26 February 2016

Living in the shadows of the Bhopal tragedy

Sanjay Verma grew up in the SOS Children’s Village Bhopal. Photograph: Courtesy of Sanjay Verma

Sanjay Verma was one of only three members of his family to survive the December 1984 Bhopal gas leak and, along with his sister Mamta, grew up in an SOS family in the central Indian city.

Born just six months before the tragedy, Verma today is a Bhopal-based activist seeking justice for the victims of one of the world’s worst industrial accidents. He has travelled the globe to share his story, is regularly interviewed by journalists, and was featured in Bhopali, an award-winning 2011 documentary on the survivors.
 
Verma was too young to recall the tragedy that killed his parents, three sisters and two brothers. But he does remember the important role that SOS Children’s Villages in Bhopal played in providing him a home.
 
Besides his activism, Verma is a documentary photographer and aspires to study photography. His sister Mamta was married in 1997 and lives in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, with her husband and two children. Their brother Sunil committed suicide in 2006, Sanjay said.
 
The disaster was triggered by a toxic gas leak at a Bhopal pesticide plant, a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation. Upwards of 15,000 people eventually died, and thousands of others suffered sickness or disabilities, according to the Indian government.
 
Sanjay Verma, 31, responded to questions about his work, ambitions, and on the SOS Children’s Village where he grew up.
 
What role did the SOS Children’s Village play for you?
 
In a way, my good life started at - and because of - the SOS Children's Village Bhopal. I can't imagine my life without SOS after going through such a terrible disaster that killed most of my family along with both of my parents. To me, it was not just a place where I grew up, it was my home, where I could feel comfortable, and share what I had to say with so many amazing people around. 
 
What do you hope to achieve through your work as an activist?
 
I - along with hundreds of thousands of other Bhopal survivors, and with other activists - hope that the responsible corporations, governments, and individuals accept their responsibilities, and ensure proper medical care, social, environmental and economic rehabilitation.
 
What advice do you have for other children who lose their parents or are separated from their families, whether as a result of industrial tragedies like Bhopal, natural disasters, or armed conflict?
 
Bhopal was a huge, man-made mistake. We all need to learn from disasters like this.
 
I never got to know my parents and five other siblings who died. In a way, I was lucky that I wasn't old enough to remember anything from that night. Some of the survivors I met in the years following the disaster have said that the ones who died that night were the lucky ones as they didn't live to suffer. I was there that night, but not old enough to remember seeing people die.
 
I'm sure that there must be hundreds or maybe thousands of children and orphans who either got separated from their parents, or their parents actually got killed like mine, by this horrible disaster.
 
I believe we all live in Bhopal. We see such multinational corporations still doing their business and killing people. All that matters to them is the bottom-line profit. We need to fight that, and ensure that such disasters can be avoided in future.
 
My brother Sunil travelled the world to fight for our rights. Because of the Bhopal disaster, he had to become the breadwinner of the family at the age of 13. Like my brother and several other Bhopali children, other children can fight to make sure that we have a better future, environment, and place to live.
 
Do you know how the three of you survived while the rest of your family perished?
 
On the night of the disaster, it was Mamta who wrapped me in a blanket and ran away from the poisonous clouds. My parents and five other siblings couldn't survive as some of them stayed back inside the house, and some had run in different directions and died along the way.
 
Were you living with other children who had lost their parents in the Bhopal gas tragedy?
 
I am not sure, but I believe Mamta and I were the only orphans from the Bhopal gas disaster at the SOS Children's Village Bhopal.
 
Describe your life in the SOS family in Bhopal.
 
I definitely was having a good and fancy life.  I had almost everything I needed – I was studying in a very good school, I had good food, I had a good foster mother to take care of me, and even the other children I was living with in that house were nice to me.
 
Are you still in contact with others who lived there?
 
I am still in touch with some of them, and they all are doing well in their lives. I sometimes speak with one or two of them on the phone, and make sure that I go see my foster mother at least once a year, sometimes more often.