Bhopal Activists from Generation Next: Working towards a poison free future

Feature story - August 4, 2004
PUNE, India — The stories of Ruby Sul and Sanjay Verma are intrinsically linked to the story of Bhopal. Both in their twenties, they have grown up in the shadow of the world´s worst industrial disaster, the deadly gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal on the night of December 2nd – 3rd 1984. It has dictated their pasts, and is reflected in their futures. They carry the scars of that terrible night and yet bear the torch of hope for the future.

Ruby Sul and Sanjay, Bhopali activists in Pune during the Raghu Rai exhibition

Ruby Sul is a striking and passionate young woman. She remembers the night of the gas leak vividly from the many times she has heard it recounted and from fragments that have been etched in her memory. She remembers wearing her favourite blue frill frock that night. She remembers holding on tightly to her mother´s kurta, "if I had not held on I might not been here today", she says with equanimity. "My mother, herself was in a bad way at the time, and she was cradling my brother in her arms, fearing he was not going to survive the night." She remembers a badam tree in her garden that lost all its leaves and that the fallen leaves turned purple

With her mother joining the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal and in meeting Satinath Sarangi, an activist and chemical engineer himself, she came to understand the layers of deceit and lies that led to the disaster. Union Carbide´s double standards, the government´s sell out to the company, the deadly after effects of MIC and the manner in which the disaster changed the lives of thousands of people forever more.

Ruby realised that the only way the survivors were ever going to get justice was if they fought for their rights. She also joined in the dharnas and actions that survivor groups organised to push the government and apathetic corporation to act.

"When we want to see young people as heroes in our cinemas, we want young sportsmen, we say that young people should join politics - only then things will change; why don´t we also realise that we need young people to become activists?"

She strongly believes that young people will bring a spirit of honesty, urgency, professionalism and verve to the struggle that will add a new impetus and hasten the achievement of their goals! Her conviction and optimism is infectious. Ruby wants to pursue a career in chemistry. She wants to understand how the disaster could have been prevented. Her dream is to replace poisonous chemical pesticides with organic alternatives!

Sanjay Verma, who was but 6 months when the disaster occurred, comes across as an extremely committed, sensitive and thoughtful person. He lost seven members of his family in the immediate aftermath of the gas leak. But as he says, "I was too young to mourn then, but I know the emptiness that I have often felt and have drawn comfort from my siblings´ memory of my parents."

He was saved that night because his sister, Mamta (who also survived), bundled him up in a blanket and ran as fast she could. The other member of his family who survived is Sunil, his elder brother. However, he has been severely affected by the cocktail of poisons inhaled that night. His brother suffers from breathlessness and has acute bouts of depression. Sanjay now takes care of his brother and doesn´t leave him alone for longer than necessary.

Sanjay lives with his brother in the widows´ colony in Bhopal. He has seen the lives of these women fall apart completely, with many of them having to sell their houses and move to shanties to eke out a living. He has been to hospital often enough with his brother, and seen the long queues of people waiting to be treated for gas related ailments.

Sanjay also knows that he is lucky to have gotten away with just eye problems, while a number of people of his age group have far more serious illnesses. "I have seen children in the bastis really short and also with really bad skin problems. The first thing that needs to be done is a clean up of the site. Till we take away the poisons from there more and more people will continue to be affected. The gas leak claimed more than 20000 people, but the pollution continuing to leach into the ground and contaminate the air, is going to continue to slowly kill people. We need to change this and quickly."

One is left feeling that if people like Ruby and Sanjay are part of the campaign, Bhopal will see changes soon enough.

Ruby and Sanjay are in Pune to participate in the Raghu Rai photo exhibition of pictures of the Bhopal gas disaster and after titled 'Exposure - Portrait of a Corporate Crime´. Greenpeace has taken this exhibition to Switzerland, Italy, Netherlands, China, Czech Republic, Argentina, USA and France amongst other countries. In India it has been displayed at Mumbai, Chennai, New Delhi, Cochin, Bhopal and Bangalore. Greenpeace will continue to take the exhibition across India and the world to bring Bhopal back in the consciousness of people. To shock and to ignite people to demand a world where another Bhopal doesn´t happen.

For more information on the exhibition in Pune, please contact: Sukanto Sengupta, Greenpeace India: Ph: 020-2565327

For more information on the Bhopal campaign, please contact:

Vinuta Gopal, Bhopal campaigner, Greenpeace India: +919845535418