Rashida Bee – India

Linked with Champa Devi Shukla – India.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “A woman’s life involves discarding relationships that she has known from infancy and adopting strangers as her own … If she can face the world outside at such a fundamental level, then why should any other struggle for empowerment scare her”.

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Rashida Bee – India

Rashida Bee is a leading personality in the global campaign to secure justice for the survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide Gas Tragedy in Bhopal, the biggest industrial disaster in history. Rashida took her fight with Union Carbide Company and its giant partner, Dow Chemicals, to the streets of New York. Dow Chemicals is battling a series of cases that Rashida and other protestors filed against it.

Rashida received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004 for internationally center-staging the Bhopal disaster. On December 3, 1984, the Union Carbide Company’s (UCC) methyl isocyanate gas leak (MIC) progressively killed more than 30,000 people in Bhopal, the worst and most shameful industrial disaster in history. Among many others, 48-year-old Rashida Bee, a providential survivor, has been a leading personality in the global campaign to get justice for the survivors, direct and indirect.

That fateful night, more than 27 tons of poisonous gas leaked from a storage tank at a UCC pesticide factory, killing 8,000 Bhopalis more or less instantly, and condemning to a slow death 20,000 more. The survivors and their children continue to suffer long-term debilitations ranging from cancer, tuberculosis and birth defects, to chronic fevers.

Studies have found mercury, nickel and a combination of other toxins in the Bhopal groundwater and toxins like lead in women’s breast-milk.

Many uneducated women in Bhopal were, and continue to be, employed in the beedi-packing business. So was Rashida Bee.

Her husband, Atul Waheed, was a tailor. The MIC laid him low, as it did thousands of others, rendering him incapable of work.

Rashida Bee, and her partner, Champa Devi Shukla, (see their photos in this slideshow) are in activism since 1986, met at a factory and founded an independent union to fight for better labor conditions and wages for women. In 1989, they marked 469 miles to the national capital, New Delhi. More than 100 protestors submitted a petition of demands to the then prime minister, who promptly ordered a wage raise and other benefits for the factory’s women laborers.

Rashida lost six members of her family since the disaster to the aftereffects of the leak. More than a decade after the horror, most survivors had received only a fraction of UCC’s paltry US$ 470 million payout, which was paralyzed by Indian bureaucratic red tape.

Rashida took the fight to the courts: in 1999, she joined activists and disaster victims in an ongoing Class Action Lawsuit filed in New York against UCC, seeking that UCC clean up the factory site and cough up damages to cover medical monitoring and the cost of a decade-and-a-half of soil and water contamination.

The megacorp Dow Chemicals, which merged with UCC in 2001, continues to disingenuously maintain that it has no liability in the disaster.

In 2002, Rashida led a 19-day hunger strike in New Delhi to underscore their demands, which included

  • - the extradition of senior UCC officials and its former CEO, Warren Anderson, on criminal charges to face trial in Bhopal (successive US administrations have been stymying his extradition);
  • - long-term healthcare and monitoring for survivors and their future generations, and information dissemination on the gas leak’s health impact;
  • - cleaning up the UCC “ghost” site;
  • - and economic and social support to survivors unable to pursue their trades.

This protest coincided with a month-long hunger strike in front of the UCC factory in Bhopal, a rusty memorial today.

More than 1,500 people from the world over took part in what turned into the first common-cause global hunger strike for a common cause.

In 2003, Rashida and others confronted Dow officials in Mumbai and the Netherlands with samples of toxic waste, an initiative that resulted in

  • - a protest tour of more than 10 American cities,
  • - an impassioned protest at a Dow shareholders’ meeting in Michigan,
  • - and culminating in a 12-day hunger strike and rally on New York’s Wall Street.

American college and university students organized

  • - nationwide rallies;
  • - thousands of people joining protests in the United Kingdom, China, Spain, Thailand, and Canada.

Two years after merging with UCC, Dow’s stock prices plummeted by 13 per cent. Forbes wasted no time in crediting the ‘Indian-bred tort litigation’ for the bourse slump.

Rashida and Champa were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2004 in recognition of their efforts to bring the Bhopal disaster to international focus.

“A woman’s life involves discarding relationships that she has known from infancy and adopting strangers as her own,” Rashida says. “If she can face the world outside at such a fundamental level, then why should any other struggle for empowerment scare her”. (1000PeaceWomen).

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