By Sam Ruby
Two Indian women, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, have won the Goldman Environmental Prize for their battle on behalf of the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster 20 years ago. The women will use the prize money - $125,000 - to fight corporate crime. Their fight is an awe-inspiring story of working class people taking on corporate murderers, capitalist courts and corrupt government.
Almost 2,000 people died instantly when tonnes of the paralytic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, central India, on 3 December, 1984. More than 150,000 people suffered injuries - blinding, liver and kidney failure. Some 20,000 have died of various diseases arising from the disaster.
Rashida Bee recals the day of the disaster, "All of us started coughing. It was as though our lungs were on fire. We started running and I had to pry my eyes open to see. I saw mothers running and leaving their children behind, people coughing up blood."
The community still suffers elevated rates of cancer, TB, birth defects and anaemia. This is a poor community. The people cannot afford medical provision. They do not even have safe drinking water.
The plant was owned by the US firm Union Carbide at the time, and produced pesticides for third world countries. The leak happened because grossly lower standards were used in the factory. As part of a cost cutting drive begun in 1980 Union Carbide cut the number of workers in the Bhopal plant from 1,200 to 632. Workers who used to receive six months of safety training had to make do with 15 days. In order to save $70 a day, the unit used to refrigerate the deadly gas was shut off.
Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla lived within a few miles of the plant at the time of the disaster. They have spent years trying to hold Union Carbide's parent, Dow Chemical, accountable. Their struggle is a tale of indomitable spirit in the face of the most callous indifference.
In 2003 a US court rejected a compensation claim against Union Carbide, saying the company had fulfilled its duty to clean up the site. Dow says the case was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide paid $470 million in a settlement with the Indian government (victims were to get just $500 for lifetime injuries and $2,000 for a death in the family). At the time of the disaster, before it had dropped out of the news, Union Carbide pledged to treat compensation claims as it would do if the accident had happened in America.
But this was India. The company struck a dirty deal with the Indian government, a deal that guaranteed the company's executives immunity from prosecution. Even then corrupt local politicians got in the way of the people getting their money. The Indian Supreme Court had to intervene after a dispute between the state and national governments over the legal right to disburse part of the compensation money.
After the disaster, the Indian government set up various half-hearted economic rehabilitation schemes. Through one such scheme, 50 gas-affected women received three months of training in the production of office stationery. But there were no efforts to employ the women after the training. The women objected and insisted that the government start a stationery production centre, which started operation in November of 1985.
Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla met at this point and together they established an independent union in 1986 - the Bhopal Gas Affected Women Stationery Employees' Union (BGPMSKS) - to fight the Indian government for employment as well as for the compensation that was their due. Many members of the BGPMSKS lost their husbands in the gas leak and became sole wage earners for their families. Rashida Bee: "I met so many other women in the same situation. Many had debts because of the disaster. Almost all faced starvation because the men could not work."
The women stationery workers were paid a piece rate but were only given two days of work each month, which meant they earned six rupees for the month. They worked for three more months while refusing wages. The government relented and increased their salary to five to seven rupees a day.
They discovered that the stationery production center made 250,000 rupees profit while continuing to pay a piece rate, and so the BGPMSKS campaigned for the centre to be regulated under the Factories Act. That would mandate wage increases. After a 27-day sit-in and relay hunger strike in April 1988, the government agreed. The minimum wage rose to 535 rupees a month.
Some months later, the women learned that the government paid workers in its own stationery press 2,400 rupees a month for exactly the same work. Officials told union members that they were considered "irregular" workers: "We can't pay you the same wages. You are gas-affected women and so you can't do as much work."
A campaign demanding equal pay for equal work culminated in a 750 kilometre march from Bhopal to Delhi "to tell the people how the government was discriminating against us." One hundred women women, ten men, and 25 children undertook the journey and presented a petition to the Indian Prime Minister demanding regularisation of the women's jobs and economic rehabilitation for people who could not work because of the 1984 accident.
The BGPMSKS finally got at favourable decision in December 2002: they would get wages equal to those of other stationery workers, and would receive four years in back pay.
The women also launched an international campaign. They continue to fight to forge global solidarity and to build an campaign to secure safe conditions for all chemical workers.