Two Indian women have won a prestigious environmental prize for their battle on behalf of the survivors of the “world’s worst industrial disaster” – the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster. Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla won the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Prize and will share the $125,000, which they will use to set up their own award in India for fighting corporate crime.

More than 8,000 people died when a gas used to make pesticides leaked out of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 2-3, 1984. Over 20,000 people have died from the aftereffects of this corporate crime and more than 300,000 have been injured. Survivors still suffer alarming rates of cancer, birth defects, respiratory diseases and a litany of other health problems.

Bee and Shukla (interviewed by Denise Winebrenner Edwards in the May 31, 2003, PWW) are helping to lead an international campaign against Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 1999. Under court order, Dow Chemical has released Union Carbide internal memos that document a long history of neglected safety precautions (to save costs and maximize profit) dating into the early 1970s.

Bee, who is 48 and a Muslim, serves as the president of the Bhopal Gas Affected Women Stationery Employees Union. Shukla, 52, is the union’s secretary and a Hindu. They work with 50 Hindu and 50 Muslim women, also gas victims, at a state-owned factory, making office stationery and other goods for the Indian government’s press.

Bee told the World in the 2003 interview, “We woke up that morning and heard people running outside. Imagine, 37 people coughing so badly we were not able to talk to one another. We ran. After about a half mile, I had to sit down. My eyes were so inflamed, like needles piercing into my eyes. My lungs felt like they were filled with red chilies. When I looked around all I could see were dead bodies.”

Shukla said that problems with the plant started long before that deadly December night. Her family reported seeing graves of workers who built the plant in 1972. “People came to Bhopal from all over the state,” she said. “It was work to build the plant and [there were] jobs when it was finished. But people died building that Union Carbide factory. They were buried near the factory and their families told to go back home. Go back to where they came from with nothing,” Shukla told the World in 2003.

In 1989, the Indian government accepted a $470 million settlement with Union Carbide. “They sold out,” said Shukla with disgust. “The silicon breast implant settlement was $500 million. In Bhopal, the people saw little change, especially in treating the cancers and continuing sicknesses from the gas.”

In 2001, the stationery workers’ union and Bhopal residents raided hospitals and found medicines for gas victims sitting in storage. On Feb. 28, they stormed Dow Chemical’s headquarters in Mumbai. Using brooms, they vowed to sweep out the corruption in the corporation that denied their families medical care. They were successful in releasing medicines for treatment.

By 2002, the stationery workers’ union and Bhopal residents joined forces with Greenpeace and launched the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. “We want the world to remember,” says Shukla, “but we want the corporation, especially Warren Anderson (former CEO of Union Carbide), tried in India. We want passage of the Chemical Securities Act, restitution to surviving families, medical care and our land and water restored to its original condition.”

International pressure and direct nonviolent action in Bhopal produced results and helped garner the attention of the Goldman Prize board. The Goldman Environmental Prize is given each year to environmental heroes from each of the six continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Island Nations, North America and South/Central America. It is the world’s largest prize program honoring grassroots environmentalists.

Other 2004 prize winners were Manana Kochladze from Georgia, Libia Grueso from Colombia, Rudolf Amenga-Etego from Ghana, Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalha of East Timor, and Margie Eugene-Richard from the U.S. – four women and one man – all of whom are fighting for justice and the public’s interest in the face of corporate and military wrongdoing.

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