[Remember-bhopal] The Unlikely Heroines

Submitted by Editor on Wed, 26/05/2004 - 03:10

The toxic legacy of the explosion of a pesticide factory in Bhopal is still felt 20 years on. Our correspondent meets two women who began a global campaign seeking justice for the victims of Union Carbide

From: tim edwards - tim at lifecycle.demon.co.uk
Date: Tuesday, May 25, 2004, 8:55:45 PM
Subject: [Remember-bhopal] wonderful London Times interview with Rashida & Champa

The Times
Times 2 - features
May 25, 2004
Reportage: The unlikely heroines
By Penny Wark

The toxic legacy of the explosion of a pesticide factory in Bhopal is still felt 20 years on. Our correspondent meets two women who began a global campaign seeking justice for the victims of Union Carbide

THEY ARE calm, these two women. They have none of the hustle of Western campaigners. Instead they tell their story with the immense dignity that comes from their culture and from the knowledge that its details are shocking enough.

Twenty years ago Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla lived near the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, central India. Champa lived 500 yards (560m) away and on the night it exploded, leaking toxic gases throughout the area, she tried to escape with her husband and their five children. Their eyes felt as if they were on fire, their throats stung. They saw bodies in the streets and piled up at the hospital. Champa still remembers the smell: of dead people, of burning flesh, of rotting animals.

Today the factory is derelict but the Bhopal tragedy continues: toxins still leak into the water supply and the soil. Babies are born deformed, children fail to grow, those who survived the night of December 2, 1984, endure chronic health problems: menstrual irregularities that lead to early menopause, fevers, tuberculosis, cancers. Champa's husband and two of her sons are dead: her eldest son killed himself in 1992 because his breathlessness meant that he couldn't work, and he became depressed. One daughter is partially paralysed; both daughters were rejected by the families into which they married because of their poor health; a granddaughter was born without an upper lip. If asked, Champa will tell you all this not because she wishes to repeat the details, but because her story is not unusual in Bhopal. She wipes her eyes frequently. She is not weeping - she is beyond tears - but the effect of the gas still makes her eyes stream.

It is for these reasons that Rashida and Champa have spent much of the past 20 years fighting for justice. They want Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical Company, to be held accountable for the immediate deaths of 8,000 people, the 20,000 deaths attributed to the disaster since, and the continuing suffering of those who survive, and who have been born in the locality since. Dow should pay for the medical treatment and rehabilitation of those who have survived, and their children, and it should clean up the abandoned factory, the women insist, not unreasonably. And now their efforts have been recognised by the award of the Goldman Environmental Prize, given annually to grassroots environmental heroes. Rashida and Champa have donated their $125,000 (£70,000) prize money to a trust for Bhopali children deformed by the poisoned gas and water.

They speak of a recent decision in the Indian Supreme Court that requires the Government to supply piped water to Bhopal. "This is one of the many victories," says Rashida. It is indeed a remarkable achievement, given that before 1985 neither woman knew anything of India's political hierarchy. Both had married at 13 and, as Champa puts it, their expectations were straightforward: "Nothing other than thinking that I would have kids, and they would have kids, and I would be a grand old woman." They knew nothing of the world beyond their own communities.

Yet today they are global campaigners, visiting the US and now Britain to raise awareness of the consequences of corporate recklessness, and to ensure that a Bhopal never happens again. Champa is a tiny woman of 52, a Hindu whose metamorphosis from victim to activist began when mounting medical bills for her family made her join a training scheme for 100 gas affected women in stationery production. She had previously earned 15 rupees (20p) a day by making papads (snackbreads) but no longer had the energy for this physical work. At the stationery office she met Rashida, now 52, who had grown up in a poor, traditional Muslim family. Having lived under the rules of purdah, she had rarely stepped out of her home and felt afraid, but on the second day she stopped wearing her burka and on the third she made it inside the workplace. Her hands shook from fear and she rarely spoke. "I didn't like her because I thought she was too uptight," Champa says.

After four months' training the women were told that there was no more work; they nominated two women to represent them: Rashida because when she did speak she didn't waste words, and Champa because she was a good leader. Champa, with her limited local political knowledge, vaguely knew of the existence of a chief minister to whom they could complain. Undaunted, she and Rashida set off for his office, asking directions as they went. This was their first protest and, 19 months later, in December 1987, they set up the Bhopal Gas-Affected Women Stationery Employees Union. Demanding regular wages and better facilities, they staged a sit-in, hounded officials, and won improvements in the women's working lot.

But still they were defined as "daily wage workers", earning a sixth of the wages earned by men at other government presses. They wanted equal pay, and proper medical care and gainful employment for all Bhopal survivors. This was when they came up with their most audacious protest: putting their demands to the Prime Minister in person. They knew he was based in Delhi. "We had no money so we thought, let's walk," says Rashida. "We didn' t know where it was and how far it was." Thus 80 women, 40 children and 12 men set off for Delhi in 1989. The adults took it in turn to carry the youngest children. "We had one thing in our head: to reach Delhi and talk to the Minister," says Champa. "After we had travelled 28 miles (45km) we were asked to see the chief minister. He said ‘Why are you doing this with so many children? Why are you risking your lives?' We told him that if he would agree to our demands in writing, we would call everyone back. He refused."

This is the kind of understated and unequivocal determination that has brought the women recognition. "Sometimes when the children would not sleep because of hunger, women sold their anklets and necklaces," says Champa. "These are things you keep all your life for the wellbeing of your husband. But often we met generous people who would offer us food."

These were the days of rain, says Rashida. "We crossed forests with snakes and scorpions. There were ravines full of bandits; people told us that our honour would be taken from us. We didn't get hurt, and in the bandit country a local police chief accompanied us for 40km. He cried when he left us. He said we were women but we were still brave." Rashida smiles.

It took 33 days to walk 469 miles to Delhi. There they were told that the Prime Minister was abroad and could not see them. "It taught us the nature of struggle," says Rashida. "We did not get anything there but our enthusiasm was heightened and that was a great lesson."

In 1989 Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million in damages, but many survivors got little or nothing, and what they have received has been consumed by medical bills. Today the Sambhavna clinic, set up with donations, provides free care, which helps Rashida and Champa, who still have health problems. But such difficulties do nothing to impede their campaigning - they continue to lobby for Dow to accept liability. In 2002 the women organised a 19-day hunger strike in Delhi, demanding that Warren Anderson, the former Union Carbide chief executive, face a criminal trial in Bhopal. Last year they collected 5,000 brooms from survivors living around the factory and delivered them to Dow's headquarters in Bombay; they called it the "Beat Dow with a broom" campaign. Now they have international recognition, which they surely deserve for their dogged refusal to let poverty deny justice to the people of Bhopal.

tim edwards
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