Profile of a Bhopal Gas Leak Survivor and Activist: Rampyari Bai
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 died during the gas leak.
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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.
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?"
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.”