Tag Archives: Rashida Bee & Champa Devi

UN Urged To Help Rehabilitate Bhopal

The Bhopal delegation visited the United Nations today to urge the organisation to end its “20-year long discriminatory stand” by intervening in Bhopal’s continuing humanitarian disaster. “UN agencies such as WHO, ILO and UNICEF remain silent as people continue to die at the rate of one a day, and babies are born with birth defects. The only reason for this is that Bhopal was not a natural disaster but a disaster caused by the deliberate negligence of a powerful corporation,” said Rashida today. “Is this an indication of the UN’s willingness to sacrifice its mandate in the face of corporate might?”

Champa and Rashida met with Jose Antonio Ocampo, undersecretary general of Economic & Social Affairs, to remind him of “the total absence of initiatives by any of the UN agencies towards rehabilitation of health, economic status, environment or child welfare for the more than 500,000 survivors suffering as a result of exposure”. They also pointed out that Dow’s actions in Bhopal violate some of the basic rights enshrined in the U.N. Charter and that agencies such as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights have done nothing to bring the fugitives to justice. Five areas that UN agencies can make a critical contribution in Bhopal were outlined:

1. UN HCHR to present a report on the ongoing human rights violations in Bhopal;
2. UNICEF to research and monitor children of exposed parents, and initiate rehabilitation efforts;
3. ILO to assess loss of work capacity among survivors, and initiate schemes for economic rehabilitation;
4. WHO to initiate epidemiological and clinical studies, and help develop suitable treatment protocol;
5. UN Sub commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to use Dow Chemical and Union Carbide in the context of Bhopal as a case to develop recommendations for legally binding mechanisms for holding corporations accountable for their impacts on human rights and the environment.

20 YEARS LATER: SURVIVORS OF BHOPAL GAS LEAK URGE UNITED NATIONS AGENCIES TO PROVIDE HUMANITARIAN SUPPORT TO ADDRESS ONGOING IMPACT OF WORLD’S WORST INDUSTRIAL DISASTER

New York, April 29th, 2004 — Today two survivors of the December 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, India, will meet Mr. Jose Antonio Ocampo, undersecretary general of Economic & Social Affairs, to urge him to end the 20-year long discriminatory stand taken by the UN against the Bhopal victims, and initiate a program of relief and rehabilitation for the survivors. The survivors, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, currently in US to receive the prestigious Goldman Prize, will remind Mr. Ocampo of the total absence of initiatives by any of the UN agencies towards rehabilitation of health, economic status, environment or child welfare for the more than 500,000 survivors suffering as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals.

According to the two women leaders, the UN’s failure to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the site of the world’s worst industrial disaster stands in sharp contrast to their response to the plight of natural disasters victims. “UN agencies such as WHO, ILO and UNICEF remain silent as people continue to die at the rate of one a day, and babies are born with birth defects. The only reason for this is that Bhopal was not a natural disaster but a disaster caused by the deliberate negligence of a powerful corporation,” said Rashida Bee. “Is this an indication of the UN’s willingness to sacrifice its mandate in the face of corporate might?”

The 1984 disaster, which has killed more than 20,000 people to date, has left a trail of health and economic problems in its wake. A 2003 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found that male children born to gas-exposed parents were lighter, thinner, and shorter and had smaller head circumference compared to other children, confirming the impact of the toxic gases on the second generation. Toxic wastes abandoned by Union Carbide in and around its factory site remain strewn in Bhopal. Poisons from these wastes have leached into the groundwater used by more than 20,000 people living adjacent to the factory, and a recent study by Sambhavna Trust found that people consuming contaminated water suffer from lower hemoglobin levels in blood, an indication of the effects of Trichlorobenzene, a Carbide chemical found in the water.

Union Carbide, and its new owner Dow Chemical, have refused to assist in clean-up and other rehabilitation, even while they continue to evade summons to appear for trial in the ongoing criminal case in the Bhopal court. Subsequent to the disaster, Union Carbide Corporation was charged with manslaughter. Union Carbide was declared “fugitive from justice” in 1992 by the Indian court, and is an offender in the eyes of the Indian Government. “Union Carbide and Dow’s actions violate some of the most basic rights enshrined in the UN charter even while agencies such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights remain silent,” said Champa Devi Shukla.

