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Bhopal Gas Tradegy: Victims’ fight for justice still on

Abdul Jabbar should have been planning for a quiet retirement, but life for this short, balding victim of the Bhopal gas tragedy is an unending struggle for justice. As convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, Jabbar, 58, is the most recognisable face of the plight of thousands of survivors. 

Jabbar says the industrial accident and the cover-up that ensued is a constant reminder of how the powerful can manipulate the system. “In the past 30 years, I have been offered everything from money to political positions. For me, this cause is bigger,” he says. 

Jabbar lost his brother, mother and father in the gas leak and its aftermath. He has a chest infection and needs special glasses to read. “I lost everything in the tragedy,” he says. His modest office in the Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan near Hamidia Hospital houses a training centre for victims and their families. 

On the night of December 2, 1984, Jabbar and a friend was asleep in their one-room house in Rajendra Nagar a few meters away from the Union Carbide plant. The sound of screaming woke them up. Like many others, Jabbar ran. 

The next morning when he went to the hospital to look for his family, he saw how the deaths were being concealed.  “Since then I have been fighting for the victims. They are my own people, people I have grown up with,” Jabbar says. 

A few months after the tragedy, when the government shut down the rehabilitation centre and stopped relief, Jabbar started Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan with the call, “Khairat nahin rozgar chahiye (We want work, not alms).”

The organisation has been instrumental in winning crucial battles for the victims, including the settlement between Union Carbide and the Indian government that paved the way for some sort of compensation, challenging the Supreme Court settlement in 1991, and reopening criminal cases against the accused. Now it working with other NGOs to clean up the contaminated plant site.

The son of a textile mill worker, Jabbar’s grew up in poverty. “I used to wash my school uniform in Bhopal’s Upper Lake and dry it to wear the next day. I had just one set,” he recalls. As a youth he did odd-jobs like pulling carts and digging borewells. “My idol is Shankar Guha Niyogi (a trade union leader and founder of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha) after I saw his work from up close,” he adds. 

Jabbar is hurt by allegations of his making money in the name of Bhopal gas victims. “It saddens me. But when people thank me for the help they received, I forget all these insinuations,” Jabbar says.

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