Champa Devi Shukla – India

Linked with Rashida Bee – India.

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

Champa Devi Shukla has been a leading figure in the international campaign seeking justice for the survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide Gas Tragedy in Bhopal. Starting with protests and rallies in India, Champa took her fight against Union Carbide Company (UCC) and its partner, Dow Chemicals, to the streets of New York and other American cities. Dow Chemicals is today fighting a series of cases filed by Champa and other protesters.

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Champa Devi Shukla – India

Champa was awarded the 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize for bringing the Bhopal disaster to the international center stage. It has been over two decades since the Union Carbide methyl isocyanate gas leak killed more than 30,000 people in Bhopal – the worst industrial disaster in history. The survivors, and the subsequent generations, continue to suffer the consequences of the disaster. But in 52-year-old Champa Devi Shukla, the survivors found new hope. For 19 years now, she has been a leading figure in the international campaign to seek justice for the victims.

On 3 December 1984, more than 27 tons of highly-toxic gas leaked from a storage tank at a Union Carbide pesticide factory into the heart of the thickly-populated city of Bhopal, almost instantly killing 8,000 people. More than 20,000 more have died since from direct or indirect effects of the leak. The survivors and their children suffer from long-term health effects ranging from cancer, tuberculosis, birth defects, to chronic fevers. Studies have found mercury, nickel, and a noxious combination of other toxins in the Bhopal groundwater. Women’s breast-milk has been found to contain dangerous levels of toxins like lead.

Champa, a standard X dropout, was married to Badri Prasad Shukla, a government employee. Badri, caught by the gas, was among the many people afflicted with cancer, and passed away in 1997 after struggling for more than a decade.

Champa and Badri had three sons and two daughters at the time of the disaster. The oldest and youngest sons died of gas leak-related health problems, her older daughter was paralyzed a few months after the disaster, and her other son and youngest daughter confront serial health problems till today.

Champa and her partner Rashida Bee (see their photos in this slideshow), in activism since 1986, met at a factory where they were working in, and founded an independent union to fight for better labor conditions and wages for women. In 1989, their struggle culminated in a 469-mile march to New Delhi. More than 100 people were part of the march, and they submitted a petition of their demands to the then prime minister. The result was a wage raise for the women laborers at the factory, and a melange of other benefits.

Champa then took the initiative to leverage their union’s newfound power to seek justice from Union Carbide. Her own health had also been affected. More than a decade after the incident, most survivors had received only a fraction of Union Carbide’s US$ 470 million payout, which was stuck in the craw of Indian bureaucratic red tape.

In 1999, Champa joined activists and disaster victims in a Class Action Lawsuit filed against UCC in New York, that sought a cleanup of the factory site, and damages to cover medical monitoring and costs incurred from years of soil and water contamination. The case is continuing.

Meanwhile, Dow Chemicals, which merged with Union Carbide in 2001, maintains to this day that it has no liability in the disaster.

In 2002, Champa 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 1500 people from across the world took part in what would become the first global hunger strike for a common cause.

In 2003, Champa 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,
  • - a passionate protest at a Dow shareholders’ meeting in Michigan,
  • - and a 12-day hunger strike and rally on New York’s Wall Street.

Students from American colleges and universities 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 dropped by 13 per cent. Forbes wasted no time in crediting the ‘Indian-bred tort litigation’ for the bourse slump.

Champa and Rashida Bee were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2004, in recognition of their efforts in bringing the Bhopal disaster to international focus. Champa’s leadership has, literally, lit a fire under the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. She has used the power of the assertive voice to communicate to the world that the people of Bhopal will never give up.

Champa has overcome obstacles that would have dissuaded someone less motivated – chronic health problems, abject poverty, and ridicule against women taking the lead in a patriarchal society. But Champa and Rashida’s struggle continues unabated. The former has used the power of her assertive voice to communicate to the world that the people of Bhopal will not give up until UCC and Dow are held accountable. (1000PeaceWomen).

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