The long journey from Bhopal

Published : Jul 02, 2004 00:00 IST

From their basti in Bhopal to the boardroom of Dow Chemical Company in Michigan, U.S., Champadevi Shukla and Rashida Bee have travelled a long way. Their fight for justice for those affected by the Bhopal gas tragedy took them across the globe to the headquarters of Union Carbide Corporation in the U.S. Almost 20 years after a mixture of lethal gases from the Union Carbide plant leaked destroying the lives of thousands, Rashida and Champa are still struggling to defend their rights. They were recently awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Grassroots Environmentalists, also known as the Green Nobel.

Champadevi and Rashida Bee spoke to Dionne Bunsha about their journey from humble beginnings to transnational activism. Excerpts from the interview:

How did you meet each other?

Rashida Bee: After the gas tragedy, there was a government scheme to provide employment for its victims. We both enrolled for work at a production centre for office stationery, and that is where we met, in 1986. Three months after we joined, the government wanted to close down the centre. The women workers decided to fight the government and asked us to lead the fight. We didn't know what to do, but have been fighting together since then. Those running the centre told us that we would have to talk to the government and go to the C.M. We didn't know who the C.M. was or anything. But we found out as we went along. We had to fight. It was a question of our survival. When we went to the C.M.'s bungalow, he assured us that we would be allowed to work at the centre and would be given jobs at piece rate. But the next month, they gave us only two days of work and paid us only Rs.6. We worked for the next three months but refused to take our wages. Finally, the government increased the wages from Rs.150 to Rs.200 a month. This was the beginning of our struggle for Bhopal's gas-affected people.

What else have you been fighting for?

Rashida Bee: Then we fought for women working in government sewing centres. The State had started these workshops to provide employment for gas victims. But later, it wanted to close them down. People suffering from so many diseases don't get any help. There is no medical treatment from the government. The government should provide employment for the gas-affected people. And Union Carbide should be brought before the court. We walked from Bhopal to Delhi to meet the Prime Minister in 1989.

We demanded that the jobs of women employed under government schemes should be made permanent, that they should get proper wages for their work. And there should be proper treatment for gas victims. We didn't breathe the gas willingly. The government allowed the company to be built. Many people's lives were destroyed owing to the gas leak. So we went to Delhi to put forward our problems. But the P.M. didn't meet us. So we came back and fought the government in the court. The case went on in the industrial tribunal for seven years. When we got the verdict, it said that we were in the wrong court. We should have gone to the High Court. The case went on for three years in the High Court, after which they said that we should have taken our case to the labour court. After three years in the labour court, in December 2002, we got a judgment that we should be made regular employees and given four years' back wages. The government didn't accept that. It appealed in the industrial court. We won there as well. Now the State has appealed in the High Court and the case is on. Other people doing the same work in government presses earn Rs.5,000, while the gas-affected women get only Rs.2,000. They tell us that because we are gas-affected they cannot make us regular employees. The regular employees were also affected by the gas. Everyone was affected by the gas, it's not that government employees didn't breathe it.

What are the unfinished battles?

Rashida Bee: Ever since Dow Chemical Company merged with Union Carbide in 2001, we want Dow Chemical Company to accept responsibility for the gas tragedy. We have four demands:

*Union Carbide's former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Warren Andersen should face trial in the Bhopal criminal court.

*Dow Chemical Company should accept responsibility for the treatment of children born with deformities and for people with long-term illnesses for the next two generations.

*Around 20,000 people are drinking poisoned water. Dow Chemical Company should remove the contamination of the groundwater and soil in and around the abandoned Union Carbide factory and provide for the supply of safe drinking water.

*Many gas-affected people are not getting work. Dow Chemical Company should accept responsibility for their employment. The whole world should be aware that this company is the most dangerous and produces the most harmful gas. If it accepts responsibility for Bhopal, it will set an example for other polluting companies.

What was your life like before the gas tragedy?

Rashida Bee: I used to sit at home and make beedis. I hardly went out of the house. I didn't know anything about life. I had not ventured half a kilometre beyond my colony.

Champa Devi: I also used to work at home doing piece-rate garment sewing.

How have your lives changed?

Rashida Bee: Only when I ventured out of my house did I see the world. I feel I wasted my time before that. When I was awakened, I realised that you don't get anything in life without fighting for it. Women can do a lot if they want to. But they are locked inside the house. Their lives are destroyed. But they are not let out of the house. Women should realise their strength. We are no less than anyone else. We are not given the chance to do anything. We are just made to sit at home and make rotis. If women want, they can bring about a revolution in society.

Why women? Men can also do a lot.

Rashida Bee: Yes, they can. But they already have freedom. And yet they haven't done much. If women are given full freedom, then a revolution won't take long. But men don't want to give them freedom. So many women are kept behind purdah, kept under control either by their husbands or by their parents. They are not allowed to go anywhere, have never seen a school. I was never sent to school. I was married off when I was 13 years old. There are lakhs and crores of women like me, who are suppressed and not allowed to stand up [for their rights]. If all this is stopped, then a revolution will come soon.

How was your family affected by the gas?

Rashida Bee: Six people, including my father, died. One of my relatives gave birth to a deformed child. It didn't have ears and a nasal bridge, and had a damaged windpipe. It died after nine months. Doctors have said that she can't ever become a mother. Champadevi's son has a daughter. She was born with a cleft lip and a missing palate. She has had to undergo a series of operations. Everyone has some health problem. Some can't breathe properly, some have palpitations, some can't eat properly, some feel weak, get headaches, bone ache. Women have gynaecological problems.

Champadevi: My husband died. My son suffered a lot with lung disease. He committed suicide. I was very upset. I thought that there was nothing to live for. But when I saw that there were many other people suffering like me I realised that we have to put our sadness aside and come together. Only then will there be any change in our lives. If people want, they can do anything. When they know their rights, they can fight any odds.

What will you do with the prize money?

Rashida Bee: With the money that we have got from the Goldman award, we are going to set up a trust. The money will be used to treat deformed children, to create jobs for unemployed women, and to institute a prize for ordinary people fighting the crimes of big companies.

Has the prize helped?

Until now Dow Chemical Company has been accusing us of lying. They deny that there is anything wrong in Bhopal, everything is OK. But this prize has recognised that there still is a problem in Bhopal. And justice is necessary. It has given our struggle strength and credibility. And the world has come to know about and supported our fight.

What have you achieved in 20 years?

Rashida Bee: It doesn't feel like we have been fighting for 20 years. I feel like the struggle has just begun. Recently, we saw some results of our struggle. On May 7, the Supreme Court ordered the State government to supply clean water to those affected by groundwater contamination. On March 17, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal of the U.S. Federal Court in New York affirmed claims for damages to persons, damages to property, and claims for medical monitoring. The U.S. court has also decided that if the Indian government presents a statement asking for Union Carbide to clean up the toxic contamination, then the court may consider directing the corporation to clean up the soil and groundwater contamination. Leaders of the Democratic Party have offered full support to us and have submitted an amicus curiae brief in our support in the U.S. court. City councillors in Boston and San Francisco have expressed support to our struggle for justice. At the annual meeting of Dow this year, people holding 40 million shares [6 per cent of the total] presented a resolution demanding that Dow accept responsibility for the continuing disaster in Bhopal.

The whole world has joined our struggle.
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