Home / Politics / Policy /  From gas tragedy survivor to activist

Bhopal: Abdul Jabbar began fighting for the rights of people around him decades ago when he demanded a clean environment for people in his neighbourhood where smoke used to billow from a brick kiln.

And he helped neighbours get ration cards.

But what turned out to be his lifelong fight came along on the night of 2-3 December 1984.

Jabbar, a construction worker who used to dig borewells, was sleeping in his home when lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas descended on the city of Bhopal after leaking from the Union Carbide India Ltd factory.

Rajendra Nagar, where Jabbar stayed with his mother, was 1.5km from the factory.

When the gas with its odour of burning chilli entered his house, Jabbar took out his scooter and drove his mother out of town.

When he returned later that night after leaving his mother in safety, some 40km away, the streets of Rajendra Nagar were lined with dead bodies.

“I started bubbling over with anger. But at that point, as a representative of the colony, it was my duty to help these people," says the activist, now 58.

That night, he helped many people get treatment at the state hospital, and got bodies taken for post-mortem.

Jabbar’s struggle for Bhopal victims had only just begun.

Thirty years on, in any of the gas-affected neighbourhoods, ‘Jabbar Bhai’ is a household name.

In 1987, he set up the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (Bhopal Gas Female Victims’ Association), an advocacy and recognition group for victims and survivors, and took out protest marches demanding sustenance allowance and compensation, especially for widows of gas victims.

“We carried out so many protests in Delhi those days, and created quite a stir in Parliament," Jabbar recalls.

After the settlement of compensation for victims in 1989, Jabbar started focusing on skill development for those who suffered from physical ailments. Today, women can be seen working on sewing machines in the modest building where Jabbar started the Swabhimaan Kendra (self-respect centre), an economic rehabilitation centre, which, he says, has helped at least 5,000 women get jobs.

“It angered me to see the government distributing milk and ration, but not employment. It was crippling them."

“Khairaat nai, rozgaar chahiye (not charity, we want jobs)," he says, quoting the slogan for the campaign. On his left is a Danish journalist and her translator waiting to interview him, and on his right are piles after piles of yellow postcards—20,000 of them—addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster.

The wall behind him is covered with pictures of maimed victims of the disaster.

Jabbar did not escape the effects of exposure to the gas. Today, he suffers from lung fibrosis, and the vision in his eyes has diminished by around 50%. Along the road to justice, he lost his mother, father and brother, who suffered from the after-effects of the gas leak. “Today, the most troubling aspect from both the central and the state governments is that people did not get justice. There was no proper compensation, medical rehabilitation, economic rehabilitation, or environmental rehabilitation," Jabbar says.

He thinks it’s a shame that Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide Corp. at the time of the gas leak, died before India could bring him to justice; that the nation did not even know of his death until after a month when the media reported it.

“You rent a house and you mess it up in your own way. Before you leave the house, should you not check the mess you have left in all the rooms?" Jabbar asks.

It’s a mess activists like Jabbar have been left to clean up.

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