Twenty years ago, in the worst industrial disaster the world has ever known, tons of poisonous gases leaked from a storage tank at the Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical since a merger in 2001) pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Eight thousand people died instantly. Many thousands more have died since. VOA's Paul Sisco met two women seeking justice for victims of the Bhopal disaster, their families, and now, two generations of survivors.
This is Bhopal city, India, 20 years after the world's biggest industrial disaster. On December 3, 1984, 8,000 people died immediately here, when tons of poisonous gas leaked from a storage tank at this Union Carbide pesticide factory. Since, more than 20,000 deaths have been attributed to the disaster. Long-term health affects range from cancer and tuberculosis, to chronic fevers, birth defects and local groundwater is contaminated.
The disaster forever changed the lives of these two women, one Hindu, and one Muslim.
"In my house I had my father and my son and we started to run," Rashida Bee remembered. "We reached half a mile when my breath ran out. When I opened my eyes I saw the dead bodies of small children, women, and men of all ages."
"We left right away. We just ran," said Champa Devi. "As we reached the bus stand, my husband tripped and fell down. In between this madness we lost two of our children."
The Indian government opened a small stationary factory, providing jobs and meager wages, but workers soon realized the relief action was feeble, and wouldn't last.
"After the training, when we got our payment, it was only six rupees for a month. That's when we realized that we needed to fight to get our rights," said Ms. Devi.
"The women's' tears gave us the strength and the courage, and that made us more and more determined," Rashida Bee said. "We explained to the women that if we unite and form our own union, we can achieve our rights."
Empowered by their union's success, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi led a march and movement against the government in New Delhi; in 1989 winning wage increases and better working conditions. They've taken their fight globally, protesting Dow Chemicals merger with Union Carbide in 2001. The two women have led hunger strikes in India and the United States and other parts of the world. One action was called "beat Dow with a broom stick."
"After 17 years of struggle, we were furious to see a new owner, and we decided to protest in front of them," Ms. Bee said. "We picked up our brooms as a symbolic gesture of our anger and we went to Dow to demand a cleaner city with clean water. It they wouldn't take action, we would beat them with our brooms."
The broom action brought growing attention to their cause. Other protests have taken them to Dow Chemical shareholders meetings in the United States.
"The condition of the gas victims has gone from bad to worse," said Ms. Bee. "Therefore, we will force them to take suitable action."
They're helping lead a legal battle against Dow, calling for extradition of its former CEO, long term health monitoring of victims, disclosure of health impacts, the complete clean up of the area, and economic and social support for all injured by the disaster. Today, the abandoned Union Carbide site is deserted and overgrown, tank 611, where the deadly gas escaped, warning gauges still eerily frozen in time, the abandoned control room littered with old documents, but Rashida Bee and Champa Devi continue vigorously fighting for the rights of Bhopal's victims, 20 years later, still without clean water, health care, or decent work.