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India: V Rukmini Rao, feminist extraordinaire, "Woman of the Year 2014" Print E-mail

 December 21 2014
Cover Story WOMAN OF THE YEAR 2014

THE FAIRY GODMOTHER

By Kallol Bhattacherjee Photos by Sanjay Ahlawat
For the young tribal girls of Nalgonda, she bore the gift of life.
Meet V. Rukmini Rao, THE WEEK's Woman of the
Year

Scroll down to also read more via "Rescuing Infants to Empowering Women" in pdf and text formats
  Welcome to life: Mothers now join their kids to benefit from the bridge-schools opened by Rukmini, who appears delighted to welcome a young entrant.

The city of Hyderabad is no stranger to acts of revolt. Still, on a fine morning in December 1974, the city woke up in shock to the news that Rukmini, the 24-year-old daughter of Raja Jagpal Rao, the jagirdar of Rajapet principality, and the wife of a prominent landlord in the city, had run off with her lover to Delhi, leaving behind her four-year-old son. Rukmini was teaching literature at St Francis College when she fell in love with a statistician from Karnataka, who swore by maths and Marx. His revolutionary fervour inspired Rukmini to give up her comfortable, yet predictable life, and embark on a journey in search of the unknown.

Those were turbulent times. The Jayaprakash Narayan movement had shaken the foundations of the Indira Gandhi government. A slew of protests and insurrections like railway strikes and the Naxalite movement created a heady combination of personal and political liberation for the Indian youth. Like the rest of India, Hyderabad and its traditional landholding society, too, were not untouched by the rebellious spirit, although the elites went on with their life of leisure and luxury.

Rukmini spent six years of her marriage raising her son Rohit, serving an army of in-laws and teaching literature. But the certainty and security of the life with her landlord in-laws, their extravagant lifestyle, elaborate cooking and sumptuous dining, bored her. Yet, Delhi in that winter posed before her more questions than she had anticipated. The biggest problem was staying away from her son as her husband's family refused to send him to her.

She could not find a job initially, while her lover, who married her later, got a job at the National Labour Institute. Rukmini, too, joined the institute as a researcher, just before the Emergency was declared. By then, she had fallen in love again, this time with her gender. She felt proud of being a woman and sported a big red bindi on her forehead, just to make a statement.

The reasons behind the feminist turn existed both at home and outside. She drew inspiration from her mother and grandmother, who were strong-willed women. Another issue that attracted Rukmini's attention was the story of Mathura, a teenaged victim of custodial rape. Mathura was a tribal girl from Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, who was allegedly raped in police custody on March 26, 1972. From her days as a young teacher in Hyderabad, Rukmini had been keeping track of the case and she was disturbed by the way it was being handled in court. The dominant line of argument was that Mathura had invited the rape upon herself as she was sexually active in her mid-teens.

The way women like Mathura were treated in India, be it in courtrooms or bedrooms, made her angry. And, that fire, which was lit in the 1970s, continues to guide Rukmini, better known today as V. Rukmini Rao, who now runs a number of organisations that are spurred by her quest for a gender-just India.

BY THE MID 1970s, a construction boom in Delhi attracted a large number of migrant workers, who chose to settle in Nizamuddin Basti, New Seemapuri and East Delhi across the Yamuna. Women from these settlements, who were suffering from domestic violence, used to approach Rukmini and her women colleagues for help. "Often, the women who would come to us were in a serious condition and we had to take them to hospital. We told them that they should be proud of their bodies and the man of the house had no right to assault them and that their hard work deserved respect. It was difficult to make the women rebellious, but we succeeded in turning them into small-time entrepreneurs," says Rukmini. "Once they had some money in hand, they started resisting drunken beatings at home. We saw these victims transform into confrontationists in six to seven months, and the experience was so magical that it changed all those who were involved with the process at that time."

Domestic violence, forced sterilisation, maternal health problems and neglect of women's economic needs were some of the issues that Rukmini sought to address as she set up Stree Sangharsh Samiti in 1976 along with a few friends. Her work was noticed by leading women activists of the time, Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar of Delhi University. After seeing Rukmini's dedication in providing health care facilities to the women of Nizamuddin Basti, Vina motivated her to create her own brand of street-smart feminist strategies. Rukmini and her friends subsequently opened a shelter for abused women in Nizamuddin Basti.

A few years later, Rukmini and her colleagues received a rude shock when the suspects in the Mathura rape case were acquitted by the Supreme Court. The verdict, which came in September 1979, nearly blamed the girl for the rape. Outrage poured out on the streets of Delhi, and Rukmini led from the front along with Lotika and Vina. They also pushed for a reform of the laws about custodial rape.

In 1980, the annual meeting of the Stree Sangharsh Samiti decided to bring together women's organisations across the country under one umbrella. Thus was born Saheli, which opened with a campaign against the displacement of women workers before the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi. Prime minister Indira Gandhi had given her son Rajiv the task of overseeing preparations for the games. The labourers who toiled at the construction sites were asked to leave the city before the games opened so as to present a picture-perfect Delhi to the world. Rukmini alongside another firebrand activist, Bharati Roychowdhury, organised rallies against the government's decision. Although the Asian Games went ahead without a hitch, Saheli's moment of glory came a year later when anti-rape laws were amended and the suspects of the Mathura rape case were found guilty by a different bench of the Supreme Court.