“That the perpetrators of the world’s worst industrial disaster have evaded criminal and civil liabilities, and escaped the jurisdiction of Indian courts by taking refuge in the United States re-enforces the need for a legally binding mechanism on transnational corporations,” said Kenny Bruno, Campaign Coordinator for EarthRights International. Bruno also coordinates the Alliance for a Corporate Free UN, which highlights increasing collusion between the UN and TNCs. “It is high time for the UN to learn the lessons of Bhopal.”

The visiting Bhopal delegation will present the UN with a memorandum seeking action on the following points:

1. UN HCHR to present a report on the ongoing human rights violations in Bhopal;
2. UNICEF to research and monitor children of exposed parents, and initiate rehabilitation efforts;
3. ILO to assess loss of work capacity among survivors, and initiate schemes for economic rehabilitation
4. WHO to initiate epidemiological and clinical studies, and help develop suitable treatment protocol;
5. UN Sub commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to use Dow Chemical and Union Carbide in the context of Bhopal as a case to develop recommendations for legally binding mechanisms for holding corporations accountable for their impacts on human rights and the environment.

CONTACT: Riptide Communications (212) 260-5000

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Inter Press News Agency
POLITICS:
Bhopal Survivors Urge U.N. to Help

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 30 (IPS) – Disappointed after 20 years of appeals to courts and governments, survivors of the Union Carbide gas disaster in India are urging United Nations agencies to start relief and rehabilitation work in their hometown Bhopal, where hundreds of thousands of people still suffer from exposure to toxic material.

“The conditions are so bad that people think it would have been better to die on that night,” Rushed Bee, one of the survivors told reporters Thursday before meeting U.N. officials. “People continue to die at the rate of one a day. Yet the U.N. agencies, such as UNICEF, WHO and ILO remain silent.”

Bee, 48, lost six of her family members as a result of the Bhopal tragedy, when 40 tons of lethal methyl isocyante (MIC) gas leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant. She and another survivor, Champa Dev Sukla, 52, said the United Nations has failed to act in Bhopal because the incident was not a natural disaster.

“Is this an indication of the U.N.’s willingness to sacrifice its mandate in the face of corporate might?” she asked.

Earlier this month, both Bee and Sukla won the 2004 Goldman Award for their activism. They are now touring the United States to bring the Bhopal case to the attention of U.S. lawmakers and citizens.

More than 12,000 people died as a direct result of the 1984 gas leak. The incident has left a trail of health problems, as thousands of tons of toxic waste abandoned by Union Carbide in and around its factory site remain in the city.

Health activists say poisons from the wastes have leached into the groundwater used by more than 20,000 people living close to the abandoned factory, and another 100,000 people are seriously ill.

“People are forced to drink this contaminated water,” said Dr Sathinath Sarangi, who works at a clinic in the disaster-ridden area. “There are many health problems. Lack of blood is very common. Children are born with missing fingers, missing pallets and other deformities.”

Last year, the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’ published a study that found male children born to gas-exposed parents in Bhopal were lighter, thinner, shorter and had on average smaller head circumferences than other children, confirming the impact of the toxic gas on the second generation.

“Children are born with cancer because their mothers’ milk is poisoned,” said Bee, her voice choking with emotion. “These children know when they are going to die and we don’t know what to tell them.”

Bee and other survivors say they want the World Health Organisation (WHO) to start epidemiological and clinical studies of the residents and to help develop sustainable treatment methods. They are also asking the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to research and monitor children of exposed parents and to start rehabilitation work.

Union Carbide and its new owner Dow Chemical have refused to help clean up and rehabilitation efforts at Bhopal. Dow continues to evade summons to appear in the on-going criminal case in a city court, maintaining it has no moral or legal obligation for the incident.

Subsequent to the disaster, Union Carbide was charged with manslaughter, and its former chairman Warren Anderson still faces criminal charges in India for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”.

In 1989, the Indian Supreme Court ordered Union Carbide to pay 470 million dollars to the Indian government. Activists say the amount is insufficient to meet the basic needs of survivors, including acute medical care, lost wages and compensation for long-term disability and clean up of the site. Most survivors received less than 500 dollars from that judgement.

