Victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy lose their relentless advocate, Abdul Jabbar

Abdul Jabbar standing in his organisation office- BGPMUS.

  • Abdul Jabbar, a social activist, who fought for justice for victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the world’s worst industrial disaster, died last month.
  • It has been 35 years of the disaster and 10,000 people have been estimated to have been died over the years due to the ongoing after effects of the gas leak.
  • Jabbar, who lead a relentless struggle to get medical and economic rehabilitation for the victims of Bhopal Gas Disaster, is said to have died from lack of proper treatment.

The Bhopal gas leak tragedy in December 1984, considered to be the world’s worst industrial disaster, is estimated to have killed 10,000 people over 35 years in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The escape of about 40 tonnes of highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a storage tank of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant, located in a crowded working-class neighbourhood in Bhopal that fateful night, resulted in a chemical catastrophe that still haunts the central Indian city.

But even as the leak wreaked unimaginable havoc on people, some rose above their sufferings to help others in the tragic aftermath.

Abdul Jabbar was one of them.

A social activist, who fought for victims and survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy, Jabbar died last month at a private hospital in Bhopal. He had lost 50 percent of his vision and suffered lung fibrosis in the disaster

What happened that night

“Poisonous gases, heavier than air, wafted across 40 square kilometres, covering about 36 of the city’s 56 municipal wards. These gases have caused the deaths of more than 20,000 people (over several years) and inflicted injuries in varying degree on over 550,000 others,” says N.D. Jayaprakash, co-convener, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSS), an organisation representing victims of the tragedy.

With the emergency warning sirens switched off, gas crept into the homes of unsuspecting residents of nearby slum areas who thought the stinging sensation in their eyes and noses was due to dry red chillies being tempered by some neighbour cooking a meal.

At least that is what Jabbar, then 28, thought as he woke up after inhaling the toxic gas in his home in Rajendra Nagar, around three kilometres from the UCIL plant. But he soon realised that something was amiss as he rushed out coughing and with burning eyes and blurred vision. He immediately headed out on his scooter with his mother and brother, while his father was away on night shift duty.

Around him, many died in their beds, others ran away from their homes, blinded and choking, only to breathe their last on roads, in alleys and on railway tracks.

Jabbar headed to the state highway and from there, onward to Obaidulla Ganj, about 36 km from Bhopal. His goal was to escape the poisonous gas by moving away from the city. But the damage had been done.

Over the following three decades, the impact of the gas spill that fateful night, ate away at Jabbar’s family. Jabbar, the son of a security guard of Bhopal Textile Mill, lost his mother, father and an elder brother to the after-effects of this disaster. And he finally succumbed to the effects too, last month.

When the going got tough…

The sight of dead bodies and dead cattle strewn all over town scarred Jabbar for life. The apathy that followed from the state and central governments and UCIL spurred the young borewell fitter into action.

In January 1986, a little over a year after the disaster, Jabbar formed a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (Bhopal Gas Victims Women Industry Organization or BGPMUS) to demand justice for survivors of the gas leak disaster. The NGO held demonstrations demanding adequate compensation and employment opportunities for widows. The relief assistance deployed by the Madhya Pradesh government immediately after the gas disaster (in December 1985) included 200 ml of milk every day and 5 kg of food ration to affected families every month. Jabbar opposed it as inadequate and coined a slogan – “we don’t want pittance, we want jobs” – that became the war cry for women in the community, fighting for justice.

Jabbar aimed to reach out to survivors of the gas tragedy through his efforts. In 1986 he started biweekly meetings at Bhopal’s Yaadgaar-i-Shahjahani Park, a memorial that marks India’s fight against British rule. Every Tuesday and Saturday hundreds of survivors would stream in along with more victims, who had no access to medical treatment or faced administrative hurdles in drawing pension or denied compensation. Stories of struggle and heart, hope and perseverance were shared. It became a support system of sorts for the survivors. From 1993, the meetings were conducted once week, and continue till date.

