Survivors of 1984 Bhopal Gaz Tragedy Fight Back

Flames Not flowers: Chingari’s Rashida Aapa and Champadevi Shukla

By Shuriah Niazi

New Delhi, India (RushPRnews) 01/28/09-The December 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy left hundreds dead. Those who did survive the toxic Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leak from the American-owned Union Carbide Pesticide Plant, located on the outskirts of Madhya Pradesh’s state capital Bhopal, have lived through the horrible reality of incapacitated bodies, maimed children, contaminated drinking water and poverty. Amongst those fighting to survive and helping others to do so are Rashida Bi, 54, and Champa Devi Shukla, 56.

“It was like the end of the world. Those who died that night were lucky. The survivors are the unlucky ones,” recalls Rashida Bi, who has lost six members of her family to cancer since the catastrophe and suffers from chronic breathlessness herself.<

Finding it difficult to make ends meet, Rashida Bi was compelled to earn a living. “Someone told me that names of the persons affected by the gas tragedy were being registered near Bharat Talkies. I got my name entered and thus began a new chapter of struggle in my life,” she says, referring to the then government plan to provide employment to the gas-affected persons.

In another locality, Champa Dev Shukla was witness to suffering and the loss of family members, too. “My eldest son suffered constant pain in the chest and was always in distress because his lungs had been badly affected. Unable to bear the agony, he took his own life on May 5, 1992, consuming Celphos tablets. My younger daughter was paralysed six months after the gas exposure. Even after extensive treatment, her mouth remains twisted to this day. My younger son, Sunil Kumar, also a victim of the gas leak, was killed in a road accident,” she reveals. Her husband died in 1993 when, after a traumatic battle against cancer of the bladder, he ended his life.

Champa Devi and Rashida Bi came together 11 months after the tragedy, when the government announced an economic rehabilitation scheme for gas-affected women. Fifty women each from Hindu and Muslim communities were selected for a three-month training in making stationery items. Trainees were paid a small monthly stipend and the stationery made was supplied to the government press. At the end of the training period, when the women were told to apply for loans and start on their own steam, they were outraged at the governmental disinterest in their welfare and demanded employment. When the authorities refused to concede to their demands, they formed the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, with Rashida Bi as president and Champa Devi Shukla as their secretary.

The Sangh fought for the economic rights of the gas survivors and drove home the fact that those responsible for the tragedy should not go unpunished. From taking up the issues of individual gas-hit persons, the Sangh rose to attain the stature of a social organisation and was registered as a union in 1987. Champa Devi, who has studied till the 10th standard before she was forced to drop out due to economic reasons, is one among the few in the organization who can read and write.

In recognition of their efforts, Rashida Bi and Champa Devi were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, often called the ‘Nobel Prize for Environment’, that honours grassroots environmentalists. The Goldman Foundation cited Rashida and Champa’s “courage and tenacity”, saying that “…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.”

Founded in 1990 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman, the Goldman Environmental Prize annually awards US$1,50,000 to environmental heroes from across the world. The two awardees donated the entire prize money to the cause of the Bhopal Gas victims and set up the Chingari Trust for the welfare of the gas survivors. The Trust seeks to help women whose families have lost their breadwinners to find new ways to earn a living for themselves and their families. Its basic approach is to encourage and nurture self-help efforts for economic rehabilitation.

The Chingari Trust instituted the Chingari Award to make the world aware of women activists fighting at great personal risk and hardship against corporate crimes in India. Say Rashida Bi and Champa Devi, the Managing Trustees of the Chingari Trust, “To fight corporate crime, one needs patience, courage, staying power and the ability to withstand mental and physical hardships – all inherently female qualities. We hope that the recognition and the solidarity that will come in the wake of the award will not only strengthen the award recipient’s campaign but also inspire more women to lead struggles against environmental and human rights violations by corporations.”

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The first of its kind in the world, the Chingari Award salutes the dedication and tenacity of women who have refused to give up hope. This year, the award was conferred upon Dayamani Barla, the Jharkand activist and torchbearer of the struggle for land rights of the displaced Munda tribe, to which she belongs.

For Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla, the trauma of the Bhopal Gas tragedy isn’t over yet. In the absence of a proper clean-up of the site, chemicals are still permeating the local soil and groundwater. One of the demands these two women are articulating today is the provision of clean drinking water to the people in the area. They have drawn low-income, illiterate women like themselves from the margins of society into their struggle aimed at holding the chemical company accountable for its deadly legacy. Through the Trust, these remarkable women also provide medical care for the survivors.

The Bhopal gas tragedy is an example of how the greed and profiteering of multinational corporations can poison the environment and destroy the lives of ordinary people. The Chingari Trust strives to prevent future Bhopals from happening anywhere in the world and that requires fighting against the collective crimes of the corporate sector and making the world aware of these crimes.

Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla firmly believe that it is only when ordinary people understand how corporations often work against the world can they fight against them.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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