Following her success in Delhi, Rukmini wanted to take Saheli's message to the smaller towns and cities. But, trouble was brewing at home. Her husband got fed up with her revolutionary feminism and demanded that she should pay more attention to her own home and bear him a child. Rukmini found his demand reasonable, but she was soon caught up with the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The riots left thousands of women and children homeless and vulnerable, and Rukmini devoted much of her time to their relief and rehabilitation. Her personal life became nearly nonexistent and she told her husband that it would not be possible for her to bear him a child. Disappointed, he turned to alcohol, and Rukmini's life soon featured things that she deeply despised. She needed a refuge and the first place that came to her mind was her beloved Hyderabad. She moved back to her hometown in 1986. But she says she had been toying with the idea of relocating to Hyderabad even before that, as she wanted to spend more time with her teenaged son.

By the time Rukmini returned, Hyderabad had undergone a major political transformation with the Telugu Desam Party in power in Andhra Pradesh and a bunch of bureaucrats keen on bringing about social change. In 1989, she joined the Deccan Development Society (DDS) which was set up by her friends to create awareness, especially among the tribes of the Deccan, about the government's social welfare schemes. Following the Roop Kanwar case in September 1987, more and more people started flocking to the office of the DDS. Roop, a Rajput wife from Rajasthan, committed sati by jumping into her husband's funeral pyre. Rukmini's small office soon became a prominent spot where women with their myriad problems of domestic violence and economic issues would routinely gather.

It was at this time that Rukmini first heard about girl children being discarded at hospitals and other social welfare centres. She found that most parents who killed or sold their girls were the Lambadas and the Koyas, the two main tribal groups of Andhra Pradesh.

The Lambadas are nomads, who were once known for their sturdiness and healthy food habits. But, the pressure of urbanisation and dwindling land holdings played havoc with them, and by the late 1980s, they started abandoning the girl child as a solution for their economic travails. After a large number of female infanticides were reported from Nalgonda, Rukmini intensified her work in the district.

In the summer of 1993 came the infamous rat-poison incident, when an anonymous caller informed Rukmini that a ritual female infanticide had begun in a Lambada village in Nalgonda. It involved killing a girl child with a pellet of rat poison. The caller hung up after asking Rukmini to save the child. Scared and short of options, she called the authorities, but was told that the child would be dead by the time the law enforcement authorities reached the village. One particular official, whom Rukmini would not name now, asked her to save the baby and promised her police backup. "The official was frank enough to admit that non-government workers and activists were needed to resolve such emergency issues," she says. Rukmini reached the village just in time and saved not just the child, but also her twin sister. The incident opened her eyes to a whole lot of issues among the tribals, such as child trafficking, violence against women and deprivation of their right to forest land.

Rukmini realised that there was a strong economic reason for the Lambadas to either sell their baby daughters to adoption rackets or just kill them. Out of that realisation was born Gramya, the fourth organisation that she set up to safeguard baby girls belonging to marginalised communities and to fight for women's rights. Rukmini built a rudimentary shelter-cum-bridge-school in Nalgonda district for local tribal women and abandoned babies. It was called bridge-school as it was designed to bring up Lambada kids till they could be sent to government-run hostels for free education. Young tribal couples initially mistook it for an orphanage.

Rukmini had a tough job. She had to save the young girls from certain death in the hands of their parents and then ensure them a secure future. "Initially, when the tribals heard of the bridge-school, some parents came with requests to keep their newborn daughters with me, but we had to convince them that the child would not survive without her mother's milk. We had to motivate the families continuously citing government schemes that promoted education and health of the girls and told them that their children would grow up to be a support for them," she says.

For Rukmini and her team, preventing imminent infanticides was one part of the struggle, but an equally challenging and long-drawn-out struggle was to ensure that the girls, who survived the rat poison, were not subsequently killed by malnutrition and negligence. In this endeavour, Rukmini says Gramya benefited from the sympathetic administrative class in Hyderabad, and even the Naxalites who never hurt Rukmini's staff and the tribals who sought her help. The opposition came from Hyderabad-based rackets, which had made a fortune by selling the Lambada babies abroad. Faced with the prospect of their source of babies drying up, they tried to intimidate Rukmini. She says she survived with the support of the government and the people.

To make Gramya successful, Rukmini and her colleagues Jamuna and Ratnamala had to innovate. In the Naxalite-dominated areas, they recruited primary school teachers as their local intelligence providers, who could go around, keeping a close watch on baby girls. "In many cases, we had to adopt a carrot-and-stick policy to save the children and tell the parents that the government would take stern action if their children went missing," she says.

At the bridge-school, the children are divided into three groups. The first group of pre-schoolers who were saved from certain death are looked after by an all-female staff till they turn five. Kids from ages five to nine form the second group and they join government schools at class five. The third group consists of children who are ready to move out to social welfare hostels run by the government and join class six in government schools. Rukmini says the day a particular group moves out is emotionally draining for her and her colleagues.

The current infrastructure of Gramya came up after nearly 20 years of struggle by Rukmini and her colleagues. The bridge-school, by now, has become such a success that even Lambada mothers can be seen coming once in a while to study along with their tiny girls whom they once wanted to give away.

It is difficult to explain what prompted the Lambadas and Koyas, who have always been proud of their womenfolk, to write off their baby daughters. Rukmini feels that some communities believe they can come up with solutions to deal with the challenges to their lives probably by killing the weakest among them. "Historically the Lambadas and Koyas respected their sturdy women. But what prompted the baby slaughter of the 1980s and the 1990s in their community is not yet known. But thankfully there is greater awareness that they will become extinct if female infanticide continues," says Sumalatha, one of the many Lambada volunteers who work as the eyes and ears of Gramya in the villages of Nalgonda. Rukmini says the Lambada girls are a lot like her grandmother, a feisty Telugu matriarch, who had asked her children to have at least one girl child to keep the "house under control".

