On that fateful December morning 20 years ago, Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi Shukla woke up, separately, in Bhopal, India, in a fog of noxious gas. Rasheeda Bee ran out into the dark streets with her family, gasping for air. Her husband stumbled and fell in the melee. Two of her children got lost. Her eyes burned and she could hardly see. She thought that the wind had blown some powdered chili from a nearby warehouse. When she forced her eyes open with her fingers and peeked around her, she saw hundreds of dead bodies lying by the side of the road.
Champa Devi, too, had a similar experience.
It was only the next day that both women heard of a company called Union Carbide.
Twenty years later, Champa Devi suffers from chest pains, headaches, and panic disorders. She lost her husband in the accident. Her granddaughter was born with a cleft palette.
Rasheeda Bee suffers from insomnia and cannot sleep without pills. Her husband has chronic pain in the knees. Six of her family members died of cancer. One died of tuberculosis.
On April 19, 2004, at a five-star hotel in San Francisco, Champa Devi and Rasheeda Bee faced a gathering of ethnic media representatives, reliving the horror of the biggest chemical accident the world has ever known. Later that day, they were awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for their painstaking activism in keeping the memory of the disaster alive and for continuing to seek justice and retribution for Union Carbide’s corporate malfeasance.
What is unique about these awards compared to the Nobel Prize, which is normally granted to distinguished literati who have already achieved acclaim (It has been said that Rabindranath Tagore would not have got the prize had it not been for his association with Rudyard Kipling who exposed his works to the Western world.), or the MacArthur Fellowship, which is bestowed upon writers, scholars, and professionals with connections to the academic world, the Goldman prizewinners this year all seem to be from the grassroots, not in the humdrum sense that the word is often used in the United States, but in the sense of being from the working classes, with deep-rooted connections to the communities that have been victims of corporate environmental plunder in remote regions of the world.
Take Margie Eugene-Richard, an African-American woman from the Deep South, for example, who led the battle to make Shell Oil pay for relocation of citizens of the small town of Old Diamond away from its polluting plant, or Libia Grueso, a Columbian black woman, who campaigned for property rights for the black tribes of Latin America in the rain forest regions in which they have lived for centuries so that they would not be displaced by industrial interests. Or Rudolf N. Amenga-Etego of Ghana, who successfully resisted the World Bank’s efforts to privatize water and sell it to the very people who own it.
But of all the prizewinners, none seemed more working-class than Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi, who, unlike educated activists like Arundhati Roy, worked as laborers in a stationery factory in Bhopal’s slums, where they organized their first union of women workers in 1989. The Union Carbide incident was several years in the past then, but its memory was scarcely forgotten. The impetus behind the women’s activism was the reality of their husbands, who had either perished in the accident, or become chronically ill, forcing the women to work. Many women like Bee and Shukla became sole breadwinners in their families, struggling to raise their children and make ends meet.
Even though the victims continued to suffer, they were mired in a bureaucratic mess in the aftermath of the Union Carbide accident even five years later, in 1989.
The details of the accident were slow to emerge as well, like the fact that more than 27 tons of poisonous gas had leaked from a storage tank at the pesticide plant in the heart of Bhopal city, immediately killing 8,000 people. Eventually, authorities would acknowledge that more than 20,000 deaths resulted from the “Hiroshima of the Chemical Industry.”
Unfortunately, the Indian government bungled the case against Union Carbide, and the victims got less than $500 each in compensation. Had the lawsuits been pursued in courts in New York, relatives of those killed or injured could have collected millions.
So, long after the Indian government had sold its citizens’ welfare, it was Rasheeda Bee, who, in addition to battling the after-effects of the disaster, has been struggling with poverty and illiteracy, and Champa Devi, who barely speaks English, organized the survivors and took the matter to the U.S. courts. They also directly approached the shareholders of Dow Chemicals, which had subsequently bought Union Carbide, for compensation for the victims. In the folklore tradition of women’s activism in India, they undertook a jhadu march, or “Beat Dow with a Broomstick” campaign against the company.
Subsequently, in 2002, Bee and Shukla undertook a 19-day hunger strike to demand extradition of the Union Carbide officials and its former CEO Warren Anderson on criminal charges to face trial in Bhopal. Their other demands were: long-term healthcare and monitoring for survivors and their children; release of information on the health impacts of the gases that were leaked; clean-up of the Union Carbide site and the surrounding area; economic and social support for survivors who can no longer pursue their trade because of illness or for those widowed by the disaster.
