Harsh Mander, The Hindustan Times, September 28, 2006
Late one evening, a young man of 34 was found hanging from the ceiling of his home in Bhopal. His name was Sunil Verma, the date, July 26, 2006. More than 21 years earlier, he had lost his parents and five siblings in the gas massacre on December 2, 1984.
That December night, from the adjacent Union Carbide Corporation pesticide factory in Bhopal, a lethal combination of methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide, mono methylamine and carbon monoxide was unleashed on this sleeping city of a million unsuspecting residents. One of the first localities into which the gas spewed was JP Nagar, where Sunil and his family were sleeping. Roused, they found themselves gasping for breath, their eyes burning as if they were on fire. Coughing and screaming, they ran out of their homes, and were swept away by a surging human torrent.
Sunil, then 12 years old, tightly held the hand of his younger sister, Mamata, as he ran desperately. Lost in the dense clouds of gas, he got separated from the rest of his family. Suddenly, even Mamata’s hand was wrenched out of his. Screaming people surged from all sides, some fell and were crushed, others tore off their clothes, yet others were vomiting uncontrollably.
Sunil ran, gasping for his life, his eyes afire, until he could make out the phantom form of a matador van. He pushed his way inside, and survived. His relatives told him later that his mother had died holding her eight-month-old infant son, Sanjay, who miraculously survived. Their father had returned to their hut the next morning. On the night of the gas leak, he had locked the hut before they ran. When he opened the door on his return the next morning, he found the dead body of one of his sons, Santosh, who had accidentally been left behind in the panic. Shortly after, their father died, perhaps of the gas, or may be of a broken heart.
Of his seven brothers and sisters, only the baby, Sanjay, and Mamata, whose hand had been wrenched from Sunil’s, were saved. Sunil suddenly found himself almost completely alone in the world, responsible for looking after his eight-month-old brother and his younger sister. The boy decided not to go back to school, and instead devote himself entirely to his brother and sister, whom he got admitted into an SOS village.
In the early years, the survivors lived on relief. The efforts of the government to rebuild their livelihoods ended as sad and expensive failures. The Madhya Pradesh government spent Rs 700 million for this purpose, which succeeded in creating long-term livelihoods for little more than 80 women.
Meanwhile, unknown to Sunil and other residents of JP Nagar, as they struggled for livelihoods and ways to stem their failing health, a curious legal battle was being fought on their behalf in the courts of India and the US. The Indian government, through the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act of March 1985, arrogated to itself exclusive powers to represent the victims in the civil litigation against Union Carbide. On behalf of the victims, the Indian government filed a suit for compensation of more than $ 3 billion in the federal court of the southern district of New York.
In the search for a star witness in New York courts, government officials settled for Sunil, because he was a child who had lost much of his family in the tragedy. He was flown to the US with the Indian team. In court, Sunil recounted his story in fluent Hindi, and his testimony was translated for the judge.
He learnt later that the case was returned in May 1986 to the Indian courts on grounds of ‘forum non-convenience’, under the condition that Union Carbide would submit to their jurisdiction. During the proceedings of the Bhopal district court, Union Carbide was directed to pay an interim relief of Rs 3,500 million so that the delay in the adjudication of the case would not adversely affect the claimants.
However, Union Carbide refused to pay this sum and its appeal against this decision reached the Indian Supreme Court. On February 14, 1989, in a sudden departure from the matter of interim relief, the Supreme Court passed an order approving the settlement that had been reached between the Government of India and Union Carbide, without the knowledge of the claimants of Bhopal. According to the terms of the settlement, in exchange for payment of $ 470 million, the corporation was to be absolved of all liabilities. All criminal cases against it and its officials were to be dropped, and the Indian government was to defend the corporation in the event of future suits.
The settlement sum, nearly one-seventh of the damages initially claimed by the government, was not only far below international standards but was even lower than the modest standards set by the Indian Railways for railway accidents. The Supreme Court revised its judgment on October 3, 1991, upholding the settlement amount paid by Union Carbide but directing the Indian government to make good any shortfall.
Over time, it became increasingly difficult for Sunil to return to his empty house. It was too full of memories. His brother and sister were growing up in the SOS village. In 1991, he moved in with leading activist and long-term friend Sathyanath Sarangi.
A year later, in 1992, the state government built a ‘widows’ colony’. Houses were allotted by lottery to widows and orphans who had survived the gas tragedy, and Sunil qualified. He then moved into this colony, where he lived until his death.
In 1994, his sister turned 18, beyond the protection offered by the SOS village in Bhopal. Sunil decided to get both his sister and brother discharged from the SOS village and bring them over to live with him. Their presence filled a little bit the accumulated loneliness that had festered inside his soul all these years. But perhaps they returned too late.
As time passed, Sunil became more and more withdrawn and uncommunicative. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he found something slowly cracking up within him. He was frequently depressed, and became obsessed with thoughts of suicide. He heard voices call out to him. He would not stir out of his home, would not wash himself or talk to people. There were times when he ran out of the house without clothes, feverishly roaming the streets night and day, running miles along the railway track, deep into the forest.
For a decade prior to his passing away, Sunil has been on medication for his mental illness. He refused to consider marriage for himself, firm in his resolve to first ensure a good future for those he had taken under his care almost 22 years earlier. In time, he got his sister Mamata married to an electrician, and his brother educated in an English-medium school. Today he is a graduate. Before Sunil died, he was in search of a suitable bride for his brother.
He died wearing a T-shirt declaring ‘No More Bhopals’. At the time he took his life, no one had been punished for the crimes of the Bhopal massacre. With him died, perhaps, even the hope for justice.
Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari, a people’s campaign for secularism, peace and justice.