“I am not the one who retreats. I will continue my struggle, come what may. I will not lose courage.”

Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos
Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

Rampyari Bai is one of Bhopal’s most persistent survivors. Now aged 90, she began her struggle in the wake of the disaster. In 1984 she was living with her son and his wife in a shanty near the factory. Her daughter-in-law was seven months pregnant that night, and as the gas fumes filled the air, she suddenly went into labour.

“I poured water on her and carried her on my back, even though I felt giddy and my eyes were badly irritated,” recalls Rampyari. “I felt helpless. There were no vehicles on the road. Then I saw a minibus passing by and I told him that I wanted to take her to hospital. She was given an injection, but she died. She left behind three children: one girl who was a year old, one boy of four and another aged five.”

Cancer and compensation

Rampyari took up the struggle for justice and fair compensation, which she maintains she has yet to receive. “We are suffering from very many illnesses, of stomach, of arms and legs, of eyes… and all that they have given me is Rs25,000 (around US$400). They say: ‘You are not a gas victim.’ I ask them, ‘If I didn’t suffer from the gas leak, why do I have so many diseases?’

In 1989, survivors were awarded US$470 million in compensation – an amount that fell far short of estimates of the damage at the time. One independent estimate put the cost of medical research, treatment, economic rehabilitation and legal costs at just over US$4.1 billion.

Rampyari developed oral cancer, among a list of other difficulties including breathlessness and joint pain – two common complaints among gas survivors. Yet, despite her many health concerns and her advanced years, she continues to protest, enduring beatings and injury. She says simply that protesting keeps her alive.

In 2011, she took part in a successful street action against Dow Chemical, the multinational company that bears responsibility towards survivors of the gas leak. Activists blocked trains from passing through Bhopal, which lies at the heart of India. “[Police] showered batons on us, but we were doing a peaceful protest, were merely shouting slogans,” says Rampyari. “They had beaten me so badly, four people lifted me and moved me from there.” As a result, she is not as nimble as she once was.

“Now I have become a bit dependent as my legs don’t work,” she admits ruefully. “Otherwise, I can give them a tough fight. Relatives never ask me not to go for rallies. Even now, sometimes I go… and I give a rousing speech there.”

Accidental activist

Rampyari has since left her old home and now lives with her foster son – Namdev who took her in out of sheer devotion to her.

She lives with him in a lime green house, on a narrow road near the ‘Corporation’ ward. To get there, you have to negotiate the ubiquitous banana stalls, wheeled along by their sellers, and impatient motorcyclists. When we visit her in September, the dirt road leading to her house is dug up by the rains, lined with shops, idling tuktuks and a sleeping goat.

He has served me more than my own relatives,” Rampyari says glancing at Namdev. “He has been looking after all my medical treatment. He is more than my own son.”

Rampyari’s journey to becoming an activist has been a long one. A difficult one, too. With no formal education and from a working class background, she had no previous involvement in social justice causes.

“I am just an illiterate person,” she says. I haven’t learnt anything, can’t even differentiate between short and long [vowels]. If I were literate, I would have done a lot of things, but now what do I do? I can only speak my mind.”

And so she does. She speaks her mind over and over, never mincing words when it comes to the community’s demands.

“We demand that there shall be medical treatment for us,” she says. “We also must get our compensation money. We gas victims must be given a monthly pension – at least a thousand rupees. This is our demand and we will definitely fight for this. How do we survive, when we can’t work anymore to earn our bread?”

Passing the baton

Rampyari is intensely aware of her role in spurring new generations to action for Bhopal. She worries that the effects of living with water and soil contamination from the decaying pesticide factory have left many far younger than her with health defects. And so, her advice to those following in her path, is unflinching.

“We went for protests at many places and had so many rallies,” she says. “Now [others] don’t have to face the torture that we faced in the past. We faced such brutal repression that we virtually walked over thorns. We swam across drains, had to run away when police ran behind us, but we didn’t step away from this struggle. I tell this to everyone – my sisters, brothers, mothers and daughters – that they must learn from our struggle. They must have courage and never step behind in the struggle.

“I will not leave this task of chasing governments. I will fight for justice for gas victims. Until I get compensation, I will keep fighting – even till I die. I will fight even from the other world. Till my last breath, I will keep fighting.”