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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
Bhopal campaigners win key prize
Environmental activist Rashida Bee (R)
The day of the disaster changed Rashida Bee's life
Two Indian women have won a prestigious environmental prize for their battle on behalf of the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster 20 years ago.

Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla won the Goldman Environmental Prize and will share $125,000.

The women said they would use the money to set up their own award in India for fighting corporate crime.

About 3,000 people died on the night of the toxic leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant on 3 December, 1984.

Official Indian estimates say there have been a further 15,000 related deaths in the years since.

The two women and five other activists will be honoured in San Francisco on Monday.

The award, often referred to as the Nobel prize for environment, is given to each of six regions, each winning $125,000.

Disaster recalled

Ms Bee and Ms Shukla lived within a few miles of the Union Carbide plant at the time of the gas leak.

They organised a hunger strike that spanned the world to sustain awareness in the effects of the disaster.

I saw mothers running and leaving their children behind, people coughing up blood
Rashida Bee

In addition to the dead, more than 150,000 people suffered injuries.

Ms Bee said: "The whole world wept, but then people forgot about Bhopal."

The pair spent years trying to hold Union Carbide's parent, Dow Chemical, accountable.

Union Carbide became a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow in 1999.

"The forces that we have to fight against are too powerful," Ms Bee said.

"There is no effective law-enforcing agency to hold large multinationals accountable."

Dow says the case was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide paid $470m in a settlement with the Indian government.

Forced to work

Ms Bee recalled the day of the disaster in an interview with Reuters.

Demonstration against Dow chemicals
The women say the forces they fight are powerful

"All of us started coughing," she said.

"It was as though our lungs were on fire. We started running and I had to pry my eyes open to see. I saw mothers running and leaving their children behind, people coughing up blood."

The women say the community still suffers elevated rates of cancer and anaemia.

"You can imagine the health of people who begin life with poisoned milk," said Ms Bee.

Before the disaster, Ms Bee was illiterate. "I knew nothing of the world outside until the day of the disaster. It changed my life," she said.

She lost her husband and her father was injured.

Defying Muslim tradition, she was forced to work.

"I met so many other women in the same situation. Many had debts because of the disaster. Almost all faced starvation because the men could not work."

She met Ms Sukla, a Hindu, who blames the leak for the death of her husband and the deformity of her grandchild.

The pair established an independent union in 1986 to fight for improved pay and workplace conditions.

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26 Nov 02 |  South Asia
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26 Aug 02 |  South Asia

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