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Bhopal victim still seeking justice

My name is Sanjay Verma, and I am from a city that weathered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters – Bhopal, India.  I was six months old when more than 80,000 pounds of toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal.  On the night of December 2, 1984, my 9-year-old sister, wrapped me in a blanket and ran away with me and my 13-year-old brother from the poisonous clouds.

The rest of my family did not survive. The disaster killed three of my four sisters, two of my four brothers, and both of my parents in one single night.  A family of ten became a family of three. The state government of Madhya Pradesh sent my sister Mamta and I to an orphanage until Matma turned 18, when we moved in with my brother, Sunil.

{mosads}It was then that I started learning more about the disaster. I would see people in their 70s or 80s, who were actually there on the night of the gas leak, shouting slogans in the streets of Bhopal, asking for justice, even so many years after the disaster.   I would often talk to some of them, and ask them questions that I had inside me – questions that I couldn’t bring myself to ask my sister.

Sunil worked two jobs to take care of us and keep us under his care, but in the wake of the disaster, he suffered from terrible mental health issues.  After several attempts, Sunil committed suicide in 2006 wearing a T-shirt with the slogan – “No More Bhopals.” 

Sunil’s death made me realize that I was lucky that I was not old enough to remember the night of the gas disaster. I never knew my parents and siblings who were killed that night, so I never felt their loss in the way that Sunil and Mamta did. When I lost my brother in 2006, I finally understood the trauma he suffered.

My brother was a brave man, and he did whatever he could to make sure that I never missed my parents, and I had everything I needed.

It has been more than thirty years since the disaster, but for more than half a million of people, it never ended.   The abandoned factory site still stands, and the area in and around the site is full of toxic waste, which continues to contaminate the ground water, soil, and air.

There are more than 50,000 people who live in at least 18 water-affected communities; these are the people who drank contaminated groundwater for several years. Their children and children’s children are often born with birth defects. Innocent children who were not even in the world when the actual gas leak occurred are still surviving Bhopal.

This week I am in Washington because Amnesty International USA has invited me here to represent the people of Bhopal.  I will be meeting with policymakers and activists to share my story, my family’s story, and the stories of so many other victims and survivors of the disaster who are still struggling for justice and demanding their rights. 

The company responsible for the damage has never been held accountable.  Warren Anderson, the chief executive of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster, fled India while on bail and eluded multiple requests by the Indian government to extradite him until his death in September 2014.

Dow Chemical Company, which now owns Union Carbide Corporation, has been issued summons to appear in court in India to explain why it is allowing its wholly owned subsidiary to evade charges for the disaster.  Dow ignored these summons in three separate instances in July 2013, February 2014, and most recently in November 2014, just a month before the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.

I have also asked President Obama to meet with me while I am in Washington.  I want to personally ask him to raise the Bhopal disaster with Indian Prime Minister Modi next week, when he travels to India as the Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26.  I want to ask him to issue a joint statement addressing the steps that he will take with my country’s leader to clean up the site, and treat the people of Bhopal’s ongoing health problems, and to hold those responsible accountable.  As Obama and Modi commit to prosperity and security for both of our countries’ citizens, I hope that they will make a commitment to the Bhopalis who have been marching in the street since I was a child as the abandoned factory poisons our soil, water, and air.  I hope that Obama ensures those responsible for the disaster are held accountable and helps see that Dow no longer flouts its responsibilities – or court dates.

It has been thirty years since the disaster but everyday I think of Sunil, and everyday I take medication to combat the blood clots in my lungs.  My life has been dedicated to fighting for justice for my community, and holding Dow responsible for the Bhopal disaster.

Corporations are continually and consistently allowed to put profit over people.  Without consequences, this will never change.  Politicians and world leaders often pay lip service to corporate accountability yet stand by and do nothing.  There must be an end to this willful blindness and there must be justice.  Not just for the people of Bhopal, but for those who have suffered in the wake of corporate irresponsibility. 



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