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Last Updated: Monday, 10 May, 2004, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Bhopal victims exercise 'sacred' vote

By Jyotsna Singh
BBC correspondent in Bhopal

Sabira Khan in Bhopal
Sabira says victims will continue to fight for their demands

His damaged lungs have made him so weak that he can barely walk.

The paltry sum of 10 rupees (22 US cents) a day that his wife, Sabira, earns from running a small shop in their crumbling one-room shack is hardly enough to feed them and their four adult children.

But at 62, Yaqub Khan is a fighter and it is this fighting spirit that has inspired him to trudge the 500 metres from his home to cast his vote in India's general elections.

Like hundreds of thousands of others in Bhopal, the Khan family still bears the scars of one of the world's worst industrial disasters nearly 20 years ago, when poisonous gas leaked from a plant then owned by the US company Union Carbide.

The 2 December 1984 disaster killed nearly 15,000 people as they slept, according to official figures. The unofficial death toll is twice that.

The gas partially disabled another 150,000 people, while a whole generation born in the years since has suffered side-effects.

Setting an example

Yaqub and Sabira call exercising their democratic franchise their most "sacred right".

"I have always voted religiously, since before I became useless like this 20 years ago," Yaqub told BBC News Online, spraying an inhaler into his mouth to give him relief from constant breathlessness.

The physical and mental trauma that we have undergone should never be repeated
Sabira Khan

"I have little reason to make the effort, but I know my vote is important for the country, even though it helps the politicians more. So I am going out to vote."

He checks twice to ensure that he has the identity card which proves his eligibility.

Yaqub owned a hand cart and earned 70 rupees a day in 1984, which at the time was good for his family of six.

More than two decades later the family's dwindling income and his deteriorating health are proving to be a burden.

His son, Imran, 22, also suffers from breathlessness, having inhaled the lethal gas as a child.

Yaqub and his wife say they want to set an example to their children by voting.

Their daughter is disappointed to find her name missing from the electoral list despite the fact she is 18 and eligible.

Urgent demands

"We have never got anything from the government or politicians. Whatever we have today in terms of free medical facilities or any international and government aid for the gas victims has come through our struggle," says Sabira.

Yaqub Khan (L) and wife Sabira (R) in Bhopal
Yaqub (L) and Sabira (R) remain tight-lipped about their vote

"We do hope that maybe some day our MP will wake up to our needs and problems. But more than that, we hope that a good government will make sure that another Bhopal gas tragedy does not recur here or anywhere in India."

The Bhopal tragedy is a closed chapter as far as the authorities are concerned, human rights groups complain.

One local activist, Abdul Jabbar, set out a list of urgent demands to help sufferers.

But neither of the two main candidates contesting elections in Bhopal, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kailash Joshi or the lawyer fielded by the Congress Party, Sajid Ali, responded to his letter.

"I got a call from Sajid Ali who sought our support. But he said nothing about the letter," says Mr Jabbar.

For politicians, the electoral arithmetic here is simple. Of the 11 million eligible voters, less than 500,000 are gas victims. Of the victims, nearly 38% are Muslim, who have less political muscle.

The gas victims are united in their fight for the cause but their voting is likely to be divided, with Hindus favouring the BJP and Muslims the opposition parties.

That is why people in this city of lakes are fairly resigned to the poll results.

Bhopal used to be a Congress stronghold but since the 1990s the BJP has been the dominant force.

So who did Yaqub and his wife vote for?

The couple, who until now had so enthusiastically shared every detail of their life, are suddenly tight-lipped.

"That is our secret. Why should we tell anybody?"

Who do they think will win? "Whoever is lucky".

They themselves cannot count on luck. Sabira, back home after voting, says: "Our fight will get us what we want."


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