Twenty years down the road, if anything good has come from the terrible gas leak in Bhopal, India, it is the birthing of a new generation of unlikely heroes.
Until 27 tons of methyl isocyanate leaked out on that cold December night in 1984, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla had never even heard of Union Carbide. They’d never gone more than a few miles from their homes in Bhopal. Now, two decades later, Bee can’t sleep at night and has lost six family members to cancer. For days after the leak she scoured the city morgues trying to find her missing family members. Shukla has lost her husband and still suffers from panic disorders. Her granddaughter was born with a deformity.
The tragedy brought about an amazing transformation of a generation of women who just wanted to go about their ordinary lives raising families and cooking dinner. Instead, they found many of their husbands were dead or crippled from the gas leak, unable to perform the back-breaking manual labor they used to do before the accident. So it was the women, many of whom never learned to read or write, who became both the breadwinners and chief activists in Bhopal. They kept the fire under Union Carbide, and when its new owner Dow Chemical tried to evade them, they went after Dow as well.
The legacy of Bhopal is alive in these women—literally. They carry the shadow of that environmental disaster in their wombs and their breast milk. Children are still being born in Bhopal with deformities that activists say are linked to the disaster.
Long before outsourcing and globalization were buzzwords, Bhopal was the poster child of how both could be done irresponsibly. And these women are showing up as far away from Bhopal as the board meeting of Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich., to press their case. As Bee said, “When women find they can’t feed their children, they actually get angry and want to fight.”
And they have done it in a way that only women could. Like the Jharoo Maro Dow Ko campaign, where Dow executives as far afield as Israel and Italy found themselves presented with brooms. A humble household object became a political tool that sent a message: The same broom used to clean homes could in effect sweep Dow out of business in a gust of bad public relations. The globalization that brought Union Carbide to India is turning full circle, bringing these activists to Dow’s corporate headquarters and American courts. There, they demand release of company documents and more funds for the cleanup of contaminated groundwater. As political theater, it’s on par with Mahatma Gandhi making salt from the ocean in defiance of British salt taxes.
These new women activists are not people I would have ever met when I lived in India. Women like Bee and Shukla led and still lead a hand-to-mouth existence as laborers in a stationery factory in Bhopal. They speak no English. I might have seen them on a local train or bus, but I would not have sat and conversed with them. Class would have kept us apart.
This year we were still separated from each other. This time, however, they were receiving the 2004 Goldman prize, or the Environmental Nobels, in San Francisco. And I was just one of the many journalists and admirers clamoring for their attention. It was a humbling experience.
Company bosses who once boasted to their shareholders that the Bhopal disaster had cost Union Carbide just 43 cents a share would do well to not dismiss these activists as illiterate housewives tilting at windmills with broomsticks. None other than Winston Churchill once snottily dismissed the absurdity of a “seditious, half-naked fakir” like Gandhi taking on the British empire in his loincloth. The price of that condescension proved costly.
In an age where multinational corporations are the new empires, Rashida Bee, Champa Devi Shukla and their sisters might very well be the true inheritors of Gandhi’s legacy.
And Gandhi, who died trying to preserve peace between Hindus and Muslims, would have approved of his unlikely heirs. Shukla is Hindu and Bee is Muslim. “It doesn’t matter whether you are Hindu or Muslim,” Shukla says. “Poor people like us suffer equally.”
Sandip Roy hosts UpFront, New California Media’s radio show on KALW-FM 91.7 in San Francisco.