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February 24, 1998


For Bhopal residents, politics is a lot of gas

Archana Masih in Bhopal

At the gate of the Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal, visitors, especially journalists, are taboo.

"You are a local, don't you know these people are not permitted here?" one of the five security guards at the gate rebuked our driver.

On the night of December 3, 1984, over 40 tonnes of methyl iso cynate and hydrogen cyanide leaked out of the Union Carbide factory. The lethal gas took the lives of an estimated 16,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of people with chronic lung and eye problems.

Thirteen years after the world's worst industrial disaster, the small colony opposite the factory wears an everyday look. The slogans on its walls demanding justice for the gas victims ironically muted by the saffron BJP flags fluttering from most houses.

For its inhabitants the nightmare of that fateful night is not over yet. "I am an invalid, trapped in never ending darkness," says 28-year-old Ram Swaroop.

Swaroop was 15 years old, a class VIII student when the accident occurred. He remembers waking up at midnight with a bout of cough. His eyes burned, and he vomitted in a corner of the room.

"I first thought the factory workers were doing some work. After some time I felt a little better and went back to sleep," he recalls.

But an hour later, he woke up again. This time a layer of smoke lay thick upon his one-room kuccha house. He could not see the rest of his family sleeping beside him.

"We ran outside. People were screaming and running against the direction of the wind," recalls Swaroop.

His family made their way through the crowds, away from the direction of the flow of gas.

The morning after revealed a horrific sight, one he will never forget, some trampled, some separated, most dead.

Though Ram Swaroop's family survived the night, they have lived in the shadow of the catastrophe ever since. His father was struck with paralysis and could not speak till his death three year ago. His mother suffers from severe itching all over her body. His sister has lost much of her hearing ability and complains of acute stomach aches. Swaroop himself has never been able to walk again.

Swaroop's knees are swollen. Since he cannot straighten his legs, he can only sit on the floor, and spends his whole day on the terrace overlooking the factory that put a stop to his studies, and changed the course of his entire life.

"It felt as if someone had thrown red chilli powder into our eyes," says his friend sitting beside him.

There are others who continue to suffer. "Just a week back, a man died here. He was suffering from lung cancer," says Sashi Bhushan, an unemployed youth of the colony.

Asthma, eye problems, paralysis, lung infections, stomach pains... the Bhopal gas victims have lived in constant agony. Their suffering has been accentuated by official apathy and governmental neglect.

Though the government set up institutions for the medical, economic and social needs of the victims, it has fallen short of their requirements.

The JNU hospital set up in 1986 for the victims is short staffed and often functions without basic medical facilities.

"We are supposed to get free medicines from there, but often times they tell us that medicines are out of supply. They then give us prescriptions to go and buy medicines from a private medical stone," says Tureabai.

Plagued with chromic asthma that almost shakes her entire body, frail Tureabai lost her husband to cancer one-and-a-half year back; the accident blinded her son for life. Her household barely manages to sustain itself in the 15 odd rupees that her daughter-in-law earns at the neighbouring masala factory.

Another cause for complaint for the victims is the lopsided and slow dispensation of the $470 million dollar compensation ordered by the Supreme Court.

"Of the approximately Rs 50,000 entitled to the victims, we have just about received a quarter of it in 13 years," says Shantibai -- another resident of the colony, who can't even find a job in the masala factory because she is old.

Residents say that even when they do get a cheque for a portion of the amount, one official or the other accompanies them to the bank and demands a cut of the money.

"All inflicted victims have folders which contain all over papers and claims," says Mohammad Hasan, a resident of another colony. "But there are incidents when the folder is in a Hindu's name and the money has gone to a Muslim."

"When we go to the Welfare Commissioner, we find our folders are missing," adds Taj Mohammad, another victim.

Years of running between many pillars and posts has reduced the spirit of the victims to abject hopelessness. Three NGOs -- Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti, Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan and Bhopal Group for information and action -- have filed a petition in the SC in the interest of the victims.

Meanwhile, victims say that their political leaders -- local MLAs, MP, CM -- have forgotten about them. "They just come for votes, sometimes they don't even do that," says Rukhsana Khatoon.

Yet, in spite of their disillusionment, many say they will cast their vote.

"You never know -- maybe they have a change of heart and give us our due," says Alam Rashid. Thirty year old Rashid had to give up his fairly profitable sugarcane stall because his asthma couldn't handle the manual machine. He now sells vegetables on a 'thela.'

But today, he had even given his sabzi thela a skip for that change.

" Jaat pe na paat me, mohar dalo haath pe," he yelled, and disappeared round the corner with a bunch of supporters.

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