"A woman's life involves discarding relationships that she has known from infancy and adopting strangers as her own," says Rashida Bee, referring to the cultural tradition of brides leaving their families to marry into those of their husbands. "If she can face the world outside at such a fundamental level, then why should any other struggle for empowerment scare her?" Truly, Rashida Bee has been fearless in the struggle for justice for the survivors from 1984’s gas leak tragedy in Bhopal. She, along with Champa Devi Shukla, has lit a fire under the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and catapulted the issue onto the global stage once more.

Rashida Bee (left) and Champa Devi Shukla, 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners, Asia (India), in front of the Sambhavna Clinic. The clinic was established in 1995 to treat people who are still suffering from the effects of the catastrophic 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal. Photo by Prakash Hatvalne

In their journey from disaster victims to grassroots activists, Bee and Shukla have had to overcome the enormous stigma of their poverty, their status as women in a male-dominated society, and, in Bee's case, illiteracy. They have also had to struggle with chronic health problems that routinely intensify on the campaign trail. Yet, their leadership of the campaign has been exceptional.

The campaign to hold Dow Chemical responsible for its actions and to extradite the culprits has reached new levels of international credibility and effectiveness. Rashida Bee and Champa Devi have been announced as the winners of the prestigious Goldman Prize this year. The prize, given annually "for sustained and important efforts" to six 'heroes of the environment' worldwide, entails a "no strings attached" award of $125,000 - the largest and most highly regarded award in the world for grassroots environmentalists. The Goldman Foundation cited Rashida and Champa's "courage and tenacity... Despite their poverty and poor health due to toxic gas exposure, Bee and Shukla have emerged as leaders in the global fight to hold Dow Chemicals accountable for the infamous 1984 Union Carbide gas leak."

Recognition from the Goldman Foundation followed a resolution by the City of San Francisco earlier this week urging The Dow Chemical Company to address pending issues facing the survivors in Bhopal, and to observe December 3, 2004 – the 20th anniversary of the disaster – as Bhopal Remembrance Day. “The Bhopal incident was a horrific disaster. It is unforgivable that survivors of the disaster are being revictimized by the inaction of Union Carbide and its new owner Dow Chemical,” said City Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “We urge Dow Chemical to do the right thing by addressing its pending liabilities in India. More importantly, Dow Chemical should demonstrate its respect for the law by producing its subsidiary Union Carbide to face trial in the criminal proceedings against it in India.” The City resolution observed that “Union Carbide Corporation is currently an offender in the eyes of the Indian Government after the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Bhopal proclaimed the company an absconder from justice for its failure to honor the process of law.”

More information

 •  www.goldmanprize.org
 •  www.bhopal.net

 •  Bhopal : a new momentum
Both Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla suffered tremendous personal loss in the 1984 gas leak, losing members of their families and sustaining severe damage to their health. They first met as employees at a stationery factory in 1986 where they founded an independent women’s union to fight for better labour conditions and wages – the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh. In 1989, the labour battle culminated in a 469-mile (750 km) march to New Delhi. More than 100 women, many of whom had sold their jewelry and other valuables to be part of the march, presented a petition with their demands to the Prime Minister. The campaign eventually won them a wage raise and other important concessions.

Invigorated by their organizing victory, Bee and Shukla leveraged their union’s new-founded political power to seek justice from the chemical giants responsible for the gas leak disaster. Dow Chemical, which merged with Union Carbide in 2001, maintains to this day that it has no liability in the industrial disaster. Worse still, ten years after the incident, most survivors had received less than $500 of Union Carbide’s $470 million compensation payout, which has been mired in Indian bureaucracy and other delays.

In 2002 Bee and Shukla fought back by organizing a 19-day hunger strike in New Delhi to underscore their demands:

  • The extradition of Union Carbide Corporation officials and its former Chairman CEO Warren Anderson on criminal charges to face trial in Bhopal;
  • Long-term health care and monitoring for survivors and their children as well as the release of information on the health impact of the gases that were leaked;
  • The clean up of the former Union Carbide site and the surrounding area;
  • Economic and social support to survivors who can no longer pursue their trade because of illness or to families widowed by the disaster.

Their protest coincided with a month-long “relay” hunger strike in front of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. More than 1,500 people from 10 countries took part in what would become the first global hunger strike in solidarity with Bhopal survivors.

The women stepped up their efforts later that year by presenting brooms to Dow officials as part of their Jhadoo Maaro Dow Ko campaign (Spank Dow with a broom). In 2003 Bee and Shukla confronted Dow officials at their offices in Mumbai and the Netherlands with hand-delivered samples of toxic waste. A tour of more than 10 cities across the U.S. led to a passionate protest at Dow’s shareholder meeting in Michigan and a 12-day hunger strike and rally on New York’s Wall Street. Students from 25 colleges and universities organized nationwide rallies and thousands of people joined protests in the United Kingdom, China, Spain, Thailand and Canada.

Two years after purchasing Union Carbide, Dow stock prices dropped 13 percent. While the company has faulted the general economic slump, Forbes magazine has credited the “Indian-bred tort litigation” and “ruckus” raised by the series of demonstrations over the past two years as contributing factors in the decline of Dow shares.

"Dow has been trying to portray us as a fringe group with unreasonable demands. This award nails that lie, and shows that our campaign and demands are based in truth."
On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, Bee and Shukla are ready to raise the stakes yet again. On May 13 they, along with veteran Bhopal organizer Satinath Sarangi, plan to attend Dow Chemical's shareholder meeting in Midland, Michigan (the company's headquarters) for the unveiling of a new resolution introduced by a socially responsible asset management firm. The resolution warns of the “reputation risk” to the company if it continues to ignore Bhopal survivors’ demands. International protests and coordinated actions targeting Dow’s bad corporate citizenship around the globe are also in the works.

Reacting to the news of the Goldman prize, Champa Devi and Rashida Bee expressed optimism that the recognition would boost the campaign. "Every day more and more people are lending support to our struggle", Champa Devi said. "We are sure that we will soon have the support we need to bring Dow to its knees." "This award," Rashida Bee added, "affirms our struggle and makes the issues we are raising credible. It brings out the truth in our campaign. Dow has been trying to portray us as a fringe group with unreasonable demands. This award nails that lie, and shows that our campaign and demands are based in truth.”