Unhappy with the Indian government’s performance, Bee and other survivors took their legal fights to U.S. courtrooms. With the support of advocacy groups, they filed a class-action lawsuit in New York in 1999 against Union Carbide and Anderson, seeking damages to cover medical costs and clean up of the site.

Last month, an appeals court held that U.S. courts could hear the suit and consider requests from Bhopal survivors for redemption of contaminated soil and groundwater. Activists say it is a small legal victory against Dow, but feel frustrated that the legal process has taken so many years.

“Twenty years is a long time. I don’t understand why they (Dow) are not being punished,” said Bee. “Why are we being punished? Why do our children have to wait for so long for justice?”

Activists say Dow’s actions violate some of the basic rights enshrined in the U.N. Charter, and charge that agencies like the U.N. Commission on Human Rights have done nothing to bring them to justice. They are urging the commission to make an example of the Bhopal case and take steps to hold the corporation legally accountable for its impact on human rights and the environment.

“Large corporations continue to manipulate the justice system. Like Carbide they do not want not be held liable in the home countries (for human rights violations, nor (they say) should they be held liable in their host countries,” said Kenny Bruno of the U.S.-based Earth Rights International, an advocacy group.

“Yet they can sign up to the U.N. Global Compact.”

U.N. officials defend the Compact, a project established in 2000 to encourage corporate social responsibility, but do not hesitate to admit that some companies that have pledged to follow the Compact’s nine principles have also been accused of violating labour, environmental or human rights.

“It’s a voluntary participation,” says Georg Kell, who leads the Compact. “It’s a long, long process.”

Aware of growing criticism against the U.N. institution, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called a meeting of the Compact in June.

Whether U.N. agencies decide to take action in Bhopal, survivors-turned-activists from the disaster area say they will continue their international campaign until justice is done for the city’s people.

“If Union Carbide is not punished, if justice is not done,” said Bee, “then I fear there will be more Bhopals in this world”.

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Stavropoulos admits own incompetence as 40 Million shares go against Dow

At Dow’s AGM today, with the shareholder’s vote on a Bhopal resolution safely out of the way, William Stavropoulos finally admitted he had ‘misspoken’ at last year’s meeting when denying the existence of outstanding criminal charges against Union Carbide. After the confession, Stavropoulos slithered away from every other question on the dreaded criminal charges more adroitly than an oiled anaconda. Next year he will be forced to disclose that he’d repeated the original lie – ‘oh, silly old me’ – immediately prior to today’s vote, which despite Dow’s bare-faced concealing of the truth garnered six per cent of Dow’s shares against the company’s motion to dismiss – more than enough to enable proponents to reintroduce the resolution in 2005.

Meantime, there was more plenty more squirming. “To the best of my knowledge, er, we have no knowledge…” Stavropoulos offered in one inadvertent lurch towards profound truth, before it was revealed that what he/Dow knew not of was the MP government’s stated intention to sue Dow over contamination left behind at Carbide’s factory in Bhopal. Designed to put shareholder’s minds at rest over executive management’s understanding of the risks posed by Bhopal, this ludicrous denial was merely one in a bewildering series that also included ‘I have no awareness of Union Carbide making that allegation (of sabotage)’ – meaning that the CEO behind Dow’s 2001 takeover of Carbide would like shareholders to believe he had not actually bothered to look at the alleged causes behind the world’s largest industrial catastrophe before sealing the deal with the fugitive accused.

In all, it was a humiliating display of incompetence by Stavropoulos, acted out purely for the sake of keeping shareholders blind to the gargantuan liabilities crunching unerringly towards the company – those same liabilities which were brought upon Dow by Stavropoulos’s incompetence.

“To The Best of My Knowledge, Er, We Have No Knowledge…”

MIDLAND, MICHIGAN, 13 May 2004 — At Dow Chemicals’ shareholder meeting held today in Midland, Michigan, the Bhopal resolution introduced by Boston Common Asset Management secured more than 6 percent of shareholders’ votes or 40 million shares, enabling the proponents to reintroduce the resolution next year. The resolution, which was supported by influential shareholders such as the California Pension Fund and the New York Comptrollers Office, required Dow to report the steps taken by it in addressing the Bhopal liabilities, and in containing the reputational damage Dow continues to suffer as a result of its ongoing refusal to remedy the situation in Bhopal.

