I can never forget the night, exactly 35 years ago, on December 2, 1984, the air suddenly turned deadly at midnight for a sleeping city, enveloping its residents with toxic Methyl Isocyanate gas leaking from the Union Carbide plant. The toxic night changed Bhopal’s destiny forever, its impact felt even today by third generation Bhopalites. I remember I was still studying in school at the time when my father, a police officer, got a call at midnight about a gas leakage. He went off telling us to go back to sleep. None of us could ever imagine the enormity of the tragedy. I think that even the government had not chalked out a plan to deal with a disaster this huge because it had no estimate of the extent of the damage the gas leakage had caused. Nor did anyone understand, until much later, about the level of toxicity of the gas. Not the next day, but a few days after the leakage our schools reopened, I remember seeing dead cattle on the roads, the human corpses had been removed by then thankfully. Soon, our schools were ordered to shut down until further notice. If I am in Bhopal on December 2-3, I still get goosebumps just recalling the night of the disaster. It was a close shave for us but people living around the plant were not that lucky.
Much later did I come to know that approximately 40 tonnes of toxic Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas enveloped more than 500, 000 Bhopalites on the midnight of December 2-3, 1984, of whom 2,259 did not live to see the dawn. Another 8,000 or more could not escape the gas’s deathly grip and died within two weeks. An additional 8,000 have since died from gas-related diseases. While official figures put the toll in thousands, the number of affected residents is considered to be several thousand. Needless to mention, the Bhopal gas disaster is frequently cited as the worst industrial disaster worldwide.
I can only equate the extent of the tragedy with the Chernobyl disaster, that’s how disastrous it was and is. Even more than three decades after the gas leakage, Bhopal remains a humanitarian disaster and a global symbol of corporate negligence.
We soon realised that neither the Union Carbide nor the government has any intention of paying us compensation or providing us jobs. We thus started to fight for our rights and formed the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karamchari Sangh in 1987. It has been 35 years since and we will fight on. - Rashida Bee
Even today people of Bhopal are still waiting for full compensation as they are unable to carry out their daily lives in a normal way due to the disabilities caused by the gas. But now the affected people lament, sympathies are waning. They, particularly the women folk, know that the fight for survival, as well as their rights, is now only theirs. Crusaders Rashida Bee, Champadevi Shukla, Nausheen Khan and Shehzadi speak to SheThePeople.TV.
Among the many women fighting for Bhopal gas leakage survivors, Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla have spearheaded the fight not just in the city, but have taken their fight abroad too. And they have been recognised for their efforts. They have received the Goldman Environmental Award (also known as alternate Nobel Prize for Environment) 2004, Ator Pal Mont Award, in Italy in 2008, at a moving ceremony at the American Public Health Association, the duo was honoured with the Association’s Occupational Health and Safety Award in 2004 and the Casa Asia award in Spain in 2008. The award aims to recognise and publicise the work of individuals and entities, public or private that have encouraged this objective and/or have carried out outstanding tasks for the dignity and human rights in the Asia-Pacific region.
Here is what they have to say:
35-year-old fight will go on: Rashida Bee, Chairperson, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karamchari Sangh
“I was 25 years old when the tragedy happened. On December 2, I was sleeping when I heard people running as they shouted: “Run, run, run for your lives.” We, too, joined the fleeing crowd and somehow reached Pul Bagoda, with eyes shut tight from the pain. Whenever I could manage to peep, all I saw were piles of corpses scattered all around. Amid the confusion, I heard an announcement which said that gas has stopped leaking from the Union Carbide factory that was the first time I had heard the name ‘Union Carbide’.