With the success of Gramya, Rukmini has become a legend among her peers and her diverse work includes international consultancy and even solving a fight or two among young colleagues in Hyderabad and Delhi. Even at 64, she has not mellowed, but physical problems have started bothering her. Her knees hurt while climbing stairs and she needs to watch her diet. But age does not bother her, nor does it make her seek the support of her son Rohit, who lives in the US with his wife and two sons.

Some years ago, Rukmini's mentor, Lotika, ran into a property dispute involving her relatives. She was in her 80s when it started and it went on till she died in 2010. Lotika's condition and the issue of safety of elderly single women prompted Rukmini to launch the Hyderabad chapter of Ekal Mahila Sangathan, an all-India network of single women in need of financial and health security. Today, there are more than 400 single women of varying ages who are members of the Hyderabad chapter of the organisation.

From the big cities of Hyderabad and Delhi to the remote villages of Nalgonda, Rukmini's stamp is visible on a range of issues, organisations and support systems. It has not been easy and has required enormous personal sacrifice. But, she says the support and love of her son, who understood her spirit, has helped her a lot. "Many women suffer in silence. I suggest that we break our silence and help others in breaking theirs. This helps because many men have come forward to support the right cause," she says.

The biggest acknowledgement of Rukmini's work comes from the Lambada fathers who walk up to her and say they have named their daughters after her. Yet, she does not get moist-eyed. Instead, she asks, "It's time for a celebratory drink, right?"

The argumentative Indian

By Kallol Bhattacherjee

  V. Rukmini Rao. Photo by Sanjay Ahlawat

There is not a moment of boredom while you are with Rukmini. She has an opinion on everything. From sex-selection tests, abortion and gay and lesbian rights to rather harmless ones like which restaurants are doing justice to the name and glory of the Hyderabadi biryani and the Andhra platter, Rukmini is ready with sharp arguments. She says she has sharpened her skills of argument from her university days and honed them to perfection during her street-fighting days in Delhi.

Her love for arguments also stems from her deep desire that society, which takes academics and armchair pundits seriously, should give importance to the opinions of the activists as well. "In the early 1970s, people used to think we were a misguided bunch, who always rushed to government offices to argue the cases of vulnerable women and children. We became branded as activists. While activists in Delhi, Mumbai and other metros like Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar and some of us at Saheli were taken seriously, most others were not, as they were not from the big cities. So my fight has also been to make the activists' voice count in policy-making," she says.

While she is a legend among the feminists, Rukmini does not mind that she is not a celebrity even at a time when Arvind Kejriwal and his ilk have turned nearly every available activist into vote-catching machines. She refuses to blame Kejriwal for diluting the agenda of the civil society movements by absorbing their leading lights into his Aam Aadmi Party. "It was impossible not to be roused by the corruption of the UPA regime," she says, but quickly adds that she is not at all happy with some of the BJP leaders hinting at a squeeze on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. "Before drying up funds for right to employment, these new leaders of our country should make an effort to live in the villages," she says. Governments must understand, says Rukmini, that they have a mandate of five years, but an activist has a commitment of a lifetime to issues close to her heart.

Submerging dreams

By Kallol Bhattacherjee

  United colours: Rukmini with a group of single Lambada women, who are facing problems after their tribe adopted urban practices like the dowry system.

The Lambada women are known for their silver anklets, heavy mirror-embossed scarves and conch bangles. The silver anklets are believed to drive away snakes. A woman has to be really sturdy to wear so many ornaments while working in the fields. But somewhere in the middle of the last century, the respect accorded to the women started fading with the Lambadas adopting urban practices like the dowry system.

As Rukmini Rao first began investigating the reasons for the irrational female infanticides among the tribes of the Deccan, she stumbled upon the fact that they were under pressure from the engine of development in modern Andhra's big cities. Agriculture, which was their main source of livelihood, became less profitable with the loss of forest land and the dwindling number of animals on their farms, making the Lambadas debt-ridden, depressed and suicidal. They were deeply patriarchal, and the threat of dislocation, the absence of stable income and the practice of dowry made matters worse, and the community began treating its girl children as evil that should be eliminated.

Years later, Rukmini sees a similar threat to the Koya community from the Polavaram dam, which is being built on the edge of Khammam and East Godavari districts. She says the dam will submerge the agricultural area used by the Koya tribes and, being politically weak, they have little chance of getting a fair rehabilitation package. It could create a second Narmada valley syndrome, forcing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable tribal people to move to nearby cities of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

"I am not against development," says Rukmini. "I am trying to bring the welfare measures of the state to the target groups like the Lambadas and Koyas. But I am not going to support actions by the state that will ultimately undo the welfare measures of the state itself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  23rd December 2014, page 1


Rescuing Infants to Empowering Women

By Rajitha S

HYDERABAD: It was almost 40 years ago, that Dr Rukmini Rao and her friend Jamuna heard of female infanticide only 100 kilometres away from the city of Hyderabad. "The first thing that hit me was, they are helpless children. What can they do to defend themselves? The next thing – the incident took place so close to our city and not in a remote area. There was anger and it pushed me to do something. It continues to keep me going, even today," shares Dr Rukmini Rao, founder of Gramya Resource Centre for Women.

