Bhopal: Sajida Bano, who was the first to be widowed by Union Carbide’s in 1981 may have escaped the traditional widowhood sufferings, but was unable to escape from being a marginalized widow because of weak social institutions, stemming from lax rule of law, malfunctioning bureaucracy and prevailing corruption.
Her story begins on the night of December 21, 1981, when her husband Ashraf Khan left home to work in the night shift at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant at Bhopal. Few hours after he resumed his duty, he was exposed to poisonous gases. Two-days later, Ashraf passed away, breathing his last at the intensive care unit of Madhya Pradesh’s then biggest Government Hospital – Gandhi Medical College & Hamidia Hospital, situated nearly 3 kms from the pesticide plant.
After Ashraf Khan’s untimely death, the company, Union Carbide, seems to have used its clout to protect its self interest by exerting influence over the politically powerful, concerned institutions, the bureaucracy and all those others in authority. As a result, the administrative machinery and all those influential players did all they could to downplay the incident due to which the widow and her two children were denied justice. Hence, the life, time and journey of Sajida and her two infants turned for the worse in three different ways.
1: Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which owned 50.9 percent shares of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) awarded Sajida Bano and her two kids full and final compensation of Rs 50,000 which would be just pittance as compared to the compensation that UCC would have had to dish out for a similar accident in the US Sajida was not consulted during the settlement proceedings and, understandably, she felt cheated by the low amount awarded as full and final compensation.
“Carbide ki taraf sei yahee paisa (Rs 50,000) hame mila tha (this was the only amount we had received from Carbide)”, the late Sajida Bano, who passed away in 2020, had told me once. In other words, Rs 50,000 with decreasing purchasing power over a 38 year period would have amounted to a measly sum of just 0.27 paisa a day!
In the case relating to Ashraf’s death, there is no doubt that the UCIL, the administration and the powers that be – all came together – to thwart the rights of Sajida and her kids.
2: The UCIL successfully managed to evade existing labour legislations that could have forced it to abide by necessary labour laws for maintaining a proper and safe working environment for all the parties concerned. The relevance of the dignity of human labour and the need for protecting and safeguarding the interest of labour as human beings enshrined in Chapter-III (Articles 16, 19, 23 & 24) and Chapter IV (Articles 39, 41, 42, 43, 43A & 54) of the Constitution of India keeping in line with Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy were largely overlooked. More significantly, labour is a concurrent subject under the 7th Schedule of the Constitution of India implying that both the Union and the state governments are competent to legislate on labour matters and administer the same.
That is to say, if the State Government and influential sections of society had shown adequate interest and concern about the accidental death of Ashraf Khan due to exposure to toxic substances at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant not only would Sajida and her kids have secured significantly larger monetary benefits but also in all likelihood appropriate preventive measures would have been taken to avert any probable disaster. Due to gross indifference and failure of the State Government and others to pay necessary attention to the alarming circumstance that had led to Ashraf’s untimely death, no precautionary steps were taken to stave-off the impending disaster either. As a result, the residents of Bhopal were soon forced to pay a heavy price for such criminal negligence on the part of the concerned authorities.
3: It was not just regarding the award of compensation that the interests of the company and the administration appeared to merge. The attempt to get hold of a proper autopsy report was yet another challenge for the widow. Apparently, autopsies on bodies are done by the ‘safai karamchari’—the mortuary’s cleaner – after the doctor assigns the task to him.
According to reports, it is the ‘safai karamcharis’ who cut open bodies, inspect them inside and outside for injuries, remove the organs and weigh them before putting them back into the stomach cavity, stitch the bodies up, wrap them in plastic and a cotton sheet, and hand them back to the families. The forensic doctor usually arrives half an hour after the commencement of the autopsy on the body but he himself avoids touching the corpse. Instead, he observes and writes down his reports, often asking the concerned safai karamchari to describe what is visible to him. .
Sajida was very hopeful of getting hold of the autopsy report that would have shed light on the causes that had led to her husband’s untimely death.
However, Sajida’s requests for a copy of her late husband’s autopsy report were repeatedly rejected by the concerned public institutions, which was a reflection of the discriminatory, discourteous, and apathetic attitude that is often adopted by them while dealing with the poor and the weak. The same institutions would treat the rich and the powerful in an entirely different manner. Even an advocate’s intervention on Sajida’s behalf was of little help. The widow, who had to look after her two young children on her own, was deeply distressed because of her inability to enforce her rights effectively. Her tragic existence did not end there; another major misfortune was to confront her yet again.
On the 2-3, December 1984 night, a second tragedy struck Sajida and her two sons when they arrived at the Bhopal Railway Station at around 1.35 pm from Kanpur, her hometown. The poisonous gas plume had engulfed Bhopal just about an hour earlier; the huge station was filled with dead bodies and those still alive were coughing and vomiting because of exposure to toxic gases that had leaked from the Union Carbide plant. Thus, Sajida and her two sons were also exposed to the toxic gases. Her elder son passed away within a few hours; Sajida and the youngest one barely managed to survive.
Since she had managed to complete her graduation, she was able to find employment as an office assistant in a local college. However, her younger son’s learning abilities were badly affected due to the impact of the toxic gases. Since he could not even complete his schooling, he could only work as an auto driver/repairing electrical appliances. Eventually, both mother and son perished one after the other in 2019 as two more victims of the Bhopal disaster.
This one is not the story of a weak widow. This is the story of a tough woman, who was unlucky not to live for long. One of her biggest regrets in life was that she could not lay hands on the autopsy report that would have revealed the causes that had led to her husband’s death.
Anup Dutta is a fellow of Vikas Samvad Constitution Fellowship 2022.