Bhopal was evacuated on December 16, and we went to Sohagpur in Hoshangabad but returned six months later as my father was suffering from cancer. My husband’s legs, too, began to swell and he could not operate the sewing machine anymore. When the government announced a scheme to give employment to the gas affected, I registered my name. We soon realised that neither the Union Carbide nor the government has any intention of paying us compensation or providing us jobs. We thus started to fight for our rights and formed the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karamchari Sangh in 1987. It has been 35 years since and we will fight on…”
The gas leak affected boys in our bastis, many are impotent and those who have fathered children have kids with some kind of disability. Nobody wants to marry girls from our bastis, too. - Shehzadi
About Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karamchari Sangh
Women survivors belonging to the trade union Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh (BGPMSKS), employed as stationary workers by the Madhya Pradesh State government began an epic padayatra in June 1989 when 100 women and children walk 700 kilometres to Delhi in order to get their case for job regularisation and equal benefits heard. Though employed as part of the MP government’s economic rehabilitation scheme for gas survivors, the women were being paid at a below poverty level rate and without sickness or maternity leave. Since then the union continues to fight.
I dedicate my life for justice: Champadevi Shukla, Secretary, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karamchari Sangh
“We shifted to Bhopal from Jabalpur when my husband got a permanent job with the agricultural department and started staying at the Risaldar Colony. On that Sunday midnight, our neighbour’s son rushed in breathlessly, shouting: “Hurry up and get out or else you will all die!” Soon gas enveloped our room and left us with burning eyes and coughing. Breathing was impossible in the haze, but everyone ran. We, too. After a furlong’s running, amid great difficulty and eyes shut tight, I saw white foam oozing out from the mouths of my daughters and the younger one falling unconscious in the thick white mist. After I wiped their faces with a wet cloth, the younger one regained consciousness. A few years later, my husband died of bladder cancer, my eldest son committed suicide due to constant pain in his chest, my younger daughter was paralysed six months after the gas exposure and my younger son was killed in a road accident. Even though mentally paralysed by these shockers, I knew life has to go on. Now, I have decided to dedicate the remaining days of my life fighting for justice for the Bhopal gas victims.”
My achievement is when a child starts to speak: Nausheen Khan, Speech Therapist with Chingari Trust
“Me and my brother were born after the gas disaster. I was born normal but my younger brother Adil had Cerebral Palsy from the poisonous gas our mother inhaled. The pain of seeing my brother suffer for 19 years pushed me to take up the fight for the rights of gas affected. I met similar children who had speech disability. I, therefore, learnt speech therapy and now I get immense satisfaction when some child starts to speak and joins a normal school.”
I knew life has to go on. Now, I have decided to dedicate the remaining days of my life fighting for justice for the Bhopal gas victims.- Champadevi Shukla
About Chingari Trust: The Chingari Trust was founded in 2006 when survivors, Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla, were recognised for their activism on behalf of the thousands of survivors of the Union Carbide Gas Disaster and were presented with the Goldman Environmental Award. The women used the money from the award to found a trust that has several main functions: extending economic and livelihood support programs to gas-affected women and their families; taking up initiatives that help protect and support the rights of victims of the Gas Disaster, particularly women and children; and to promote the Chingari Award, which recognizes women activists in other parts of India who are fighting against corporate crime and environmental destruction.
I am fighting for a clean Bhopal: Shehzadi, Activist, International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal
“The toxins have also seeped into the water of Bhopal and despite fighting for clean water since 1996, we did not get clean and pure water till 2011 for the rehabilitated people in bastis. The leak affected boys in our bastis, many are impotent and those who have fathered children have kids with some kind of disability. Nobody wants to marry girls from our bastis, too.”
I, therefore, learnt speech therapy and now I get immense satisfaction when some child starts to speak and joins a normal school. - Nausheen Khan
Bhopal memorial: The Statue of Mother and Child
In 1985, survivors, activists and a Dutch sculptor Ruth Waterman came together to build the first public memorial right outside the Union Carbide factory. Waterman is a Holocaust survivor.
The vivid memories of the traumatic night of the disaster recounted by the survivors shaped the design of the sculpture, and the survivors also helped in building it. The statue carries the message: No More Bhopal, No More Hiroshima.
I wonder how the Bhopal Gas Tragedy has affected me, although there are no physical manifestations of the gas leakage, it still has left a psychological and emotional scar on me forever, of that I am sure!
The views expressed are the writer's own.