She has been adjudged as the 'Woman of the Year - 2014' by a leading English magazine. Founding this resource  centre is only one of the many activities that Rukmini has been carrying out as part of her "small" movement to better the lives of women in rural spaces.

"When I go around in these villages and talk to people, I see they not even come from the poorest of the poor backgrounds, but always have something to offer to people around them. I have the capacity to give so much more and I am trying to do just that," says the activist, who believes that education is the most effective tool for an individual to move forward.

The same she stresses on when she is communicating with the many women, out in the villages of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and the transformation she has witnessed is clear.

"When I first met these women, they didn't comb their hair. Not that combing hair defines anything, but I'm trying to tell you  that they never considered an image for themselves. They had no idea of self image. They were a nobody. But today, they walk miles, collectively to claim their rights," she explains.

Sharing one instance related to the current ongoing issue in Telangana – farmer suicides.

"Only recently we had a public hearing where widows of farmers and women farmers came together and talked about their situation," she says and elaborates, "They have not been offered compensation and their ration cards are not valid anymore. So these women went to the local revenue divisional officer, with a set of demands. And they also know how to handle them if immediate action does not take place," she beams hinting that they know how to get their work done.

Rukmini has played a major role in changing the aspirations of these women from merely being married to demanding their rights. "Their victim mentality is gone, completely," she informs.

Rukmini's work also involves teaching women alternate farming methods that is post-modern agriculture, opposed to the green revolution methods, offering support to government schools, pushing for quality education. The latter she does in association with Aide Et Action, South Asia. "We work with close to 50 government schools that have 4,000 children where we ensure that the schools have all necessary amenities. We also assess children independent of government's assessing methods because we want to identify children with special needs and work with them," she explains.

Having spent so many years in these areas, Rukmini gives us a first-hand picture of everything. For instance, ask her about the Sulabh Sauchalay scheme that aims for a toilet in every home for every woman and she responds quickly, "That idea needs some planning. There are toilets in villages, but there is no water and that defeats the purpose. There are no pipelines. Then, there is no money to maintain toilets. They could opt for organic toilets instead of all this," she suggests.

Rukmini has also been fundamental in bringing down the number of female infanticide cases. She feels strongly that our development model is what marginalises women in this country. Men have to start respecting women she says.

In the wake of rising number of rape cases, she opines, "I am completely against capital punishment. What we need is quick justice and solutions to change the mindset of boys and men. Young people should start seeing each other as people," she stresses and says it begins with putting a stop to sex selection.

On a parting note, ask her how much value is 'Woman of the Year'  award going to add to her work, she laughs and says, "I  don't know, but such recognition reconfirms our work," and shares a recent incident. "I was invited to a college for a talk after this where I had the opportunity to talk to young people. This I wouldn't have got otherwise," she smiles.
 

India: No support in 2014 for those affected by Union Carbide's transgenerational impacts Print E-mail
 Monday December 1 2014

30 yrs after disaster, Bhopal's toxic legacy lives on

A panel displays pictures of residents who died in the 1984 Bhopal disaster at the forensic department of a hospital in Bhopal November 14, 2014. (Reuters)


Tragedy
Health of Bhopal communities suffers 30 years after disaster
Activists call for faster action to remove hazardous waste
BHOPAL/NEW DELHI: Beyond the iron gates of the derelict pesticide plant where one of the world's worst industrial disasters occurred, administrative buildings lie in ruins, vegetation overgrown and warehouses bolted.

Massive vessels, interconnected by a multitude of corroded pipes that once carried chemical slurries, have rusted beyond repair. In the dusty control room, a soiled sticker on a wall panel reads "Safety is everyone's business".

  Sixty-four-year-old Zafar Ahmed receives treatment at a clinic supported by Bhopal Medical Appeal in Bhopal November 14, 2014. (Reuters)

On the night of December 2, 1984, the factory owned by the US multinational Union Carbide Corp accidentally leaked cyanide gas into the air, killing thousands of largely poor Indians in the central city of Bhopal.

Thirty years later, the toxic legacy of this factory lives on, say human rights groups, as thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste remains buried underground, slowly poisoning the drinking water of more than 50,000 people and affecting their health.

Activists want this waste removed and disposed of away from the area, and feel Indian authorities, who now own the site, have fumbled on taking action ­ either by clearing up the waste itself or in pursuing Union Carbide to take responsibility.

"There is a very high prevalence of anemia, delayed menarches in girls and painful skin conditions. But what is most pronounced is the number of children with birth defects," said activist Satinath Sarangi from the Bhopal Medical Appeal which runs a clinic for gas victims.

"Children are born with conditions such as twisted limbs, brain damage, musculoskeletal disorders ... this is what we see in every fourth or fifth household in these communities." Sarangi admits there has been no long-term epidemiological research which conclusively proves that birth defects are directly related to the drinking of the contaminated water.


Toxic water
Built in 1969, the Union Carbide plant in Madhya Pradesh state was seen as a symbol of a new industrialised India, generating thousands of jobs for the poor and, at the same time, manufacturing cheap pesticides for millions of farmers.

Fifteen years later, 40 tonnes of Methyl Isocyanate gas was released and carried by the wind to the surrounding densely populated disaster remains unclear and under debate.The government recorded 5,295 deaths, but activists claim 25,000 people died in the aftermath and following years.

Another 1,00,000 people who were exposed to the gas continue to suffer today with sicknesses such as cancer, blindness, respiratory problems, immune and neurological disorders. Some children born to survivors have mental or physical disabilities.

While those directly affected receive free medical health care, activists say authorities have failed to support those sick from drinking the contaminated water and a second generation of children born with birth defects.

