Bhopal: Every story has a beginning, but some have no end. The world's worst industrial disaster – the Bhopal Gas Tragedy – that claimed more than 10,000 lives in December 1984 is one such story.
Death continues to stalk each house of the affected people in Madhya Pradesh's capital city. It claims around five to six lives every day. Yet, there is no one to hear their wails.
On the night of December 2/3, 1984, a leak of methyl isocyanate gas from the then Union Carbide India Ltd's pesticide plant in Bhopal killed over 10,047 people and affected 5,74,000 people. This is according to a letter dashed off by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, these are the official numbers, others estimate that at least 15,000 people died within two weeks of the disaster.
Elections have come and gone since the past 34 years, and the streets of Bhopal are once again humming with campaigns by various political parties vying to form a new government in December. Yet, no political party or any politician has made the tragedy an election issue.
Even the Minister of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation, Vishwas Sarang, who himself is a victim, has not taken any measures to improve the condition of the gas-hit, claimed survivors.
The survivors are fighting a dual battle: on the one hand, they are struggling with multiple health problems, while and on the other, they are fighting for compensation since three decades.
After the announcement of election date, the Bhopal gas victims held a meeting on September 18 and decided to vote for a candidate who will help them get Rs 5, 00,000 compensation.
The groups that work for the gas victims are Bhopal Group for Information and Action, Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogi Sangharsh Morcha and Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh. These groups told NewsClick that whatever the promise the candidates would make would be in black and white, so that legal action can be taken if they renege on it.
“We have been betrayed by all political parties, and we have become outsiders in our own home. For us, the BJP is as good as the Congress," said the convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, Abdul Jabbar.
There is criminal negligence in handling the world’s biggest industrial disaster. There is no medical support, no financial aid and no plan to dispose of the toxic chemicals that are contaminating the ground water.
“Our politicians are spineless. Even as 34 years have passed since the tragedy took place, no one stands by us. As a result, the gas-hit are leading a miserable life. So, this time we have planned to ask for compensation on notary.” Jabbar added.
With a lump in his throat, Jabbar further said, “How can a Chief Minister of a state sleep when 5.74 lakh people are dying every minute?”
As the election dates near, dozens of hoardings and banners have sprung up in the colonies of Bhopal gas tragedy survivors, such as Kazi Camp, DIG overbridge, JP Nagar, Shahjahanabad and Jahangirabad.
One hoarding carried a historical representational photo of the disaster, with the slogan, ‘Jo muavza dilaega, vote wahi le jayega’ (whoever provides compensation will get the vote)". The banner also claimed that it represented a combined voice of all victims and survivors.
“Government and leaders have just ignored gas survivors, as if they don’t exist or nothing had happened. So, we (the gas survivors' front) have planned to show our strength in this election and ask for a notarised pledge from the candidates those who are contesting from these constituencies because if s/he fails to deliver the promise, we can take legal action against her/him,” said Rachna Dhingra, convener of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, who has been working for gas survivors for over a decade.
Spelling their strategies, the leader of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, Rashida Bi, said there were seven constituencies in Bhopal district. Narela and Bhopal-North have the largest population of victims and survivors. Both constituencies have more than 80-90% voters with direct or indirect links with the tragedy.
Constituencies such as Bhopal Central and Huzur, too, have a sizeable population of families of victims and survivors, who have been suffering from the aftermath of the tragedy. There are around 40% survivor voters each in these two constituencies, and the numbers are enough to affect the poll outcome.
Berasia could be considered the rural extension of Bhopal district, but Govindpura and Bhopal South-West, too, have a sizeable population of survivors who migrated. “We have roped in ward-level leaders in all 36 wards affected due to gas-hit and they can talk on behalf of survivors with the politicians when they come to seek votes,” Rashida Bi said.
When asked, what CM Chouhan had promised them all these years, she replied, “We have made countless visits to the CM's house and my organisation has given more than 25,000 individual memoranda to him demanding medical assistance and compensation, but all that has gone into the dustbin.”
Two major constituencies of the state capital – Bhopal-North and Narela -- share the largest number of gas survivors.
Bhopal-North is represented by four-time Congress MLA, Arif Aqueel, while Narela is represented by Bharatiya Janata Party MLA and state cabinet minister Vishwas Sarang. Whenever asked, both legislators avoid questions on compensation for the victims, but speak about looking after their medical and social needs.
Aqueel said he had been demanding justice for the victims but the BJP government had not paid any heed. They are not willing to supply even clean water to those areas despite several efforts.
"I have raised the issue of clean water supply to those areas, but it left no impact on the government. I have tried to provide them potable water and basic health facilities from my funds, but the BJP government has done nothing for them in 15 years," he claimed.
Minister Sarang claimed: "I have tried to ensure a regular supply of medicines in hospitals meant for gas tragedy victims and good doctors. My government has also tried to provide several measures for employment."
Though, Raeesa Bi, leader of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, said, “The drug quality is very poor and ineffective. Doctors are inadequate in hospitals, and there is a huge shortage of medicines after two weeks of every month. There are no medical check-ups of victims. Five to six people are dying every day and he is making false claims.”
Battered by fate and ignored by politicians, the gas victims have been moving in the premises of courts for the last 34 years, seeking justice. Yet, the matter is sub judice before the Supreme Court.
But, till today, what they got are peanuts: a sum of Rs 25,000 and Rs 50,000 compensation to a survivor. And Rs 200 as stipend, that too through court because politicians, other than making promises, have done nothing.