Bhopal activist dies with broken dreams

Sunil Kumar Verma, 34, was found hanging from the ceiling of his modest home in Bhopal, the capital of India’s Madhya Pradesh state, on the evening of 26 July.
He was wearing his favourite T-shirt. It said in bold relief “No more Bhopals”.
Sunil was a survivor of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak – and a victim, suffering serious mental illness in the 16 years since the disaster.
The end came without him realising his dream of seeing anyone brought to justice over the world’s worst industrial accident.
Satyanath Sarangi, president of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA) and a close friend, says that Sunil felt strongly that people responsible for the gas disaster should be punished.
In an interview in 1985, Sunil said: “The people must know who was responsible for the gas disaster – who killed their loved ones?
And those who are found responsible must be hanged. What is the use of all the money if those who have killed so many go scot-free?”
No one had faced trial over the leak by the time Sunil hanged himself.
Difficult survival
Born in Bhopal in 1972, the son of a carpenter, Sunil was living with his family in JP Nagar, just across from the plant run by Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals, when the gas leak occurred.
They all escaped in panic as the poisonous cloud of methyl isocyanate gas descended on the slum settlement in Madhya Pradesh’s state capital in the middle of the freezing night.
All the family members got separated. With his eyes burning and his chest exploding with pain, Sunil managed to board a bus that took him to Hoshangabad, about 70km away.
He lost consciousness and was taken to the district hospital.
He returned to Bhopal a week later to find both his parents, three sisters and two brothers dead.
His younger siblings, a sister aged 10 and a brother of two-and-half, were the only survivors. The 13-year-old Sunil was now the head of the family.
Some relatives took the children to Lucknow but soon the initial sympathy of the relatives wore off and they faced regular abuse.
The three came back to their home in Bhopal and survived on the generosity of their neighbours, who were mostly Muslims.
Relentless campaigner
Sunil’s sister and brother moved to the SOS village – a shelter set up by a charity to house orphans of the gas tragedy – while Sunil began his struggle for survival.
Sunil Kumar Verma campaigning for Bhopal gas victims
Sunil started campaigning for victims’ rights from a young age
He managed to study into his mid teens and his home soon became a safe haven for children who were physically abused by parents and orphans of the tragedy.
Sunil would open the philosophical discussion saying, “Is it better to have parents that beat you, or to have no parents at all?” says Mr Sarangi, remembering Sunil’s strong views.
At the age of 13, Sunil got involved in campaigning for the rights of gas victims. In 1987, he formed “Children Against Carbide”, which got together orphans and youngsters affected by the disaster.
In 1986 Sunil, a petitioner in the Bhopal civil suit, was sent to New York by the Indian government to the US to testify in the gas tragedy case before Judge John Keenan.
He also attended every anniversary rally of the tragedy, even when his condition worsened, said Mr Sarangi.
Generous friend
In 1989 Sunil toured the world to garner support against the settlement agreed between the Indian Government and Union Carbide.
He was arrested in Houston for trying to deliver an environmental report during Union Carbide’s annual meeting. He was released after hundreds of people called the city’s mayor to protest against his arrest .
He also toured India, speaking for those in need. Sunil, along with orphans of the tragedy, sat on a hunger strike in Bhopal for six days in 2003, demanding the jobs promised by the government for survivors of the tragedy.
Although Sunil earned money in small lending and retailing ventures but was known for his generosity, says Shahid Noor, Sunil’s friend.
“When the government finally granted him a house as part of a gas relief scheme, he gifted his home in JP Nagar, free of cost, to a homeless friend. And, whatever, I am today is due to the encouragement of Sunil”, says Shahid .
Sunil had an exceptionally sharp mind and an uncanny memory and scanned newspapers for information about the Bhopal case.
He also worked as a volunteer at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic for survivors and even though he was unemployed at that time, he refused to take money for his work.
Sanjay, Sunil’s younger brother who graduated from college this year, says, “I reached here with the support and blessings of Sunil.”
“Though himself unmarried, he was very keen that his younger brother should find a suitable wife”, says Irshad, Sunil’s close friend and the last person to see him alive.
Sunil’s memory
In March 1997 Sunil started “hearing voices in his head”. He also suffered from insomnia and imagined people were plotting to kill him. By June 1997 his condition worsened and he often ran away from home.
He had also attempted suicide several times. He was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – a mental illness which affected many gas survivors – and began treatment.
When he hanged himself, he left a note saying he was committing suicide not because he was mentally unsound but with all his wits about him.
After Sunil’s death many people from Holland, US, South Africa and other countries have come forward to raise funds in his memory to establish a mental health centre, says Mr Sarangi.

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