In a rehabilitation centre run by the charity Chingari Trust, located 500 metres from the factory site, disabled children aged between 6 months and 12 years gather for treatment which ranges from speech and hearing issues to physiotherapy.

"Our life changed emotionally and physically since we got to know about his medical problem when was just 4 months old," said 26-year-old Sufia, sitting on a mat on the floor, cradling her two-year-old son Mustafa who has cerebral palsy.

"We had to stop the therapy when he was 8-months-old as it was very expensive. My husband is an electrician and doesn't earn much. With the centre it is good as it's free. It's also good to meet other mothers with their children and realise that I am not alone."

Call for clean-up

The government was forced to recognise the water was contaminated in 2012 when the Supreme Court ordered that clean drinking water be supplied to some 22 communities living around the factory site.

"I don't think there is any doubt now that the waste dumped by Union Carbide is a serious problem and that it needs to be dealt with urgently," said Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Science and Environment.

Studies by Narain's organisation in 2009 found samples taken from around the factory site contained chlorinated benzene compounds and organochlorine pesticides 561 times the national standard.

The profile of the chemicals found in samples from within the site matched the chemicals in drinking water in the outside colonies, said the report, leaving no doubt that there could be no other source of these toxins than Union Carbide.

Studies since have confirmed water pollution, but the hazardous waste remains in pits in some 21 locations within the 68-acre site and buried in a wasteland outside, largely due to wrangles between authorities and activists on its disposal.

The United Nations this week welcomed a government decision to reconsider the official figure of people affected by the gas leak, and look into additional compensation, but pressed authorities to get rid of the toxic waste.

"New victims of the Bhopal disaster are born every day, and suffer life-long from adverse health impacts," said Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxic waste.

"Without cleaning the contamination, the number of victims of the toxic legacy left by Union Carbide will continue to grow, and, together, India's financial liability to a rising number of victims," he added in a statement.

Activists want Union Carbide, which was taken over by Dow Chemical Company in 2001, to take the waste out of the country, saying there are no adequate facilities in India to deal with it. They have also criticised state authorities for not pursuing the corporation for the clean-up. State government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Seventeen people living around the plant have filed a petition in the U.S. courts to get the multinational to bear the cost of the clean-up.

Dow Chemical Co. has long denied responsibility, saying Union Carbide spent $2 million on remediating the site, adding that Indian authorities at the time approved, monitored and directed every step of the clean-up work.

Union Carbide was sued by the Indian government after the disaster and agreed to pay an out-of-court settlement of $470 million in damages in 1989. The company says the Indian government then took control of the site in 1998, assuming all accountability, including clean-up activities.

"While Union Carbide continues to have the utmost respect and sympathy for the victims, we find that many of the issues being discussed today have already been resolved and responsibilities assigned for those that remain," Tomm F. Sprick, Director of Union Carbide Information Center, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email. ­ Reuters

India: 350 metric tons of toxic waste still await disposal from Union Carbide’s defunct factory Print E-mail
Friday November 28, 2014

Bhopal gas tragedy: Toxic waste disposal still awaited

PTI:



The toxic waste after the Bhopal Gas tragedy lying at the Union Carbide plant here is still awaiting disposal, even after 29 years of the world's worst industrial disaster, amid concerns of air and water pollution.

Though an NGO had in 2004 moved a PIL in Madhya Pradesh High Court after soil sample tests carried out in and around the closed plant revealed that the 350 metric tons of waste was causing air and water pollution in the surroundings having a huge human settlement, the toxic dump could not be cleared due to resistance from different environment groups.

The High Court later directed the Centre and the state that the toxic waste should be incinerated after tests at Pithampur in MP's Dhar district.

But the move could not see the light of the day after stiff opposition by NGOs which claimed that the waste disposal at the incinerator will harm Pithampur's people and its environment, Alok Pratap Singh, president of NGO 'Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangarsh Morcha', who had moved the HC, told PTI.

"After this, the HC ordered that the hazardous waste should be disposed of at Gujarat's Ankleshwar incinerator. Again the NGOs from that state protested against it. The Gujarat government petitioned the apex court to review the decision," Singh said.

Later, the Supreme Court directed that the waste should be incinerated at the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) facility near Nagpur. But, NGOs protested again in Maharashtra following which the state government expressed its unwillingness in court on the issue, he said.

A German firm later proposed to dispose of the waste in Germany, but backtracked following protests by NGOs in the European country, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department's Deputy Secretary K K Dubey said.

After this, the apex court asked for the waste to be incinerated at Pithampur, and in a prelude 25-30 metric tonnes should be disposed on an experimental basis, he said.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) got similar waste of some organisation in Kochi incinerated at Pithampur. "Now we are waiting for words from CPCB to hand over the waste to them for incineration," Dubey said.

In June 2010, a Group of Ministers (GoM) was formed to look into the problems related to the disaster which earmarked Rs 315 crore for disposal of the waste, he said.

The verdict on Bhopal Gas Tragedy came 25 years after poisonous gas leaked from the plant on December 2-3, 1984, killing over 3,500 people and injuring over 5 lakh residents.

"...but for the people near the defunct factory, the tragedy isn't over as they still face air and water pollution given that the hazard waste lying in the factory," said activist Abdul Jabbar, working for the tragedy's survivors.


