I survived the Bhopal gas tragedy

It has been 30 years and Bhopalis are still fighting for their basic rights.

More than 3,500 were killed in the 1984 disaster, but as many as 25,000 people have died from related illnesses since then [AFP]

On the night of December 2, 1984, the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal in India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh, leaked around 30,000 tonnes of methyl isocyanate. More than 3,500 perished in the immediate aftermath, but as many as 25,000 people have died from related illnesses since then. This is the heartbreaking story of a survivor who lost his parents and siblings in the tragedy.

I was born in July 1984 and I was only five months old when the disaster struck my community. I was too young to remember anything from the night of December 2, 1984, but, throughout the years, I have heard many stories from the people who were there and saw it happen. My sister would sometimes tell me things about that night, though we generally avoided bringing it up, as we knew that it would only hurt us to talk about it.

After the disaster, some of our relatives, who had heard about it on the radio, came and took us to Lucknow, around 600km from Bhopal. We stayed with them for a few months, but they started treating us badly, as if we were a burden to them and their families, so it was our brother Sunil, another survivor from our family of 10 – aged 13 at the time of the disaster – who decided to bring us back to Bhopal. Subsequently, we were sent to an orphanage in Bhopal, called The SOS Children’s Village. Sunil refused to live with us in the orphanage, and got involved with the anti-Carbide campaign. He created an organisation called Children Against Carbide. Most of the members of this organisation were children from the community we were from – Jay Prakash Nagar (JP Nagar), right across the road from the main Bhopal plant.

I was happy with my life at the orphanage in Bhopal, I had almost everything: cricket bats, skates, football, good education etc. But, at the same time, I did not know anything about our parents.

In middle school, we would have parent-teacher meetings at school; my classmates had their parents next to them for the meeting, but I had no one next to me. It was around that time that I started asking my sister about our parents. It was then that my sister first told me about the Bhopal gas disaster and what had happened that night. Until then, I never fully understood that I was growing up in an orphanage and didn’t really know the meaning of the word “orphanage”.

My sister Mamta told me that there were four brothers and four sisters in our family. Our father was a carpenter, and I was the youngest in the family. We lost three sisters and two brothers along with our parents that night.

I then asked her, “How did we survive?”

She told me that she wrapped me in a blanket, and ran away along with our brother Sunil. When they were running, Sunil had to go to the bathroom, and fainted. The streets were so crowded as people were running and shouting, my sister was forced by the crowd, and couldn’t wait any longer for my brother Sunil to come back.

Bhopal victims demand better compensation

The following morning, when people came to collect bodies from the street, they found Sunil and thought he was dead too. They put him on a truck with many bodies, and took him to dump into a river so that they could keep the number of deaths as low as possible. When it was my brother’s turn to be thrown off the truck into the Narmada River, about 90km from Bhopal, he woke up and said, “I am not dead.” The people who were about to throw him in got scared, thinking a dead body was talking to them.

Mamta and Sunil took care of me and made sure I had everything. They were like parents to me. When it was no longer possible for them to pay for my education, a few charities helped with my tuition fees and I managed to pursue a higher education.

In 1997, Sunil started having symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, and was told by the doctors that it was happening because of the trauma he suffered after losing so many family members. Sunil tried to kill himself many times. Once he ate rat poison. He tried again by setting himself on fire. Once he ran into the jungle, hoping to die there. He failed every time.

He succeeded in 2006 when he hung himself.

So, now it is just Mamta and I – the only survivors from a family of 10.  

Mamta lives in Lucknow with her husband and two children, and I live here in Bhopal on my own. She would often complain about severe headaches and eye problems.

It has been almost 30 years now, and Bhopalis are still fighting for their basic rights. The disaster took so many lives, and is still killing people, as the abandoned factory continues poisoning our soil, water, and air.

I started learning more about the disaster when I saw people of different ages chanting slogans in the streets of Bhopal when I was a child.

In 2004, Greenpeace flew me to Paris to participate in a demonstration outside Dow’s shareholders meeting. I got involved with the campaign in 2004 partly because of my brother’s participation in the campaign. It was better to die fighting for our rights than succumb to depression over what had happened.

It has been almost 30 years now, and Bhopalis are still fighting for their basic rights. The disaster took so many lives, and is still killing people, as the abandoned factory continues poisoning our soil, water, and air.

I had a stroke in 2005, and started taking an aspirin everyday. I also had a pulmonary embolism in the US last year. Now I no longer take an aspirin, because now I have to take 7.5mg of warfarin, a blood thinner, which is also used as rat poison.

In 2008, I was one of a number of Bhopal survivors in New Delhi who fasted for 21 days, only having water. We were asking then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to set up an empowered commission to look into the issues related to Bhopal. We also wanted clean water to be supplied to the people who were living in the affected communities and were forced to drink contaminated water.

It took two marches for Bhopalis walking from Bhopal to New Delhi (about 805km) to ask our prime minister for clean water and proper healthcare. The prime minister finally agreed and provided funds to the state government. New pipelines were laid out and now clean water is being supplied to almost all of the affected communities.

My community is yet to be compensated for what it has suffered. We are sad that the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, who was arrested by Indian authorities but fled to the US, died unpunished. He was one of the individuals responsible for the disaster, and the Indian and US governments (which did not deport him to India) were equally responsible for his escape from India. 

I do not think that there would ever be enough compensation for Bhopal victims, as money cannot bring back what they have lost and suffered since the disaster. But, in order to for them to have a life of dignity and good health, they need financial compensation.

Everyone on this earth should feel this anger and frustration. It has been 30 years and justice continues to elude the people of Bhopal. We, the people of Bhopal, believe that the whole world has transformed into a Bhopal in a way: If you look around, you see multinational corporations being allowed to do business without accountability, poisoning the world and placing profits over people. If justice comes to Bhopal, then it would be justice for the whole world. It would set a precedent and ensure that in the future, corporations committing such crimes are brought to justice.

Sanjay Verma is an Indian activist fighting for those affected by the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. He survived the disaster but was orphaned along with his sister and now deceased brother.