Alongside the weekly meetings and work with Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan, Jabbar also undertook the task of seeking more answers from the judiciary.

In 1988, Jabbar pleaded before the Supreme Court for interim relief packages for the gas victims until their final compensation came through. As a result of his efforts, the government opened tailoring centres where over 2,300 women got employment and received training in tailoring and zardozi (the traditional art of embroidering with ornate metallic thread). The centres are no longer functional.

That extra mile

Under Jabbar’s guidance, BGPMUS took up various causes from restarting disaster-related medical research, monitoring and recording the health status of the gas disaster victims, demanding improvement in health care facilities and appropriate protocol for treatment of each disaster-related ailment, demanding free medical care and compensation to all victims of contaminated water, remediation of the estimated 1,100,000 metric tons of contaminated soil and toxic waste lying in and around the now-defunct UCIL plant, hike in pension for widowers, or provision of safe drinking water to the affected population residing in and around the former UCIL plant.

Due to sustained agitations by BGPMUS and BGPSSS and petitions, the Union of India directed the ICMR to restart medical research on the adverse impact of the toxic gases on the gas-victims after a gap of 16 years. The Union of India also agreed to initiate steps to remediate the contaminated site in and around the UCIL plant,” says N.D. Jayaprakash, co-convener, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSS).

Fifty-nine-year-old Shamshad Bi, who lost her five-year-old son Rajain during the gas leakage and her husband to the impacts of the gas leak, a few years later says: “It was my desire to fight against the people and authorities due to whom I was forced to suffer losses. Bhai (Abdul Jabbar) helped me to understand the cases filed against the government for better health care facilities, compensation and pension for the gas victims.” Shamshad is a resident of JP Nagar slum, situated stone throw away from the now-abandoned pesticide plant.

Memorial by Dutch artist Ruth Kupferschmidt for those killed and disabled by the 1984 toxic gas release. Photo by Luca Frediani uploaded by Simone.lippi/Wikimedia Commons

Soft-spoken but determined, Jabbar bhai, as he was known to the community, was driven by empathy and a feeling of responsibility towards the community that had suffered so much and never got their due. His own life wasn’t much different – Jabbar left behind his wife and three children, in a one-room asbestos-covered house, a bank loan of over Rs 1 lakh, and unpaid school fees of over Rs 60,000.

“After the gas tragedy over two dozens voluntary organisations had sprung up in Bhopal. But, only Jabbar’s Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS) remained active and completely dedicated to the victims’ rehabilitation. He was shy of seeking funds. In fact, despite repeated advice by his friends to create a corpus (for which many of his well-wishers had expressed their eagerness to contribute) was always dismissed by him with cynicism. His belief was that fund collection led to various troubles, feels Rasheed Kidwai, a close friend of Jabbar and visiting fellow at Observer Research Foundation.

“Round the year, when Jabbar was not busy in finalising a petition or appeal to seek relief for the victims, he could be found busy in running around Gas Relief hospitals or dispensaries pleading the case of some survivor who had earlier been turned away. During his visit to the centre, often Jabbar could be found trying to find some soft employment for those whose physical strength had been devasted by the effect of the MiC gas inhaled when the tragedy had occurred. Jabbar gave assistance to almost every gas victim and survivors whenever they faced problems in getting medicine, processing their papers for compensation, or getting admission and proper treatment in the hospitals and dispensaries,” says N D Sharma, senior journalist and former bureau chief of the Indian Express newspaper.

Paying tribute to the victims on the 35th anniversary of Bhopal gas tragedy recently, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath said: “The terrible consequences we have witnessed in the world’s worst industrial disaster are lessons for all of us. And contribution of Abdul Jabbar, the convener of the Bhopal Gas Victims Women Industry Organization, who fought throughout his life for the relief and rehabilitation and treatment of the gas victims, especially women will always be remembered.”


Banner image: Abdul Jabbar standing in his organisation office. Photo courtesy Bhopal Gas Victims Women Industry Organisation.

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