the former Union Carbide site, better health care and access to information about what happened in 1984.

The survivors’ headquarters is the Sambhavna Clinic, which provides free health care, funded by the UK-based Bhopal Medical Appeal. A quiet place surrounded by dusty roads, it symbolizes the activists’ energy and hope in the face of being largely forgotten. Sathyu Sarangi and Rashna Dingra, two prominent campaigners, confirmed my most powerful impression from the visit: that there is no fatalism here. Bhopal’s people know that they have suffered a terrible injustice, and will keep carrying the torch for their rights.

Giant corporations do have a responsibility to respect human rights. They can’t simply walk away from disasters like Bhopal. As Hazra Bi put it: “I hope that people around the world will learn from our struggle and stories and support this never-ending peaceful fight for justice and dignity”.

As I listened to the stories of women and girls from different generations in Bhopal I’m more than convinced that it’s about time that their much deserved right to human dignity and justice is not forgotten. I urge you to join them in this struggle and at the least take action now.

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About the author

Madhu Malhotra is Program Director of the Gender Identity and Sexuality Program at Amnesty International.


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