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1984 gas tragedy | Padma Shri for Bhopal’s gritty crusader

Posthumous honour for Abdul Jabbar who fought relentlessly for the victims of the Union Carbide gas leak

Abdul Jabbar, a gas victim, waged a lonely and seemingly never-ending battle for the welfare of the survivors of 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. His relentless struggle for over three decades brought medical and economic rehabilitation to the scores of victims. He will be awarded the Padma Shri posthumously on Monday at the Darbar Hall at Rashtrapathi Bhavan.

Jabbarbhai, as he was widely referred to in Bhopal, lived in penury. With his wife and three young children, he stayed in a one-room asbestos shed, sharing a common toilet with his younger brother’s family, till his death on November 14, 2019. He turned down several offers of help from governments, politicians and friends from corporate houses, preferring to stay with the victims for whom he fought.

For over three decades since the deadly gas leak, agitating for medical and economic rehabilitation of the survivors, lodging complaints against corrupt officials and demanding a bed and medicine for a gas victim had become a daily routine for Jabbar.

Jabbar and his Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS) never took funds from the corporate donors and foreign agencies; instead they provided vocational training to widows of victims of the gas tragedy and others from weaker sections of the society.

This emphasis on self-employment through skill development was among the toughest decisions Jabbarbhai ever made. Once the beneficiaries became self-reliant, he ensured them orders for tailoring, bag making, and the traditional unique Bhopali batau (string purses with Zardozi work) from big shop owners.

Despite his meagre means, Jabbar and his organisation filed frequent judicial petitions through public-spirited lawyers, seeking relief for the victims, medical care, more compensation, cleaning of toxic waste dumped in the premises of Union Carbide factory since the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, leading street agitations, joining similar people’s movements, helping riot victims, opposing demolition drives, planting samplings, protesting against the construction of buildings, hotels close to the lakes.

Bhopal Gas tragedy: A chronology of events

And over time, his rallies and protests found more space for women.

There is an inspiring story how Jabbar became a dedicated social crusader. The son of a cloth mill employee, Jabbar worked as a borewell contractor till the night of the deadly gas leak from the Union Carbide factory. After a lethal vapours reached his house, Jabbar, his brother and mother fled the city on a scooter to Obaidulaganj. He returned safe, but soon lost his father, mother and a brother due to the after effects of the gas. His own lungs and eyesight were badly damaged.

The scene of dead bodies, children and old gasping and walking without any vision looking for fresh air on the outskirts of the city and ruins of the Union Carbide plant remaining untouched behind the factory walls drew him into the crusade for justice.

Then 28-years-old, Jabbar begun working with the survivors of the tragedy. He started from his locality and never waited for the help from the government to provide jobs and compensation. Instead he succeeded in setting up training centres, tailoring centres, coordinated with lawyers who would help his organisation to file petitions in the courts. A person of few words and more action, the Padma Shri is a recognition of the fact that whatever came to the victims of the gas tragedy had been hard fought for.

“The Padma Shri Award to Jabbar is recognition of the fact that he was in the forefront of the struggle for justice for the Bhopal gas victims. It also symbolises the fact that the Bhopal disaster was a cause worth fighting for. Under the circumstances, it is at least theoretically incumbent on the Government to take care of the interests of the gas victims,” N. D. Jayaprakash, co-convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) said.

“I hope Bhopal, its people and others will always remember his work and contribution in rebuilding the life of gas victims,” Saira Bano, his wife, told The Hindu.

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