The Story of Saira Bi: A Life in Bhopal

Submitted by Amisha Upadhyaya

New York: Students spell out D-O-W and hold up placards reading "Clean Up Bhopal" (c) Nancy Brogden

Today is the 25th Anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide, which killed 4,000 people, maimed and caused terminal illness in half a million others, and killed many more throughout the years. An op-ed by Suketu Mehta in “The New York Times” describes the now criminal negligence of Dow Chemical Co. and the government of India in its failure to respond to this horrific incident and clean up the region. (Links to donations and resources are listed below.)

But where there is great tragedy, there is also the opportunity for great hope.

"Women can do a not accept defeat."

Saira Bi’s story is one of immense heartache and yet, immense inspiration. Even before the gas leak, her life was one of poverty and beatings by her father.  After the gas leak, her sister died, her twin brothers died a few years later in birth, and soon her mother died. Her step-mother was cruel. Saira, despite being constantly ill from the effects of the gas leak, was married off to a thug at 13 and of her 3 daughters, one died of cancer at the age of four.

When her husband left her, Saira returned to Bhopal and there her new life began. Though dismissed from the Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre because of insufficient proof that she was a gas leak victim, she discovered the Sambhavna Clinic. It was there she was diagnosed with a damaged heart valve. Sambhavna took her back to the hospital and bore all the costs of the surgery she required. She recovered and went on to work and take care of her daughters with support from Sambhavna.

But, Saira fell ill again.  Due to misdiagnosis at the first surgery and a continued belief by the doctors at BMHRC that it was psychosomatic, Saira eventually died at the age of about 27 on April 18, 2008.   Her daughters are at the Shahjahani orphanage and continue to be supported by Sambhavna — they are in a loving environment as reported by Sambhavna.   Saira had apparently gone to the orphanage in her last days to ensure her children would be taken in.  Her full story can be found here at the Sambhavna Clinic site.

As reported by Sambhavna:  Saira’s story epitomies a lot of whats wrong with the health care of survivors in Bhopal. They are routinely prescribed useless drugs, which often actually harm. The gas survivors, mainly from the poorest sections of society, are often treated rudely at government hospitals. Some doctors won’t touch ‘lower caste’ people, so examinations are careless and perfunctory. Medical records are a shambles, with little or no account taken of patient history.

Despite all this, Saira leaves us with words that resonate for the entire Bhopal tragedy — do not give up. Fight for justice.

I want to fight my own battle. Women can do a lot. I pray to god to give me life and strength so that I can stand on my feet and not depend on others. I’ve never burdened others with my miseries, nor have I ever begged. When I was working as a domestic help, people asked me why I carried on when I was so obviously ill. It was simple. If I did not. my children would die of hunger…Every woman has to face hard times. Some face troubles better, some worse. But there is no point in crying in front of others. People should fight their own battles. I would like to tell every woman not to accept defeat.

Saira's daughters

My children live in hope that one day things will take a turn for the better. Mama, don’t lose the fight for life, they say. And I’m determined not to be defeated.

Donate to and read more about Bhopal at the following sites.

  1. The Bhopal Medical Appeal & Sambhavna Trust
  2. SOS Children’s Sponsorship Program

One comment

  1. Marco

    With so many people dead and suffering, the personal stories are often forgotten. This story helps remind us of the individual lives and families connected to each of those many thousands of people!

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