Enough of the rage and the shame.
That we allowed the penalty for the destruction of the over 20,000 lives to be 25 rupees per life.
That we allowed a factory to be built in Bhopal that was using an “unproven” technology “ - meaning nobody knew if it was capable of handling MIC, a chemical so volatile that the only way to muzzle its ferocity is to keep it constantly refrigerated. (The refrigeration unit in the Bhopal factory had been switched off to save money.) That, on December 3rd, 1984, when this chemical spewed a 30 foot high tidal wave of toxic gas over Bhopal, nobody told the people that simply lying on the ground and holding a wet cloth over their noses and mouths would’ve protected them.
That 14 years later, after thousands had died and hundreds of thousands more were dying in a living hell, the Government of India settled for just 470 million of the 3.3 billion dollar compensation that it had asked Union Carbide to pay. When Erin Brokovich helped the tiny American town of Hinkley to sue the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for leaking the deadly Chromium 6 into the ground water, the company was made to pay $333 million for just over 600 people – or $5,50,000 per person. The average compensation paid out to a Bhopal victim is $500.
That 25 years later, the factory still stands, leaching deadly toxins into the soil and water that ultimately find their way into the breast milk of the women who live nearby.
Because it is time to look for a light in this terrible darkness
But to find it, you must first break your heart.
You must go and watch a little documentary on YouTube called “The Bhopal Chemical Disaster”. In which two women talk about the children. The ones who are unable to breathe properly or digest their food and suffer such agonising pain that they can only sleep at night with the help of sleeping pills. And the ones who were baby girls that night and now young women whom no one wants to marry because the gas has seared their reproductive systems with disease. Irregular menstruation, sterility, menopause at age 25-30, uterine and cervical cancer. So, many of them can’t conceive and when they do, the babies born are often terribly disabled or deformed – with cleft lips, cerebral palsy, bone deformities, growth retardation and brain damage.
These women should know.
When the gas exploded that terrible winter night, Champa Devi Shukla was the 32 year-old mother of two daughters and three sons. Twelve years later, her husband had died of bladder cancer; her eldest son, unable to bear the constant chest pains and breathing problems, committed suicide. (Her youngest son also died, but in a road accident.) Her remaining son married but two of his three children were born with deformities, the third died soon after birth. Champa herself and her two daughters, one paralyzed, fight a daily battle with ill health. 28-year old Rasheeda Bi was already crippled by poverty and a mentally disabled husband when the gas struck. It went on to destroy 6 members of her family with cancer and left her partially blind.
But it is not their terrible stories that make these two women unique – there are thousands much worse off.
It is unwavering light of their indomitable spirit that lights this darkness.
In 1985, when the government offered the women of the victims’ families training and jobs at a stationery factory, Champa and Rasheeda signed up only to find that the promised sum of 150 rupees a month materialised to just 6. But it shocked them into finding their voices - and each other. Their protest got them the promised amount. But more importantly, it fired them to form the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh.
And that was only the beginning.
In 1989, along with 75 other women, Champa and Rasheeda walked 470 miles to Delhi, often begging for food and shelter, to petition the Prime Minister to get their jobs regularised and higher salaries. (They were currently earning just 20% of the normal rate.) Though they did not meet the Prime Minister, their demand was ultimately met. Champa and Rasheeda now set their sights even higher – on bringing Dow Chemicals to book. From 2002, with a series of hunger strikes and dharnas, they confronted Dow officials all the way from Mumbai to Netherlands and finally in America.
Dow Chemicals still brazenly refuses to acknowledge any culpability. But in 2004, Champa and Rasheeda were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. Every cent of the 1,25,000 dollars of award money was used to set up the Chingari Trust, a non-profit organisation that provides support for the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster.
Think about it.
Two poor, physically debilitated, barely literate women have done more than what the Government of India could not/ did not do. At the award ceremony, Rasheeda ended her acceptance speech by saying, “Hum Bhopal ki nari hain; phool nahin, chingari hain.”
So, enough already about the outrage.
In the words of those two brave little flames of Bhopal, this is what we, the people of India, demand.
Extradite Warren Anderson and stand him to trial.
Make Dow pay for the medical treatment for two generations of victims.
Give the survivors full economic compensation for lost employment.
Make Dow clean up Bhopal’s poisoned soil and water.