Describing the vote as a postive step in educating shareholders of Dow’s pending Bhopal liabilities, Bhopal survivors and 2004 Goldman Prize winners Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla said they chose to remain outside the shareholders’ meeting because they were “lied to” by the CEO last year. “Our apprehensions were confirmed this year. The company continues to mislead shareholders on significant liabilities that continue to be heard in courts in India and the US,” said Bee and Shukla. “It should concern shareholders and other members of the public that Dow has a pathological tendency to mislead its investors as a means of evading liability.”

Despite acknowledging that he “misspoke” at the 2003 AGM on the matter of pending criminal charges against Union Carbide Corporatation, Dow CEO William Stavropoulos “misspoke” again this year stating that “The 1989 settlement resolved all criminal and civil liabiilties” related to the Bhopal disaster. In 1992, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal declared Union Carbide Corporation a fugitive from justice for refusing to appear in Bhopal to face charges of manslaughter.

The CEO misled its shareholders that the Union Carbide site in India had been cleaned up, and that any remaining contamination is the responsibility of the Madhya Pradesh Government. Last month, Mr. Babu Lal Gaur, Minister for Gas Relief in the Madhya Pradesh Government, said that the Government will move against Dow Chemical for remediation of the Bhopal site. On March 17, 2004, the Federal Appeals court in New York affirmed survivors’ claims against Union Carbide for site remediation.

“The fact that the CEO said that he will deal with the impending legal challenge by the Indian Government on the matter of site clean up when the matter comes up exposes that Dow is only going to continue to react to increasing liability as opposed to taking a proactive stance,” said Lauren Compere of Boston Common Asset Management, the Boston-based investment firm that had introduced the Bhopal resolution.

On the matter of Dow’s dioxin contamination of the Saginaw watershed, the company fielded several questions by irate shareholders responding that “Chloracne is the most serious illness associated with dioxins in humans.”

Michelle Hurd-Riddick of Bay City-based Lone Tree Council said: “Dow’s responses on dioxin expose the company as either ignorant of science or unwilling to confront and deal with the dioxin problem.”

For more information, contact: Nityanand Jayaraman: 520 906 5216 (cell)

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Rashida and Champa win "Nobel Prize for the Environment"

Rashida Bee and Champa Devi have been announced as the winners of the prestigious Goldman Prize. The prize, given annually “for sustained and important efforts” by six ‘heroes of the environment’ worldwide, entails a “no strings attached” award of $125,000 – the largest and most highly regarded award in the world for grassroots environmentalists.

Champa and Rashida have decided to donate the entire sum of the award money to a trust that will provide medical assistance to Bhopal children born with deformities, run income generating projects for women survivors and institute an award for ordinary people fighting extraordinary battles against corporate crime in India. They received their awards in a ceremony at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco today. They will also travel to Washington, D.C., for a presentation at the National Geographic Society. Other activities include meetings with relevant leaders and organizations, for example the U.S. Congress and the World Bank. One World Bank official told the BBC today, “We are very supportive of the Goldman Prize winners because they demonstrate exceptional courage and commitment, often working at great risk to protect the environment and, ultimately, life on Earth.”

The award cited Rashida and Champa’s “courage and tenacity… Despite their poverty and poor health due to toxic gas exposure, Bee and Shukla have emerged as leaders in the global fight to hold Dow Chemicals accountable for the infamous 1984 Union Carbide gas leak.” Rashida’s reaction was modest: “When I learnt that sister Champa and I had won this huge award our first response was that of a long silence. We knew a few individuals who had won awards. They were all educated people, spoke english and had email ids. ‘Has there been a mix up?’, we wondered.” We fancy that reaction was mirrored in Dow’s boardroom this very day.

“Every day more and more people are lending support to our struggle”, Champa said. “We are sure that we will soon have the support we need to bring Dow to its knees.”

“This award,” Rashida adds, “it affirms our struggle and makes the issues we are raising credible. It brings out the truth in our campaign. Dow has been trying to portray us as a fringe group with unreasonable demands. This award nails that lie, and shows that our campaign and demands are based in truth.”