India: Ailing Bhopal widows revictimised in Govt ghetto w/o basic sewage disposal etc Print E-mail

 India ~ Thursday December 4 2014


A flawed rehabilitation policy adds to woes of Bhopal widows

The widows of the Bhopal gas tragedy live in a residential complex called Vidhwa Colony ­ a Kafkaesque and dystopic world not unlike a penal settlement from another era

By Vidya Krishnan

 The government handed over the apartments without ensuring basic sewage disposal, a problem that has now grown to pose one of the biggest health crises for residents. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Bhopal: From its tactless name to the design of its buildings and absence of the most basic civic amenities, everything about this place points to neglect and flawed rehabilitation­a ghetto of widows who are victims twice over.

Lying a little outside Bhopal's city limits in Karond village, it is a settlement of women who survived the Union Carbide chemical holocaust 30 years ago. Their husbands did not.

They live in a residential complex called Vidhwa (widow) Colony­a Kafkaesque and dystopic world not unlike a penal settlement from another era.

Here, the taps run dry, the drains are choked with filth, the drinking water supply line is mixed with the sewage pipeline and electricity supply is erratic.

Nearly every widow here is either a patient herself or cares for someone suffering from ailments caused by exposure to the 2-3 December 1984 leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from Union Carbide India Ltd's (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal.

The diseases range from cancer, lung injuries and the aftermath of cardiac failures to neurological disorders. "Aise jeene se to maut aasan hai. Jo tab mar gaye, woh bach gaye (it's better to have died than to live like this)," said 56-year-old Jamna Bi, who lost her husband and mother-in-law after 40 tonnes of MIC leaked from the UCIL plant.

The so-called Gas Widows' colony was built by the Madhya Pradesh government in 1992. It is essentially a multistorey slum with 2,486 one and two-bedroom apartments. The state government announced a monthly pension of Rs.275 that would take care of them in their new homes and pay for medical care and other expenses that living entails. This tiny amount remained the same until 2010, when the central government revised it to Rs.1,000 per month. Even this was discontinued in April 2014, after an audit revealed that the arrears had been wrongly paid.

"I was given a first instalment of Rs.18,000. My lawyer (pursuing the compensation case in Bhopal's district court) kept Rs.16,000 and said I could keep the second instalment completely. We were later informed that there was a clerical error in calculation of the pensions and so it was discontinued," said 60-year-old Seema Bi, who now works as a domestic help to make ends meet.

The Madhya Pradesh government's deeply flawed rehabilitation plans for the widows fell to pieces almost as soon as the flats were allotted. To begin with, the government handed over the apartments without ensuring basic sewage disposal, a problem that has now grown to pose one of the biggest health crises for residents.

In 1998, eight residents died of cholera in Vidhwa Colony.

"The height of the building was the problem­most people living in the colony had respiratory illnesses and could not climb four flights of stairs. Clearly, very little thought was put into this," said Abdul Jabbar, convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS), a civil society organization fighting to get the women's pensions reinstated.

"None of the top floor houses got water supply. The area was not connected well by public transport, did not have street lights or schools, hospitals or even employment opportunities. This is a classic example of dumping the city's garbage outside in the name of rehabilitation. That place is a dump yard," added Jabbar.


In 2010, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had promised to turn Vidhwa Colony into a "model town". On the occasion of the festival of Rakhi, when brothers pledge to protect their sisters, he renamed the settlement Jeevan Jyoti colony and adopted all the residents as his "Rakhi sisters".

The Madhya Pradesh government sanctioned Rs.15 crore to fix sewage and drainage, build roads and maintain the apartment buildings. It promised to set up an Anganwadi centre, a higher secondary school and a vocational training centre in the colony.

Four years later, only the nomenclature remains changed.


Between 1989-1993, over 2,000 widows were accommodated here but over the years, nearly half of the original allottees have moved out, preferring to give the flats out on rent.

"The municipal corporation cleans the area when a politician is about to visit, usually before an anniversary. The sewage system is so dysfunctional that the filth flows back into our houses now. It also gets mixed in our drinking water pipeline," said Irshad Khan, who rents a flat originally allotted to a ‘gas widow'. "Once their children start earning, most women move out of the settlement and rent out the flats allotted to them. Who would want to live like this?"

Pensions and official records are buried in bureaucratic jargon that are impossible to make any sense of. According to the state government, Jeevan Jyoti colony has a total of 4,422 pensioners under various social benefit schemes such as widow pension, differently abled pension, senior citizen pension and below poverty line benefits.

Of these, 2,914 people are supposed to have postal accounts. But officially only 873 beneficiaries are registered in the municipal ward and of them, only 350 have post office accounts.

"The main cause of the problem in Bhopal has been faulty survey, which has been greatly addressed through ongoing Aadhaar seeding," said Nishant Warwade, district collector, Bhopal.

This problem, he said, will be solved once all beneficiaries have core banking system accounts.

"The widows pension had run into some difficulty due to overdrawal by some beneficiaries. It has been restarted after an enquiry now with appropriate deductions over a period of time to readjust the (withdrawals). Some unscrupulous elements found guilty in this shall face action as per law," chief minister Chouhan said in reply to e-mailed queries.

He also pledged to fix the drainage system soon. "The sewage system needs a complete revamp on account of changed gradient, which has adversely affected the drainage system.

"After a proper scrutiny and advice of experts, a Rs.4.12 crore project has been sanctioned, agency identified and work is to begin shortly. The municipal corporation of Bhopal will oversee this work and it should be completed in the next three months," Chouhan added.

Such help will come too late for some victims of the gas leak tragedy, an event that for 30 years has cast a long shadow on Bhopal.

The trajectory of 34-year-old Sunil's life captures these decades of neglect most succinctly.