The April 2004 press conference celebrating the Goldman Prizes, which I attended, was a very personal one for me. I intimately knew the places Champa Devi and Rasheeda Bee talked about, like Hamidia Hospital, where thousands of poor citizens like Champa Devi had arrived in the wee hours of Dec. 3, 1984, to search for loved ones.
Champa Devi and Rasheeda Bee too were relieved to find me at the event, for, even though the conference was exclusively attended by ethnic media representatives, they had not yet met anyone who spoke fluent Hindi and had to rely on translators to communicate with the attendees. When informed that I had actually lived in Bhopal in the 1970s, the two women’s faces lit up, and together we embarked on a magical tour down memory lane, recalling the places that were so familiar to us. I remembered riding my Luna moped to the Tatya Tope Nagar shopping center where I had then worked as the first directly-appointed woman officer for the Bank of India in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Several of my relatives resided in Bhopal at the time of the accident, I told Bee and Shukla, including my paternal aunt or atya, my father’s only sister, along with her large family, and my maternal aunt or mausi, my mother’s sister, who had recently retired there with her husband, an ex-police officer.
As the press conference began, other unpleasant recollections connected to Bhopal, which had been long suppressed in the recesses of my mind, came back to haunt me.
At the time of the disaster, I recalled, I had long left Bhopal for higher studies in the United States, but both of my aunts and their families were still there.
In fact, my mausi, who lived quite close to the site of the chemical plant, had woken up on the night of the accident, unable to breathe, and had left for the railway station, carrying only a suitcase full of lifelong memories such as childhood photos and gold jewelry, and had arrived with my uncle, or kaka, at my parents’ door in Nagpur nearly a day later, never to return.
It was thus that I had received the first news of the disaster, not from the Western media, which was slow to respond, but from my parents, who were just as traumatized as my aunt and uncle, and yet relieved because my mausi and kaka would now be living close to them.
Neither my mausi nor my kaka ever thought of claiming compensation for the mysterious illnesses they suffered as a result of exposure to toxic gas. Nor did they ever recuperate any relocation costs, which surely would have been their due.
In fact, the idea that corporations should pay for negligence in operating their plants or clean up the toxic wastes they create, was new at the time, particularly in India, where most citizens were used to living with hurricanes, floods, famines, and other disasters with such equanimity that accidents, natural or manmade, caused by trains or buses or factories, were attributed to fate, and borne with a resilience that would have raised the ire of any consumer litigator in America.
No wonder then that my atya, whose sons worked for the Madhya Pradesh government, of which Bhopal is the capital, could scarcely afford to move, and continues to stay there to this day with her coterie of daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, and a dozen or more grandchildren.
In fact, most citizens of Bhopal did not know their rights at the time of the accident.
It was Bee and Shukla, who, in the long run, have made sure that another Bhopal will never be repeated in India, because even common laborers now know their rights in case of such accidents. What’s more, the two women have been able to form alliances with various Dow-impacted communities such as the Midland Dioxin victims in Michigan and Louisiana, even Vietnam veterans suffering from the long-term effects of Agent Orange. And they have been collaborating with the Sambhavana Trust and Clinic in Bhopal, which, under the leadership of Satinath Sarangi, a medical doctor who has dedicated his life to helping the victims of the accident, has been collecting data on health effects of chemical exposure.
Unfortunately, at a meeting in May 2004, Dow Chemicals shareholders turned down a resolution presented by Bee and Shukla to pay retribution to the victims and to clean up the site, which still remains dangerous to the nearby residents due to groundwater pollution and other after-effects.
When asked why women are the ones who are taking a lead in such activism, Rasheeda Bee replies, “A woman’s life involves discarding relationships that she has known from infancy and adopting strangers as her own. If she can face the world outside at such a fundamental level, then why should any other struggle for empowerment scare her?” Bee is obviously referring to the Indian tradition in which women, Hindus or Muslims, are given away to their in-laws’ families in marriage.
“Hindus and Muslims don’t face different problems. On a fundamental level, they suffer equally regardless of religion,” Shukla replies when asked about the unique collaboration between the two women.
Clearly, Shukla and Bee have shown the world what many Indian-Americans with millions of dollars of net worth have failed to do: namely, develop a political and social consciousness that extends beyond narrow personal interests to the village, the community, the country, and eventually to the whole planet. And for that reason, they are my new heroes.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.