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BRAVE HEARTS

Shahid Noor and Hajra Bi, like thousands of others in Bhopal, were devastated when lethal gases leaked from the Union Carbide factory. But the two continue to fight for justice, 20 years after the tragedy



Hajra Bi and Shahid Noor: `We are sure that one day, we will get justice.' — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

THERE WERE two special visitors to the city recently. No, they were no suave film stars or charming sportspersons. If anything, Shahid Noor and Hajra Bi are themselves pawns in an unfortunate and tragic game. They are survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy, which has claimed as many as 20,000 lives since the disastrous night in December, 1984.

"Jo mar gaye to chale gaye... hum to roz mar rahe hain," (Those who died are gone... but we are dying every day), says Hajra Bi, wiping her tears. Even after all these years, she can clearly recall tragic events of the fateful day, choking on every word as she narrates it. She was resting in her home with her husband, their four children, and her mother-in-law. All of a sudden, the husband started coughing uncontrollably and rubbing his eyes as if "someone had thrown chilly powder into them". Others too felt a distinct discomfort. When they came out of the house, they were shocked to see hundreds of people fleeing. Some of them shouted to Hajra Bi and her husband: "Bhago, bhago..."

In the ensuing chaos, Hajra grabbed her 11-month-old baby Mehfuz Ali, while her husband carried the four-year-old Mansoor Ali and ran with others. "We could not think about anything at that time," says Hajra Bi, sobbing. "Only after we had run a long distance and reached Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital did we realise that two of our children had been left behind."

"The scene in the hospital was chaotic. People were crying and shrieking," recalls Hajra. "In the days and months that followed, life became intolerably painful and excruciating. Mansoor's lungs and ears had been severely damaged. Today, he is 24. He is deaf and virtually incapable of doing anything by himself. He cannot even lift anything that weighs beyond five kilos. "How do you expect me to see my child wasting away like this?" asks Hajra.


Shahid Noor intervenes: "There are thousands of men, women, and children facing the same plight in Bhopal today. Nothing has changed for them in all these years. The water we drink is still contaminated. Studies have shown high levels of heavy metals, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds in water samples collected from residential areas. We have to drink the same water and suffer more ailments. Many of us still go through several physical and mental disorders. In the Government Hospital, one doctor is expected to attend to 100 to 150 patients every day. There are unending queues. With no proper supply of medicines, corruption is rampant. Outside, the situation is even worse. There are no opportunities to work. No one wants to employ us. Children have grown up, but have been rendered useless by disease and disability. Widows and elderly people, who lost their kith and kin, are reduced to begging. Just imagine, the survivors get a monthly pension of Rs. 150 and that too after several months' delay. The Government promises much but does little. Even after so many years, the compensation received from Union Carbide is still with the Government and has not reached the survivors."

Despite the unmitigated hardships they have gone through and the depressing future that stares in the face, both Shahid and Hajra hang on to some hope. "We will continue to protest and demonstrate whenever we get an opportunity," they say. "We are sure that one day, we will get justice. Just yesterday, the Supreme Court has ordered that the Government is duty-bound to make arrangements for supply of clean drinking water to us. This is a landmark judgment, which has been achieved after years of struggle and legal battle."

ATHREYA

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