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You can download an MP3 audio file from the video of today’s ceremony here DOC1 – warning, BIG file.

Selected press coverage:

Associated Press article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer

San Francisco Chronicle

Tri-Valley Herald

News24.com (South Africa)

NZoom (New Zealand)

New India Press

BBC first and second

Reuters

Agence France-Presse

Interview with Rashida in Grist Magazine.

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From the Goldman Prize website:

The Bhopal Chemical Disaster: 20 Years Later
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide gas leak that killed more than 20,000 people in Bhopal, India, the world’s biggest industrial disaster. Today, two generations of victims continue to suffer the consequences, but they’ve found new hope in Rashida Bee, 48, and Champa Devi Shukla, 52, two Bhopal activists who have ignited the international campaign to seek justice for disaster survivors. Bee and Shukla’s courage and tenacity have galvanized the grassroots in their own country and abroad. In the process, they’ve drawn low-income, illiterate women like themselves from the margins of society to the center of a closely watched showdown whose endgame is to hold chemical companies accountable for the gas leak and its deadly legacy.

The “Hiroshima of the Chemical Industry”
On Dec. 3, 1984, more than 27 tons of poisonous gases leaked from a storage tank at a Union Carbide pesticide factory into the heart of Bhopal city, immediately killing 8,000 people. Since then, more than 20,000 deaths have been attributed to the disaster. Survivors and their children continue to suffer long-term health effects ranging from cancer and tuberculosis to birth defects and chronic fevers. Multiple studies have found mercury, nickel and other toxins in the local groundwater and dangerous levels of toxins including lead in the breast milk of women who live near the factory zone.

“We are still finding children being born without lips, noses or ears. Sometimes complete hands are missing, and women have severe reproductive problems,” according to Bee, who suffers from respiratory and vision problems from gas exposure.

Roots in Labor Activism
Bee and Shukla first met as employees at a stationery factory in 1986 where they founded an independent union to fight for better labor conditions and wages (traditionally male-dominated unions would not accept them). In 1989 the labor battle culminated in a 469-mile march to New Delhi. More than 100 women, many of whom had sold their jewelry and other valuables to be part of the march, presented a petition with their demands to the Prime Minister. The campaign eventually won them a wage raise and other important concessions.

“Beat Dow With a Broomstick”
Invigorated by their organizing victory, Bee and Shukla leveraged their union’s new-founded political power to seek justice from the chemical giants responsible for the gas leak disaster. Since 1984 Bee has lost six family members to cancer. Shukla, who has one grandchild born with congenital deformities, lost her husband and her health. Ten years after the incident, most survivors had received less than $500 of Union Carbide’s $470 million compensation payout, which has been mired in Indian bureaucracy and other delays. Dow Chemical, which merged with Union Carbide in 2001, maintains to this day that it has no liability in the industrial disaster.

In 2002 Bee and Shukla fought back by organizing a 19-day hunger strike in New Delhi to underscore their demands:

1. The extradition of Union Carbide Corporation officials and its former Chairman CEO Warren Anderson on criminal charges to face trial in Bhopal;

2. Long-term health care and monitoring for survivors and their children as well as the release of information on the health impact of the gases that were leaked;

3. The clean up of the former Union Carbide site and the surrounding area;

4. Economic and social support to survivors who can no longer pursue their trade because of illness or to families widowed by the disaster.

Their protest coincided with a month-long “relay” hunger strike in front of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. More than 1,500 people from 10 countries took part in what would become the first global hunger strike in solidarity with Bhopal survivors.

The women stepped up their efforts later that year by presenting brooms to Dow officials as part of their Jhadoo Maaro Dow Ko (“Beat Dow With a Broomstick”) campaign. In 2003 Bee and Shukla confronted Dow officials at their offices in Mumbai and the Netherlands with hand-delivered samples of toxic waste. A tour of more than 10 cities across the U.S. led to a passionate protest at Dow’s shareholder meeting in Michigan and a 12-day hunger strike and rally on New York’s Wall Street. Students from 25 colleges and universities organized nationwide rallies and thousands of people joined protests in the United Kingdom, China, Spain, Thailand and Canada.

