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The Rediff Interview/Bhopal activist Abdul Jabber

December 09, 2004

Twenty years is a long time to struggle for any cause. But Abdul Jabber is not tired yet. He compares his fight for the rights of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy with the freedom struggle. "These things take time," he tells Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji in his office in Bhopal.

Jabber runs two organisations -- the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti and the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan. The first works for the rights of the Bhopal gas victims, fighting their cases and for their relief and rehabilitation, while the second employs the female victims.

Jabber, a native of Bhopal, is among the most active and respectable voices today speaking for the gas victims.

What is the situation like in Bhopal now?

The situation for victims is much the same as it was on December 3, 1984. The relief and rehabilitation programmes meant for the victims have been garnered by other people such as politicians, agents, even some social workers, especially some NGOs.

For the victims, the gas disaster is a curse; for many others it is a gift that they have exploited. Those travelling in scooters [autorickshaws] yesterday, today keep cars. No doubt some people made money out of it.

In 1988, the state government had said that per day some 2,800 (gas) victims visit the city's hospitals for treatment. Today, the same hospitals say they handle 4,500 OPD patients per day. Along with the patients handled by the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre, a total of 6,500 patients are handled per day. The number of patients admitted for treatment is around 30,000. Moreover, there are about 1,000 private practitioners and perhaps the same number of quacks who daily treat gas victims. Put all these figures together and we know that the gas victims' problems have not reduced.

We have also ignored the victims' psychological treatment. There are many who are unable to overcome depression. The mental health aspect has been ignored.

Why has this happened?

We did not look into all the health problems that arose (after the gas leak), and many were not anticipated. This is what happens when you centralise everything. The social workers in the bastis (colonies) are better equipped to know what the problems are and to find solutions to them.

Not just health, but economic, sanitation, environmental (issues) and colony management could all have been handled better by people in the bastis.

That is why I say the gas victims' ailments are increasing, and the reason for that is that their problems are not being handled properly. Otherwise, why would the number of dispensaries and private doctors increase so much?

The government spends Rs 40 crore per year simply on medical facilities for the gas victims and if even then private practitioners are thriving. In fact, I would say that Bhopal has become a huge medical industry.

Also see: The living corpses of Bhopal | Pictures: DeathSmog Day

Is it also a case of lack of will to help the victims?

Certainly. Some complain that giving compensation has become an industry also. For over 20 years, the government has been unable to distribute Rs 25,000 (each) among the victims. When elections are held, within a week the results are out and ministries are formed. So, it is the lack of political will in helping the gas victims that makes the difference. And that is the sad situation in Bhopal.

Why is that so?

Only because the victims are poor. If this gas leak had occurred over New Bhopal (the newer, much more affluent section of the city), then the situation would have been different.

Could it also be that newer residents, who arrived here after 1984, are now claiming compensation?

No, that is not likely. Most of the gas victims have their cards and identity proof on the basis of which they get compensation and free medical treatment in hospitals.

Talking of claims, many victims claim they have not been given anything. When it was first announced that victims would be compensated, many of the victims simply did not believe the government. Also, after a disaster, the first reaction is merely that of gratitude to Allah Ishwar for sparing one's life. So many people did not give their names to relief officers. Also, many did not have ration cards to prove that they were residents of the affected areas as they claimed, so they were left out.

Then, when in 1996 the compensation claims were reopened for those who had been left out, some 400,000 people registered. Today, the total number of victims stands at 570,000 and there are now some 40,000 who claim they were not compensated.

There are complaints that some who did not deserve compensation got it.

And for this, I blame the government. I had suggested that instead of registering individuals for compensation, register families. The government had the records or they could have gone door-to-door and registered each and every family with photographs.

In 1992, claims courts were started. Till now, for the first compensation, most injured victims were given just Rs 25,000 and the families of dead were given Rs 100,000. But even claims courts have 11,000 cases pending. In the high court, some 4,000 cases are pending. This only shows how poor the disbursal of compensation is.

If the 40 welfare courts could not, after all these years, give out the compensation, one wonders what was the purpose of setting them up. It would have been better to simply send out money orders to the victims.

Worse, bribery shot up. Even doctors demanded money to appear in courts on behalf of the victims.

Are you also demanding more compensation since the number of victims has shot up over what was earlier calculated?

Yes, we have made that demand. Even then we had said that the number of victims would be more. At that time many people branded us agents of Union Carbide, saying we were not willing to accept the settlement that had been arrived at. But now it is clearly evident that it is (the number of victims) five times more, so who is the agent of Union Carbide?

Also see:
The story so far | Bhopal Tragedy, 20 Years On

Optimistically, what is the way out? Years later, so little seems to have changed.

We have to fight. If we had not struggled as we have, then even this half-baked compensation would not have come our way. And the best example is the way the Supreme Court ordered the balance amount to be distributed, otherwise it would have just stayed with the government. It is clear we have to fight for our rights.

