They tried every legitimate and peaceful means of political action since 1984. Last year, they deployed some really impressive weaponry, the shock-and-awe campaign that has their adversaries running for cover. This weapon is the jhadoo (broomstick).
The jhadoos are wielded by a battalion of women from Bhopal, victims and friends of victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984. On December 2, 1984, a storage tank containing too much methyl isocyanate (MIC) at an unsafe temperature exploded on the grounds of the Union Carbide pesticide factory. The gas spread over neighboring communities, killing over 20,000 people and inflicting thousands with chronic diseases and genetic disorders.
The tragedy isn't over yet. In the absence of a proper clean-up of the site, chemicals are still leaking into the soil and groundwater.
Union Carbide sought to cover all claims by paying US $470 million, funds that were deposited with the Indian government. Very little of that money has reached the survivors. In 2001, Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemicals. By law, the new owner inherits Union Carbide's liabilities. But Dow claims it has no liabilities in Bhopal because in 1994, before Dow acquired it, Union Carbide sold its Indian shares to an Indian company, Eveready Industries India Limited (EIIL).
The survivors have found their own leaders, people like Rashida Bi of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karmachari Sangh, which is part of a coalition called the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB). She says, "We are not begging for alms. We have four demands. One, that Warren Anderson [Union Carbide's CEO at the time of the disaster] be extradited from America to stand trial here. Two, that Dow should cover medical treatment for two generations of victims. Three, that survivors should be given full economic compensation for lost employment. Four, that Dow should clean up the affected soil and water."
But the campaign against Dow needed a new symbol. Rashida Bi says, "During discussions someone said, 'Dow ko belan se marna chahiye (We should hit Dow with a rolling pin)'. Another said, 'Jhadoo se marna chahiye (We should hit Dow with a broom)'."
Traditionally, in India, the rolling pin and broom are the two weapons of a housewife; men don't touch them. "Being struck by a jhadoo is the ultimate insult, and we feel that Dow deserves this treatment. By delivering jhadoos to Dow, we're telling the company to clean up its mess in Bhopal or be prepared to be swept out of the planet," says feisty Champa Devi Shukla, a survivor and colleague of Rashida Bi.
Not a word of explanation was needed when activists asked for donations of used brooms. In the colonies near the Bhopal factory site, women and children handed them over with a grin. Jhadoos were collected from all over India. And it is such a familiar object, that it is easy to deploy as an activist symbol: children in the gas-affected colonies of Bhopal quickly invented snappy jhadoo slogans and street chants.
The campaigners marched with jhadoos in Bhopal, shouting lines like "Idhar se maro, udhar se maro, jhadoo maro Dow ko!" ("Hit them from this side, hit them from that side, beat Dow with a broom!"). The women delivered thousands of brooms to the Dow offices in Mumbai. A part-owned Dow subsidiary called Anabond Essex in Pondicherry faced the jhadoo in mid-November, 2002. Protesters called upon the government to confiscate its property. Tamil-speaking bystanders reportedly had no trouble understanding what the jhadoos meant.
Small teams took the jhadoo to Dow in Europe. Shukla handed one to a perplexed and wary Dow Europe CEO, Luciano Respini, in Switzerland recently. "This, for some reason made him scared and run away from the room," reported Pranay Sharma of the ICJB. Much the same thing happened at various Dow offices that Rashida Bi visited in Europe, until Dow executives wised up and took the brooms - and the PR beating - with a fixed smile.
Not so for the most high-voltage encounter of the campaign. In Houston recently, Dow CEO Michael Parker rose at a sponsored luncheon to accept an environmental award on behalf of his company. His speech was interrupted by ICJB protesters who had an award of their own to deliver: two jhadoos. They did not miss the chance to explain the significance of the brooms to Parker's audience. There is a blow-by-blow account of this event on the ICJB's website.
Why is the campaign against Dow led by women? "Women have borne the greater burden," says Rashida Bi. "The men have to earn, so every day they go out to look for work. Mostly they are construction workers. The women have to face many challenges every day at home: feeding their children, caring for the sick. If a woman is infertile, her husband or her parents create difficulties. Sometimes the women get so angry that it stirs them to take action."
Women in the region live in constant fear of bearing children with genetic defects. Some may never get pregnant. Even when children are born healthy, their mothers' toxin-laden breast milk can do them severe harm. Women feel very fortunate when a man marries them.
How successful have women been with their brooms? Rashida Bi says they have been supported by several organizations around the world. Recently, the court rejected a bid by India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to reduce charges against Warren Anderson. "Dow is very worried," she adds, "because even after 18 years the protests are still so strong."
And she cites other long-running campaigns, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Japanese atomic bomb survivors (known as hibakusha) fighting for rights and recognition. "If they have fought for two to three generations, for 40 to 45 years, then so can we."