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Indians win environment 'Nobel Prize'

By Meenakshi Ganjoo in San Francisco
April 20, 2004 10:41 IST
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Rasheeda Bee, who has been awarded this year's Goldman Environmental Prize for fighting for compensation to the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, was seven when she went into purdah and had never imagined stepping out of home, leave aside travelling overseas to battle a big chemical company.

Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, two Bhopal activists who have ignited the international campaign to seek justice for survivors of the Union Carbide disaster, were among the seven environmental heroes who received the award described as the Nobel Prize for environment.

'Bee and Shukla's courage and tenacity have galvanised 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 centre of a closely watched showdown whose endgame is to hold chemical companies accountable for the gas leak and its deadly legacy,' said the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which constituted the award in 1990.

Rashida Bee, 48, and Champa Devi Shukla, 52, jointly received $125,000. Speaking to PTI, the two women said the money will be used to set up a trust, to provide medical care and surgery to children suffering from the gas disaster and to provide job opportunities for women whose families have been victim of the largest industrial disaster.

It will also be used to honour other grassroot activists. "We want to support grassroots activism," Rashida said, adding that her experience demonstrated the power of women and encouraged Indian women to step out of their homes and fight for their rights.

Champa Devi hoped that women from the rest of India would join the women of Bhopal in their battle against the chemical giant Dow Chemicals, which now owns Union Carbide.

Twenty years after the Union Carbide gas leak that killed more than 20,000 people in Bhopal, two generations of victims continue to suffer the consequences. But the two environmental heroes are not willing to give their fight for justice.

"We have been fighting for many years now. Every day more and more people are lending support to our struggle," Shukla said. "We are sure that we will soon have the support we need to bring Dow to its knees."

On May 13 they plan to attend Dow Chemicals shareholders meeting in Midland, Michigan, 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 are still finding children being born without lips, noses or ears. Sometimes complete hands are missing, and women have severe reproductive problems," said Rashida Bee, who suffers from respiratory and vision problems from gas exposure.

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.

Bee and Shukla first met as employees at a stationery factory in 1986 where they founded an independent union to fight for better labour conditions and wages. The campaign eventually won them a wage raise and other important concessions.

Invigorated by their victory, Bee and Shukla leveraged their union's new-founded political power to seek justice from the chemical giant responsible for the gas leak disaster.

In 2002 Bee and Shukla fought back by organising a 19-day hunger strike in New Delhi to underscore their demands which included, the extradition of Union Carbide Corporation officials and its former chairman 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.

The demands also included 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 was the first global hunger strike in solidarity with Bhopal survivors.

'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,' said the Goldman Foundation.

"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?"

The Goldman Environmental Prize allows individuals to continue winning environmental victories against the odds and inspire ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the world. The Prize was created in 1990 by civic leaders and philanthropists Richard N Goldman and his late wife, Rhoda H Goldman. Richard Goldman founded Goldman Insurance Services in San Francisco. Rhoda Goldman was a descendant of Levi Strauss, founder of the worldwide clothing company.

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Meenakshi Ganjoo in San Francisco
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