“Jo gas kaand mein mar gaye woh khushnaseeb thay, hum to ab bhi har roz marte hain (those who died in the gas tragedy were lucky, we continue to die here each day),” says Sikander Bi, sitting by a stack of tendu leaves, rolling them one at a time into bidis, that she will later sell. A news debate over the recommendations of the Group of Ministers runs on the small TV in her house.
Sikander Bi, 65, is a “gas-widow”, one of 2,500 who were “rehabilitated' in Motilal Nehru Nagar, better known as the Gas-Vidhwa (gas-widow) colony, between 1989-1993.
The colony is essentially a multi-storey slum of one-room flats accommodating the widows of those who died in the tragedy of December 1984. The decaying four-floor buildings stand evenly scattered amid a heap of rotting garbage. A constant stench hangs heavy in the air.
Touted as a “model town” by the then Chief Minister Sunderlal Patwa, the colony was built with Rs.30 crore funded by the Central Government. The 30-year lease under which the houses were allotted, will expire in 2014.
The colony currently accommodates around 1100 widows as over half of the original allottees sold-off their flats to live with their families elsewhere. Of those who stayed, most roll bidis for a living, which gets them Rs. 500-600 a month. Some, with help from family members, run grocery shops. But their expenses far exceed their incomes.
Sikander Bi received, like the other widows, two lakh rupees in two instalments for the death of her husband Mansoor Ali. But a large part of it went towards medical expenses -- she is a gas victim herself -- and clearing off debts. The rest was divided among family members, since everybody wanted a share of the money received for their father's death.
“I get Rs. 20 a day for rolling 500 bidis but that is hardly enough,” says Sikandar Bi. “The electricity bill for this month is Rs.1,800. How am I supposed to pay it?” she asks.
High electricity bills are a common problem in the colony. Badrunissa (70), another widow who lives in flat number L-67, shows her bill for the month of June for Rs. 7,611.
She paid Rs.1,100 to get her “defective” electricity meter changed but that has not happened yet.
“At the slightest delay in payment of bills, they discontinue the connection and cut off all cables,” says Maya Advani, a 43-year-old widow, who survives by taking tuition, thanks to her matriculate education.
That they live in pucca houses has also proved to be a problem, as it excludes them from the National Old Age Pension scheme. And even though they fall under the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category, they have to bribe municipal officials to prove that they live in a kuchha or makeshift house, to strengthen their pension claim.
“I started receiving the pension five months ago after I bribed the municipal officials, but most women don't,” says Badrunissa.
“I don't have the Rs.500 needed to bribe officials,” says Sikandar Bi. “Since I live with my younger son, who gets some money doing odd jobs, I manage to get by,” she says.
Not all are lucky to have family members or relatives living with them. 80-year-old Parvati Bai is a case in point. Of the Rs.2 lakh compensation received by her, she gave Rs.50,000 to her adopted son, who refused to take care of her later. The rest of the money went into paying debts taken for medical expenses and electricity bills. She finally had to sell off her house for Rs.30,000.
Now Parvati survives on help from other members of the colony, who provide her with food and clothes. With no place to live in during her last days, she lies in the corridors of one of the buildings, often pushed to beg for survival.
“We have learnt to live with the stench and the garbage; it is survival which is the problem,” says Badrunissa, tears rolling down her eyes.
The rehabilitation scheme was discontinued after 1996. The misery of the “gas widows”, however, continues.
Keywords: Bhopal gas tragedy