Two years after purchasing Union Carbide, Dow stock prices dropped 13 percent. While the company has faulted the general economic slump, Forbes magazine has credited the “Indian-bred tort litigation” and “ruckus” raised by the series of demonstrations over the past two years as contributing factors in the decline of Dow shares.

Taking the Campaign to the Next Level
On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, Bee and Shukla are ready to raise the stakes yet again. On May 13 they plan to attend Dow Chemical’s shareholders’ meeting in Midland, Michigan (the company’s headquarters) for the unveiling of a new resolution introduced by a socially responsible management firm. The resolution warns of the “reputation risk” to the company if it continues to ignore Bhopal survivors’ demands. International protests and coordinated actions targeting Dow’s bad corporate citizenship around the globe are also in the works.

“We have been fighting for many years now. Every day more and more people are lending support to our struggle,” Shukla has said. “We are sure that we will soon have the support we need to bring Dow to its knees.”

Fighting Dow in Court
Bee and Shukla have also taken their battle to court. In 1999 they joined other disaster victims and advocacy organizations in a class action lawsuit against Union Carbide seeking a clean up of the factory site and damages to cover medical monitoring and costs incurred from years of soil and water contamination. (Earlier, an appeals court judge rejected the plaintiffs’ request for damages stemming from the 1984 disaster but ruled that they could pursue damages unrelated to the disaster). In March the plaintiffs won a significant victory when a U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals judge ruled in their favor and against Union Carbide’s motion to dismiss. Eight U.S. members of Congress, including Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) and Pete Stark (D-CA) filed an amicus brief supporting the suit; 18 other members of Congress have publicly called on Dow to provide reparations to Bhopal disaster victims.

The suit mirrors efforts to hold Dow accountable for environmental health disasters here in the U.S. In Midland, 300 residents so far have signed onto a suit against Dow for allegedly contaminating the Tittabawassee River with dioxin. The suit will seek class action status in April. Current and former residents of a predominantly African-American trailer park community in Plaquemine, Louisiana have filed suit against Dow for allegedly covering up the fact that vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, had seeped into their groundwater.

Mahila Shakti – Woman Power
The leadership of these two physically frail and diminutive women has lit a fire under the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and catapulted the issue onto the global stage once more. In their journey from disaster victims to grassroots activists, Bee and Shukla have had to overcome the enormous stigma of their poverty, their status as women in a male-dominated society, and, in Bee’s case, illiteracy. They have also had to struggle with chronic health problems that can intensify on the campaign trail. During their 2003 hunger strike in the U.S., both women had to be rushed to the emergency room.

In the face of these challenges, they’ve been able to draw strength from each other’s skills and talents. Bee’s “big picture” vision and oratory passion make her a natural “front woman” while Shukla’s quiet diligence and strength make her a formidable organizing powerhouse. The women’s partnership is all the more remarkable because Shukla is Hindu and Bee is Muslim, religious factions with a long history of conflict in India. Together, they have made the struggle for justice for survivors of Bhopal a powerful validation of women’s role on the frontline of India’s civil society.

“A woman’s life involves discarding relationships that she has known from infancy and adopting strangers as her own,” according to Bee, referring to the cultural tradition of brides leaving their families to marry into those of their husbands. “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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Honoured by the international community: Rashida Bee and Champa Devi
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Rashida and Champa with the Goldman Prize
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Echoes of Bhopal in California

Rashida Bee, Margie Richards from Norco, Louisiana, Hilton Kelley from Port Arthur, Texas — all residents of toxic hotspots — today went on a toxic tour of one of the Bay Area Bhopals, guided by Denny Larson of Bucket Brigade fame and Henry Clark of the local NGO West Country Toxic Coalition.

Richmond, California is one of USA’s own slow-motion Bhopal, where communities are gassed on a daily basis and subjected to the threat of an impending disaster on the scale of Bhopal. The similarities with Bhopal are startling — powerful corporations, historically oppressed communities, toxic pollution, cover-ups by polluters and regulators, and widespread ill-health among the residents. The drive up there is spectacular, a medley of thickly vegetated landscapes and the ever present Bay with its numerous bridges.