Also, one should not see it as '20 years later so little.' The struggle for independence went on for 90 long years, starting with the first war of independence in 1857. It is like asking why did it take 90 years? These things take time.

I remember, some years ago at a seminar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, Maneka Gandhi had said that the Narmada and Bhopal agitations have gone on for too long. To that, I had replied only those living in air-conditioned houses can talk like that; those who know the ground realities know that such struggles take time. We can fight, and we will.

Talking of fighting, does it appear that there are too many activists often working at cross-purposes and fighting for the sake of fighting rather than for an end result?

Today, Bhopal has become a key issue in the world. It involves a multinational corporation, many victims, environmental hazard, and has also become a media event. Many take the issue very seriously and this has no doubt had a positive effect. But there are those who cash in on the issue for personal glory.

I am a local person and so is my organisation. And I do get upset when people all over the world cash in on Bhopal's tragedy, collecting donations in England that we never even get to see.

It is no doubt tragic to see people take advantage of the tragedy. Some responsibility lies with the media too for falling prey to those who write better than they work!

There have been reports that soil and water in Bhopal too have been contaminated. There was a BBC report on this.

The BBC report is the seventh such report blaming Union Carbide for contaminating the soil and groundwater. Among the earlier reports are two government reports also. But one wonders why the government does not accept its own report. The reports say that the groundwater is contaminated and the residents of 25 colonies should be given piped water. But that is not being done and the suspicion is it is only because the residents are poor. Give such water to the middle-class and there would be huge trouble.

The government too appears culpable?

Actually, if you analyse the whole tragedy, far more guilty than Union Carbide are the governments of India and Madhya Pradesh. First, the factory (manufacturing pesticides) was within city limits, which was wrong.

Then before the big tragedy, at least 19 smaller accidents had taken place at the factory between 1978 and 1984, clearly proving that something was seriously wrong. A fire had taken place that troubled people. Workers who were sent to clean up the pipes died after inhaling the noxious fumes. One such case occurred on December 25, 1981.

Third, the license given to Union Carbide was to manufacture light chemicals, but they were manufacturing heavy chemicals. Now why wasn't this inspected and stopped?

Fourth, they were using outdated technology at the plant. In fact, Union Carbide was in the process of selling off this plant since it was proving unviable, but till such time, they decided to keep it going by reducing costs. So instead of four operators they had one; instead of four cooling plants they had just one. In fact, an internal safety audit said the plant had some 32 problems.

(Atal Bihari) Vajpayee told me when he met some Union Carbide officials (while on a trip to the US in the late 1980s) and asked how much they would pay, because at that time, India was claiming Rs 3,900 crore as compensation. Vajpayee said Union Carbide replied they would pay Rs 1,300 crore. But we settled for Rs 715 crore.

So Vajpayee asked: Where did the remaining over Rs 500 crore go?

The tragedy is that all the political parties did nothing. These parties talk of helping the poor but no one actually did anything. In fact, if the political parties had been active, then there would have been no need for people like me to raise the issues. But since the political parties did nothing that we had to step in.

It would appear that the politicians are seen as being the culprits. Talk to any of the victims and they invariably abuse the politicians with venom.

They have themselves to blame. I have known the present chief minister (Babulal Gaur) for the last 25 years. And when I met him recently, I told him that the only way the politicians can win back some respect is by keeping the promises it has made. So they should build the roads they promised, provide the water they promised, and so forth. Let us see what happens next.

What do you plan next?

From our side, we plan another series of rallies, bringing together various well-known activists to put pressure on the government.

Our demand is simple: there should be no more Bhopals in the country.

Bhopal is not just about a gas leak, but also about people's rights. It is about ensuring that people get employment, that drinking water from the ground is not pumped by Pepsi and Coke. Such a situation is another Bhopal.

And for the victims...

We had asked the government that those injured and old... those who cannot find employment or are unable to work due to ailments should be given a lifetime pension of about Rs 1,000. Some victims have developed cancer, some tuberculosis, and they should be treated soon. The tragedy is that till today, there is no master list containing the names of all the victims.

The victims are now suffering economic deprivation too.

Earlier, the government would give out rations to the victims and we would see long queues waiting to collect the rations. We had warned this was wrong because it was creating a dependency culture, a bit like receiving alms. We had said even if their working ability is reduced, employ them in suitable jobs. This would keep them mentally and physically occupied.

Anything else you would like to say...

I think it is most important that we don't forget the gas tragedy. Let us note how the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki every year mark the tragedy of their bombing. Similarly, we too must remember this tragedy if only to ensure that it never happens again.

I was shocked to read that on December 3, the 20th anniversary of the world's worst industrial disaster, in Gwalior (a city about 300 km north of Bhopal) a cultural event was organised to celebrate Tansen's music. Could they not find another date or at least hold it a day later?

Image Design: Rahil Shaikh

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