Children of a Lesser God

Yasmin is eleven years old. She has spent an entire morning writing a letter to the Prime Minister, using her blood instead of ink.

“Dear PM, We are people poisoned by Union Carbide. We have walked more than 800 km just to meet you. For the last 19 days, we have been sitting at Jantar Mantar. Would you please take one hour out of your busy schedule to meet us at Jantar Mantar? That is all I wanted to say.â€? On behalf of the Bhopal victims – Yasmin Khan.

Later, she along with Sarita went to the Prime Minister’s office to deliver the message along with 500 such appeals, including letters written by school children in Delhi and Chennai.

Sarita, the spunky 16 years old had a strange encounter with the cop outside the PM’s office. It was more a friendly exchange than an interrogation. To begin with the questions were hostile: “Where does the funding come from, who paid for the padyatra?â€? Then, as she explained how things worked and talked about the fight and the blisters and the life-threatening diseases, the cop asked “Why are you fighting, go to school, do well and do justice for yourself”. Sarita, like Yasmin, spoke on behalf of the Bhopal victims: “We first need good health – my eyes water when I read the blackboard, I’m short of breath, I want to study – but it’s not possible, we don’t even get clean water.” When the cop spoke this time it was Sarita’s turn to be surprised, “Don’t name me, but this government is afraid of the people – so stay put and don’t leave Jantar Mantar”.

Meera is a source of inspiration for all the youngsters who are part of this group of survivors who have been camping in Jantar Mantar since 28th March 2008. Needless to say, the PM has not found time to meet them. Meera’s began taking up causes from the age of 13, when she stopped child marriages in her basti. She went on to teach herself to read and write and worked on childbirth, pre- and post-natal care by educating women and dispelling harmful myths. She discovered that a lot of people in her basti did not have pension and ration cards, so she gathered a large number of basti people and went to Indore, and staged a dharna in front of the collector’s office. The police rounded her up and wanted to take her to the station to “teach her a lesson for being so young and causing so much trouble.â€? Meera agreed to go with them, but she said she would explain her point of view only in front of the collector. The police backed out, the dharna continued till the people got their cards!

Education, it is said begins from the laboratory of life. The children of Bhopal, and their numbers are countless, are innocent, second generation victims of the industrial disaster that happened in Bhopal in 1984. 23 years later they continue to pay the price for our development in the name of economic progress. For them there are only the lessons learnt from sickness, unemployment, debt and coping with the violence that accompanies denial of justice.

If you take the Metro from the Delhi University and go to Jantar Mantar and meet any one of them, you will be surprised how much they have learnt about the value of protest and the need to get their voices heard in a bid to change the world. It will make you wonder why none of this is included in your university curriculum.

Dr. Suroopa Mukherjee