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Rashida surveys the West Coast’s largest oil refinery, owned by Chevron Texaco

Tucked away within the affluence of the San Francisco Bay Area is the little toxic neighborhood of North Richmond, a predominantly african american and latino area — a third world in a first world setting.

“It is amazing to see places like Richmond in America. If this is the way they treat their own people, it is little wonder that Union Carbide treats the Bhopalis so badly,” said Rashida Bee after her tour of the Chevron legacy.

Home to the West Coast’s largest oil refinery run by Chevron Texaco, Richmond has been the site of numerous protests in recent years given Chevron’s interests in keeping the war in Iraq going. Condoleeza Rice, an ex-director of the Chevron board, is currently one of the leading spindoctors on the Gulf war.

The word “Bhopal” finds tremendous resonance among the environmental justice activists here. Not only did the aftermath of the disaster trigger a busy phase of community organising against the disaster potential and ongoing pollution in Richmond, it also inspired local communities to fight for better toxics monitoring and disaster warning systems. But as Henry Clark put it, “We didn’t get anything without a fight. Without organisation and an organised fight, we couldn’t have won a thing.”

In the 21 years of its existence, West County Toxics Coalition has made environmental justice an accepted phrase in the vocabulary of the locals and in the policy books of the city and the State.

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Chevron Texaco’s contribution ot the environment of North Richmond, California

Despite the organised and growing resistance, incidents of pollution and spills are routine. In our 90 minute tour of the industrial estate, we saw inadequately remediated superfund sites, billowing clouds of black smoke from one of the numerous facilities dotting Chevron’s 3000 acre complex, stacks of empty chemical containers, the site of an old incinerator that used to tower over the school grounds in town, the seemingly dilapidated factory of General Chemicals from where a leak of sulphuric acid in 1993 sent 20,000 people to the hospital.

Much like in the Bhopal case, where the Government of India offered to withdraw criminal charges against the Union Carbide as part of a negotiated settlement, in Richmond too, the state prosecutors withdrew criminal charges against General Chemical in return for a $5.1 million settlement. In Bhopal, though, public pressure forced the Government to reinstate criminal charges against Carbide.

Just as in Bhopal, where people are fighting GOvernment efforts to siphon off compensation funds, the Richmong community had to fight a pitched battle to ensure that the $5.1 million obtained in settlement did not disapear into state funds, but was actually spent on setting up a health clinic for the community.

The Richmond community has been able to win for itself basic health services, an emission monitoring and warning system and an Environmental Justice law that calls for fair treatment of all peoples when it comes to enforcement of environmental law, they are yet to get the companies to submit an evacuation plan in the event of a disaster. However, Clark feels more optimistic about the future: “Now we have a Community Advisory Council as part of the Municipal agency. All development plans have to be approved by the council. Only companies that are clean, green and provide local jobs will be allowed to set up.”

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Rashida et al at the Health Centre fought for by the local community

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San Francisco asks Dow to produce Carbide for trial

The City of San Francisco has become the first US city to pass a resolution urging Dow to address its liabilities in Bhopal. “It is unforgivable that survivors of the disaster are being revictimized by the inaction of Union Carbide and its new owner Dow Chemical,” said City of San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin today.

The historic resolution was announced during a reception at which the San Francisco City Board of Supervisors handed Rashida Bee and Champa Devi, newly arrived in the US, a “Certificate of Honor” on behalf of the City. “We urge Dow Chemical to do the right thing by addressing its pending liabilities in India”, said Supervisor Peskin. “More importantly, Dow Chemical should demonstrate its respect for the law by producing its subsidiary Union Carbide to face trial in the criminal proceedings against it in India.” The City resolution observed that “Union Carbide Corporation is currently an offender in the eyes of the Indian Government after the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Bhopal proclaimed the company an absconder from justice for its failure to honor the process of law.”

Also present at the reception was relentless scourge of Dow Diane Wilson – on appeal from a 120 day jail sentence for making the same point – for an emotional first meeting with Rashida and Champa.

“After 20 years of disappointment and rejection by the companies and the Indian and US authorities, it is actions such as these that give us the strength to keep fighting till justice is done,” Rashida said. Sadly, Dow were unavailable for comment.

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Rashida, Champa and Diane together for the first time!

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Press Release

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