The Bhopal Chemical Disaster: 20 Years Later
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide gas leak that killed more than 20,000 people in Bhopal, India, the world's biggest industrial disaster. Today, two generations of victims continue to suffer the consequences, but they've found new hope in Rashida Bee, 48, and Champa Devi Shukla, 52, two Bhopal activists who have ignited the international campaign to seek justice for disaster survivors. Bee and Shukla's courage and tenacity have galvanized the grassroots in their own country and abroad. In the process, they've drawn low-income, illiterate women like themselves from the margins of society to the center of a closely watched showdown whose endgame is to hold chemical companies accountable for the gas leak and its deadly legacy.
The "Hiroshima of the Chemical Industry"
On Dec. 3, 1984, more than 27 tons of poisonous gases leaked from a storage tank at a Union Carbide pesticide factory into the heart of Bhopal city, immediately killing 8,000 people. Since then, more than 20,000 deaths have been attributed to the disaster. Survivors and their children continue to suffer long-term health effects ranging from cancer and tuberculosis to birth defects and chronic fevers. Multiple studies have found mercury, nickel and other toxins in the local groundwater and dangerous levels of toxins including lead in the breast milk of women who live near the factory zone.
"We are still finding children being born without lips, noses or ears. Sometimes complete hands are missing, and women have severe reproductive problems," according to Bee, who suffers from respiratory and vision problems from gas exposure.
Roots in Labor Activism
Bee and Shukla first met as employees at a stationery factory in 1986 where they founded an independent union to fight for better labor conditions and wages (traditionally male-dominated unions would not accept them). In 1989 the labor battle culminated in a 469-mile 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.
"Beat Dow With a Broomstick"
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. Since 1984 Bee has lost six family members to cancer. Shukla, who has one grandchild born with congenital deformities, lost her husband and her health. 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. Dow Chemical, which merged with Union Carbide in 2001, maintains to this day that it has no liability in the industrial disaster.
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 ("Beat Dow With a Broomstick") campaign. 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.
Taking the Campaign to the Next Level
On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, Bee and Shukla are ready to raise the stakes yet again. On May 13 they plan to attend Dow Chemical's shareholders' meeting in Midland, Michigan (the company's headquarters) for the unveiling of a new resolution introduced by a socially responsible 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.
"We have been fighting for many years now. Every day more and more people are lending support to our struggle," Shukla has said. "We are sure that we will soon have the support we need to bring Dow to its knees."
Fighting Dow in Court
Bee and Shukla have also taken their battle to court. In 1999 they joined other disaster victims and advocacy organizations in a class action lawsuit against Union Carbide seeking a clean up of the factory site and damages to cover medical monitoring and costs incurred from years of soil and water contamination. (Earlier, an appeals court judge rejected the plaintiffs' request for damages stemming from the 1984 disaster but ruled that they could pursue damages unrelated to the disaster). In March the plaintiffs won a significant victory when a U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge ruled in their favor and against Union Carbide's motion to dismiss. Eight U.S. members of Congress, including Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) and Pete Stark (D-CA) filed an amicus brief supporting the suit; 18 other members of Congress have publicly called on Dow to provide reparations to Bhopal disaster victims.
The suit mirrors efforts to hold Dow accountable for environmental health disasters here in the U.S. In Midland, 300 residents so far have signed onto a suit against Dow for allegedly contaminating the Tittabawassee River with dioxin. The suit will seek class action status in April. Current and former residents of a predominantly African-American trailer park community in Plaquemine, Louisiana have filed suit against Dow for allegedly covering up the fact that vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, had seeped into their groundwater.
Mahila Shakti & Woman Power
The leadership of these two physically frail and diminutive women has lit a fire under the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and catapulted the issue onto the global stage once more. 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 can intensify on the campaign trail. During their 2003 hunger strike in the U.S., both women had to be rushed to the emergency room.
In the face of these challenges, they've been able to draw strength from each other's skills and talents. Bee's "big picture" vision and oratory passion make her a natural "front woman" while Shukla's quiet diligence and strength make her a formidable organizing powerhouse. The women's partnership is all the more remarkable because Shukla is Hindu and Bee is Muslim, religious factions with a long history of conflict in India. Together, they have made the struggle for justice for survivors of Bhopal a powerful validation of women's role on the frontline of India's civil society.
"A woman's life involves discarding relationships that she has known from infancy and adopting strangers as her own," according to 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?"