The night that gas leaked from the plant, Sunil lost his parents and five siblings. Along with his younger sister, he was placed in an orphanage run by the charity SOS Children's Villages in Bhopal.

In 1994, his sister turned 18 and both had come ‘of age' and could not stay in the orphanage any longer. "They moved to the widows' colony and initially he was fine. But slowly the lack of a support system started getting to him. He used to work but after moving here, his mental health progressively deteriorated," adds BGPMUS' Jabbar.

He was found hanging from the ceiling of his flat in Widows Colony on 26 July 2006. He was wearing a black tee shirt that said No More Bhopals.

"People have just been boxed together with little or no support from the system. With each passing year, there are fewer of us left to demand rights, fight for it or even remind people of what happened in Bhopal," said Jamna Bi. "Eventually, we will all be dead and no one will be left to chase after the government or companies. They can feel happy thinking that the day is coming soon."

~~~~~~~~~~~
 Wednesday December 3, 2014

Bhopal Gas tragedy: No accurate data on deaths 30 years on, alleges NGO

PTI:


An NGO working for the Bhopal gas tragedy victims has alleged that there are no accurate figures available on the death toll of the world's worst industrial disaster even after 30 years and has also raised concern over the toxic waste lying in defunct Union Carbide plant situated near the densely populated old Bhopal area.

Though unofficial estimates claimed that the death toll due to the Bhopal gas tragedy had exceeded the 25,000 mark, official figure stands at 5,295 for whom the government had compensated.


"So far we have compensated for 5,295 deaths due to Bhopal Gas Tragedy," Madhya Pradesh Department of Gas Relief and Rehabilitation deputy secretary K K Dubey told PTI.
However, NGO Bhopal Group for Information Action's (BGIA) activist Rachna Dhingra claimed that as per their information, the death toll had crossed 25,000 since the disaster took place.

"We are demanding compensation for the same, but the state government has so far compensated only for 5,295 deaths," she said.


Notably, the Madhya Pradesh government had in 2012 demanded from the Centre's Group of Ministers a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to the kin of 15,342 deceased in the tragedy, as per revised figures in Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) report, a government release had then said.

Besides, concern has been raised over non-disposal of 350 MT of toxic waste lying in the defunct chemical plant which is a major cause for pollution, especially water contamination in and around the factory.

Hearings have been going since 1999 in Southern District Court of New York against the Union Carbide Corporation, seeking that the poisonous waste should be removed from its factory in Bhopal, Dhingra said. (MORE) PTI LAL MAS GK SG 12031153

Around 17 people, living close to the plant, supported by some NGOs, had moved the US court in 1999, but the timid response to the case by successive Madhya Pradesh governments has not yielded any result, she alleged.

"It is high time that MP government should intervene in the US court and get the waste cleared," she demanded.

In India too, an NGO moved a PIL in Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2004, after a soil sample test carried out in and around the closed factory revealed that the waste was causing air and water pollution in the surroundings having a huge human settlement. But the toxic dump couldn't be cleared following resistance from different environment groups.

In the last decade, the High Court directed the Centre and the state that the toxic waste should be incinerated after tests at Pithampur in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh.


But the move couldn't see the light of the day after stiff opposition by some NGOs alleging that disposal of the waste at the incinerator will harm people and the environment of Pithampur, Alok Pratap Singh, president of NGO Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangarsh Morcha, who had moved the HC, told PTI.

After this, the HC ordered that the hazardous waste should be disposed of at Ankleshwar incinerator in Gujarat. Again, the NGOs of Gujarat protested against incinerating plan in that state. The Gujarat government petitioned the apex court to review it decision, Singh said.
The Supreme Court had then directed that the waste should be incinerated at Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) plant near Nagpur after assessing its after effects, but NGOs protested again in Maharashtra following which the state government expressed its unwillingness in court on the issue, he said.

Maharashtra Assembly passed a resolution against the disposal of the waste at DRDO, Singh said. MORE PTI LAL MAS GK SG 12031153

Later, German company GIZ handed a proposal to the MP government to dispose of the waste in Germany, Dubey said.

However, GIZ backtracked following NGOs' protest in Germany on the issue, he said. After this, the apex court asked that the waste should be incinerated at Pithampur and in a prelude 25-30 metric tonnes should be disposed on experimental basis, he said.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) got similar waste of some organisation of Kochi in Kerala -like the one lying in Bhopal Union Carbide Factory - incinerated at Pithampur.

"Now we are waiting for words from CPCB to hand over the waste to them for incineration," Dubey said.

After the June 7, 2010, verdict on Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the Group of Ministers (GoM) was formed to look into the problems related to the disaster. The GoM in June 2010 earmarked Rs 315 crore for disposal of waste.

The verdict on Bhopal Gas Tragedy came 25 years after poisonous gas leaked from the plant on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984.

"...But for the people near the defunct factory, the tragedy isn't over as they still face air and water pollution given that the hazardous waste lying in the factory was seeping into the ground," said activist Abdul Jabbar, working for the survivors of the tragedy.

~~~~~~~~~~~
Wednesday December 3, 2014

On Bhopal anniversary eve, a cry for justice

By P. Sunderarajan

The Hindu Survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy during a protest demanding adequate compensation, in Bhopal recently. (A. M. Faruqui)

Coalition writes to PM, says Union Carbide was the original ‘Make in India’


A coalition of five organisations working for the welfare of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday to ensure that Union Carbide and Dow Chemicals were brought to book and the victims got adequate compensation at the earliest.

