The widows of the Bhopal gas tragedy live in a residential complex called Vidhwa Colonya Kafkaesque and dystopic world not unlike a penal settlement from another era
Bhopal: From its tactless name to the design of its buildings and absence of the most basic civic amenities, everything about this place points to neglect and flawed rehabilitation—a ghetto of widows who are victims twice over.
Lying a little outside Bhopal’s city limits in Karond village, it is a settlement of women who survived the Union Carbide chemical holocaust 30 years ago. Their husbands did not.
They live in a residential complex called Vidhwa (widow) Colony—a Kafkaesque and dystopic world not unlike a penal settlement from another era.
Here, the taps run dry, the drains are choked with filth, the drinking water supply line is mixed with the sewage pipeline and electricity supply is erratic.
Nearly every widow here is either a patient herself or cares for someone suffering from ailments caused by exposure to the 2-3 December 1984 leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from Union Carbide India Ltd’s (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal.
The diseases range from cancer, lung injuries and the aftermath of cardiac failures to neurological disorders. “Aise jeene se to maut aasan hai. Jo tab mar gaye, woh bach gaye (it’s better to have died than to live like this)," said 56-year-old Jamna Bi, who lost her husband and mother-in-law after 40 tonnes of MIC leaked from the UCIL plant.
The so-called Gas Widows’ colony was built by the Madhya Pradesh government in 1992. It is essentially a multistorey slum with 2,486 one and two-bedroom apartments. The state government announced a monthly pension of ₹ 275 that would take care of them in their new homes and pay for medical care and other expenses that living entails. This tiny amount remained the same until 2010, when the central government revised it to ₹ 1,000 per month. Even this was discontinued in April 2014, after an audit revealed that the arrears had been wrongly paid.
“I was given a first instalment of ₹ 18,000. My lawyer (pursuing the compensation case in Bhopal’s district court) kept ₹ 16,000 and said I could keep the second instalment completely. We were later informed that there was a clerical error in calculation of the pensions and so it was discontinued," said 60-year-old Seema Bi, who now works as a domestic help to make ends meet.
The Madhya Pradesh government’s deeply flawed rehabilitation plans for the widows fell to pieces almost as soon as the flats were allotted. To begin with, the government handed over the apartments without ensuring basic sewage disposal, a problem that has now grown to pose one of the biggest health crises for residents.
In 1998, eight residents died of cholera in Vidhwa Colony.
“The height of the building was the problem—most people living in the colony had respiratory illnesses and could not climb four flights of stairs. Clearly, very little thought was put into this," said Abdul Jabbar, convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS), a civil society organization fighting to get the women’s pensions reinstated.
“None of the top floor houses got water supply. The area was not connected well by public transport, did not have street lights or schools, hospitals or even employment opportunities. This is a classic example of dumping the city’s garbage outside in the name of rehabilitation. That place is a dump yard," added Jabbar.
In 2010, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had promised to turn Vidhwa Colony into a “model town". On the occasion of the festival of Rakhi, when brothers pledge to protect their sisters, he renamed the settlement Jeevan Jyoti colony and adopted all the residents as his “Rakhi sisters".
The Madhya Pradesh government sanctioned ₹ 15 crore to fix sewage and drainage, build roads and maintain the apartment buildings. It promised to set up an Anganwadi centre, a higher secondary school and a vocational training centre in the colony.
Four years later, only the nomenclature remains changed.
Between 1989-1993, over 2,000 widows were accommodated here but over the years, nearly half of the original allottees have moved out, preferring to give the flats out on rent.
“The municipal corporation cleans the area when a politician is about to visit, usually before an anniversary. The sewage system is so dysfunctional that the filth flows back into our houses now. It also gets mixed in our drinking water pipeline," said Irshad Khan, who rents a flat originally allotted to a ‘gas widow’. “Once their children start earning, most women move out of the settlement and rent out the flats allotted to them. Who would want to live like this?"
Pensions and official records are buried in bureaucratic jargon that are impossible to make any sense of. According to the state government, Jeevan Jyoti colony has a total of 4,422 pensioners under various social benefit schemes such as widow pension, differently abled pension, senior citizen pension and below poverty line benefits.
Of these, 2,914 people are supposed to have postal accounts. But officially only 873 beneficiaries are registered in the municipal ward and of them, only 350 have post office accounts.
“The main cause of the problem in Bhopal has been faulty survey, which has been greatly addressed through ongoing Aadhaar seeding," said Nishant Warwade, district collector, Bhopal.
This problem, he said, will be solved once all beneficiaries have core banking system accounts.
“The widows pension had run into some difficulty due to overdrawal by some beneficiaries. It has been restarted after an enquiry now with appropriate deductions over a period of time to readjust the (withdrawals). Some unscrupulous elements found guilty in this shall face action as per law," chief minister Chouhan said in reply to e-mailed queries.
He also pledged to fix the drainage system soon. “The sewage system needs a complete revamp on account of changed gradient, which has adversely affected the drainage system.
“After a proper scrutiny and advice of experts, a ₹ 4.12 crore project has been sanctioned, agency identified and work is to begin shortly. The municipal corporation of Bhopal will oversee this work and it should be completed in the next three months," Chouhan added.
Such help will come too late for some victims of the gas leak tragedy, an event that for 30 years has cast a long shadow on Bhopal.
The trajectory of 34-year-old Sunil’s life captures these decades of neglect most succinctly.
The night that gas leaked from the plant, Sunil lost his parents and five siblings. Along with his younger sister, he was placed in an orphanage run by the charity SOS Children’s Villages in Bhopal.
In 1994, his sister turned 18 and both had come ‘of age’ and could not stay in the orphanage any longer. “They moved to the widows’ colony and initially he was fine. But slowly the lack of a support system started getting to him. He used to work but after moving here, his mental health progressively deteriorated," adds BGPMUS’ Jabbar.
He was found hanging from the ceiling of his flat in Widows Colony on 26 July 2006. He was wearing a black tee shirt that said No More Bhopals.
“People have just been boxed together with little or no support from the system. With each passing year, there are fewer of us left to demand rights, fight for it or even remind people of what happened in Bhopal," said Jamna Bi. “Eventually, we will all be dead and no one will be left to chase after the government or companies. They can feel happy thinking that the day is coming soon."
Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.
Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint.
our App Now!!