Fighting for a cause

Bindu Shajan Perappandan, The Hindu, New Delhi, March 5, 2007

A woman who rolled out `beedies’, Rashida Bee was turned into an activist by the Bhopal gas tragedy that saw her lose six members of her family, says Bindu Shajan Perappadan

Rashida Bee would have continued rolling out “beedies” from her small hut in Bhopal had it not been for the night of December 2, 1984.
An illiterate young girl married to a tailor at the age of 13, the horrifying night of the Bhopal gas tragedy made her an activist who went on to win the coveted Goldman Environment Prize for leading the Bhopal survivors in their over two-decade-long struggle for justice.
“The people who died that night were lucky. The pesticide plant that spewed poisonous gas turned our lives upside down. Humanity died that night. People lost their families and friends, mothers left their children behind and young girls locked up in their homes for safety were forgotten and later found dead,” says Rashida, recalling the night that changed so many lives.
Rashida was in the Capital this week to announce an indefinite hunger strike beginning March 5 by representatives of survivors of the Union Carbide disaster in Madhya Pradesh. They are demanding proper medical care, adequate economic and social rehabilitation and protection from Union Carbide’s poisons.
“We are still paying for being in Bhopal when the gas tragedy happened. Even today there are children who are born with birth defects and people don’t want to marry into families that were affected by the gas. Now two decades later some villages affected by the gas tragedy continue to drink contaminated water. Health facilities are not up to the mark and families still have no stable source of income. The Government knows the plight of the people here, but has opted to turn a blind eye,” says Rashida.
Not a night to forget in one lifetime, Rashida says that while the night of December 2 was horrible, it was the sight at the city hospital two days later that left her shaken.
“My husband had gone missing that fateful night and later somebody told us that they had spotted him in the nearby hospital. I went there to look for him and I saw a pile of dead bodies with relatives falling over each other searching to claim the bodies of their loved ones. I froze thinking that my husband could be in that pile of dead bodies. Blood and vomit was everywhere and sound of people in pain added to the horror that was being played out in that hospital room. Standing there horrified at the scene, I saw my husband sitting in a corner vomiting blood. We took him away from the hospital, where doctors were still not clear on how to treat those admitted. Though he survived that night, he hasn’t been able to regain complete use of his limbs. We thus lost our only source of stable income. Six members of our family died later due to the adverse effects of the poison gas,” says Rashida.
Now continuing to fight for the cause of those affected, she says that the Government’s apathy has been the main hindrance for the people of Bhopal in getting justice.
“At least 50,000 survivors today are unable to earn a livelihood because of their exposure related sickness and the compensation amounts people received were inadequate to even pay for routine medical care expenses. There are thousands of families that continue to live below the poverty line, with no earning members (either due to sickness or death) and with children with congenital deformities who are in dire need of social security,” she says.
Speaking about her work and how a housewife became an activist, Rashida says: “Call it survival instinct, we had no choice but to fight and demand that we be compensated for the wrong done to us. My friend Champa Devi Shukla along with some other women started a protest group. We want to be heard and compensated. We want our lives back. We aren’t asking for something that isn’t due and though the Government claims to have spent several crores there are many who haven’t received much of that benefit. The condition is such that the Madhya Pradesh Government is ignoring the Supreme Court of India’s orders regarding supply of safe drinking water to the people living in the contaminated areas. It has not implemented any of the recommendations of the Monitoring Committee set up by the Supreme Court for looking after the health care system. Things need to be changed and I believe that women are capable of bringing about a positive change.”

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