In a letter to the Prime Minister on the eve of the 30th anniversary of one of the worst industrial disasters of the world, they noted that while Union Carbide had been “absconding’’ for the past 22 years, Dow Chemicals had refused to appeared in the Bhopal district court despite summons.

Making a reference to the government’s recent initiative to bring in foreign investment and promote India as a manufacturing hub, the letter said that while welcoming foreign companies, they should be made to follow Indian laws.

“We hope that you and the government will be as enthusiastic in making U.S. corporations obey Indian laws as you are in welcoming them to invest in our country. We write with the hope that you and your government are aware that Bhopal was the original ‘Make in India’ in the profoundest sense of the phrase,” it said.


On the issue of compensation, the organisations expressed the hope for an early follow-up on the agreements which they had recently reached with Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers Ananth Kumar.

Tuesday marked the inauguration of a museum that portrays the trauma and 30 years of relentless struggle by the victims to get justice.

Called “Remember Bhopal,” the museum is collectively curated by the community of survivors and activists fighting for human rights. It relies predominantly on the oral history testimonies of the survivors and the narrative of the museum is shaped by their experiences and objects of memory from the tragedy and the struggle for justice.

Inaugurated by a survivor, the museum has nearly 50 original audio recordings of the survivors cut into three minutes loops that can be heard by picking up phone receivers hung on the walls. Besides, families of the several victims have given artefacts.

Museum curator Rama Lakshmi, a journalist, said the museum carried the message of the movement as it did not use any toxic material and has not accepted any money from large corporate houses or the government.


India: Poor women pay price for bipartisan myopic population control via sterilisation Print E-mail
Sunday Magazine ~ November 23 2014

The Other Half

No more births... or deaths

By KALPANA SHARMA

Women who underwent sterilisation surgeries receive treatment in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh (PTI)

Women continue to pay the price for the government’s desire to fast-forward population control programmes through sterilisation.

Should we forget about the 14 poor women in Chhattisgarh who died earlier this month? Can we write this off as another “unfortunate” incident? Or should we see it as reminder of the fundamental question that Indian policymakers need to ask: are Indian women, especially poor women, entitled to respect and rights due all human beings or will they continue to be viewed as baby-producing machines whose bodies the State can appropriate and control when it deems they have completed their assigned task?

The debate has been sparked by the ghastly tragedy that befell some of the 83 women who were herded into a disused hospital in Takhatpur, Bilaspur district, and subjected to laparoscopic tubectomies within a few hours. The same instrument was used. No time for sterilisation. No time to check if the women were in good enough health to undergo the surgery. And no time to relax and recover before being packed off. And, of course, no one to follow up to see whether they survived the journey home.
                         
Within a day, eight women were dead. In the next days, in other locations where similar sterilisation camps were held, another six died, 14 in all. The doctor who performed the 83 tubectomies – he was rewarded earlier this year for having performed 50,000 tubectomies – was arrested. He says he was not at fault and insists that the women died from consuming contaminated drugs post-operation. It is suspected that the ciprofloxacin tablets given to the women were contaminated with zinc phosphide, a rat poison. And the state government refuses to explain why such a camp was held at a disused, run-down private hospital.

Everyone is blaming someone else. In the midst of all this noise, and the silence that has descended on the homes of the dead women, we must remember that what happened in Chhattisgarh earlier this month is not an exception, a one-off aberration that we can all forget about once the blame is fixed. Between 2003 and 2012, on an average 12 women die due to botched tubectomies. That is 12 too many. No woman should die from this procedure.

Also, whatever government officials might say to the media, the reality is that health workers are expected to fulfil targets by bringing women to these sterilisation camps. If such pressure was not exerted on them, it is possible that fewer women would come. But at least those who agreed to be sterilised would do so after having understood the consequences. And doctors would not rush through with the procedure at the vulgar speed as did the doctor in Chhattisgarh.

Government officials have consistently argued, as they do even today, that sterilisation is the best option for a poor woman with more than two children because she cannot insist her husband uses a condom and she cannot use other spacing methods, such as injectables for instance, because of the absence of health care in the case of complications. But by the same measure, how do governments justify sterilising women and sending them back to their villages without any follow-up? The women who died did so because they could not access emergency health care in time.

Even if poor women opt for sterilisation, surely they are entitled some dignity while undergoing the procedure. We thought the days when women were lined up like cattle, as depicted so starkly in Deepa Dhanraj’s path-breaking 1991 film “Something like a war” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fq7HSIPVq4), was something in the past, harking back to the days of the 1975 Emergency when mass sterilisation campaigns were implemented ruthlessly across India. But Chhattisgarh reminds us that this is happening even today, although on a smaller scale.

So respect for poor women is the very minimum that must inform any population programme. India has signed an international convention in 1994 committing itself to guaranteeing women their reproductive choice and rights. Simply put, this means that all women have the right to choose the kind of contraceptive method they want to use. It also means that population programmes must be centered on women’s health and choice.

Clearly, this is so much talk without substance. In 20 years, under one guise or another, central and state governments have continued with the policy of targets and camps. And women are those who are targeted, not men. The skew in the population programmes is more than evident, even if one looks at government data.

Also, despite scores of meeting, conferences, policy documents, including the National Population Policy (2000) that links a decline in fertility to many other aspects such as education, overall health, housing, drinking water and sanitation, the desire to fast-forward population programmes through sterilisation appears irresistible to policy makers of all political hues.

As a result, women continue to pay the price for this persistent myopia – especially poor women.   


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