The Union Carbide Corporation filed an application in revision in the Supreme Court, in terms of Section 155 of the CPC, against the order of the Bhopal District Court, in a claim for damages made by the Union of India on behalf of all the claimants, under the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claim) Act, 1985. The Union Carbide Corporation as well as the Union of India filed separate appeals in the Supreme Court against the judgment of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, both of which were heard together. Damages were sought on behalf of victims of Bhopal gas leak disaster. The Court examined the prima facie material for the purpose of quantifying the damages, and also the question of domestication of the decree in the United States for the purpose of execution. It examined the question which amount of damages would be “just, equitable and reasonable” for an over-all settlement of the case. The Court referred to the case M.C. Mehta v Union of India (AIR 1987 SC 1086) where it was held that the measure of damages payable had to be correlated to the magnitude and the capacity of the enterprises because such compensation had to have a deterrent effect. The Court decided as follows: (1) The Union Carbide Corporation should pay a sum of U.S. Dollars 470 million (Four hundred and seventy million) to the Union of India in full settlement of all claims, rights and liabilities related to and arising out of the Bhopal gas disaster. (2) The Union Carbide Corporation shall pay the aforesaid sum to the Union of India on or before 31 March 1989. (3) To enable the effectuation of the settlement, all civil proceedings related to and arising out of the Bhopal gas disaster shall thereby stand transferred to the Supreme Court and shall stand concluded in terms of the settlement, and all criminal proceedings related to and arising out of the disaster shall stand quashed, wherever these may be pending.

Case Studies

Case study: bhopal gas tragedy (1983-84).

Dr. Rhyddhi Chakraborty Programme Leader (Health and Social Care), London Churchill College, UK Email: [email protected]

What follows is a synopsis of the full article found in featured articles.

Please read the featured article Lesson from Bhopal Gas Tragedy (1983-84) By Dr. Rhyddhi Chakraborty Programme Leader (Health and Social Care), London Churchill College, UK describes in detail the elements of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL)

In 1970, in the North adjacent to the slums and railway station, a pesticide plant was set up by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). From late 1977, the plant started manufacturing Sevin (Carbaryl) by importing primary raw materials, viz. alpha-naphtol and methyl isocyanate (MIC) in stainless steel drums from the Union Carbide's MIC plant in USA. However, from early 1980, the Bhopal plant itself started manufacturing MIC using the know-how and basic designs supplied by Union Carbide Corporation, USA (UCC). The Bhopal UCIL facility housed three underground 68,000 liters liquid MIC storage tanks: E610, E611, and E619 and were claimed to ensure all safety from leakage.

Time Line of Occupational Hazards of the Union Carbide India Limited Plant Leading Before the Disaster

• 1976: Local trade unions complained of pollution within the plant. • 1980: A worker was reported to have accidentally been splashed with phosgene while carrying out a regular maintenance job of the plant's pipes. • 1982 (January): A phosgene leak exposed 24 workers, all of whom were admitted to a hospital. Investigation revealed that none of the workers had been ordered to wear protective masks. • 1982 (February): An MIC leak affected 18 workers. • 1982 (August): A chemical engineer came into contact with liquid MIC, resulting in burns over 30 percent of his body. • 1982 (October): In attempting to stop the leak, the MIC supervisor suffered severe chemical burns and two other workers were severely exposed to the gases. • 1983-1984: There were leaks of MIC, chlorine, monomethylamine, phosgene, and carbon tetrachloride, sometimes in combination.

In early December 1984, most of the Bhopal plant's MIC related safety systems were not functioning and many valves and lines were in poor condition. In addition, several vent gas scrubbers had been out of service as well as the steam boiler, intended to clean the pipes. For the major maintenance work, the MIC production and Sevin were stalled in Bhopal plant since Oct. 22, 1984 and major regular maintenance was ordered to be done during the weekdays’ day shifts.

The Sevin plant, after having been shut down for some time, had been started up again during November but was still running at far below normal capacity. To make the pesticide, carbon tetrachloride is mixed with methyl isocyanate (MIC) and alpha-naphthol, a coffee-colored powder that smells like mothballs. The methyl isocyanate, or MIC, was stored in the three partly buried tanks, each with a 15,000-gallon capacity.

During the late evening hours of December 2, 1984, whilst trying to unclog, water was believed to have entered a side pipe and into Tank E610 containing 42 tons of MIC that had been there since late October. Introduction of water into the tank began a runaway exothermic reaction, which was accelerated by contaminants, high ambient temperatures and other factors, such as the presence of iron from corroding non-stainless steel pipelines.

A Three Hour Time Line of the Disaster

December 3, 1984 12:40 am: A worker, while investigating a leak, stood on a concrete slab above three large, partly buried storage tanks holding the chemical MIC. The slab suddenly began to vibrate beneath him and he witnessed at least a 6 inche thick crack on the slab and heard a loud hissing sound. As he prepared to escape from the leaking gas, he saw gas shoot out of a tall stack connected to the tank, forming a white cloud that drifted over the plant and toward nearby neighborhoods where thousands of residents were sleeping. In short span of time, the leak went out of control.

December 3, 1984 12:45 am: The workers were aware of the enormity of the accident. They began to panic both because of the choking fumes, they said, and because of their realization that things were out of control; the concrete over the tanks cracked as MIC turned from liquid to gas and shot out the stack, forming a white cloud. Part of it hung over the factory, the rest began to drift toward the sleeping neighborhoods nearby.

December 3, 1984 12:50 am: The public siren briefly sounded and was quickly turned off, as per company procedure meant to avoid alarming the public around the factory over tiny leaks. Workers, meanwhile, evacuated the UCIL plant. The control room operator then turned on the vent gas scrubber, a device designed to neutralize escaping toxic gas. The scrubber had been under maintenance; the flow meter indicated there was no caustic soda flowing into the device. It was not clear to him whether there was actually no caustic soda in the system or whether the meter was broken. Broken gauges were not unusual at the factory. In fact, the gas was not being neutralized but was shooting out the vent scrubber stack and settling over the plant. December 3, 1984 1: 15- 1:30 am: At Bhopal’s 1,200-bed Hamidia Hospital, the first patient with eye trouble reported. Within five minutes, there were a thousand patients. Calls to the UCIL plant by police were twice assured that "everything is OK", and on the last attempt made, "we don't know what has happened, sir". In the plant, meanwhile, MIC began to engulf the control room and the adjoining offices.

December 3, 1984 3:00 am: The factory manager, arrived at the plant and sent a man to tell the police about the accident because the phones were out of order. The police were not told earlier because the company management had an informal policy of not involving the local authorities in gas leaks. Meanwhile, people were dying by the hundreds outside the factory. Some died in their sleep. Others ran into the cloud, breathing in more and more gas and dropping dead in their tracks.

Immediate Consequences

With the lack of timely information exchange between Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) and Bhopal authorities, the city's Hamidia Hospital was first told that the gas leak was suspected to be ammonia, then phosgene. They were then told that it was methyl isocyanate (MIC), which hospital staff had never heard of, had no antidote for, and received no immediate information about. The gas cloud, composed mainly of materials denser than air, stayed close to the ground and spread in the southeasterly direction affecting the nearby communities. Most city residents who were exposed to the MIC gas were first made aware of the leak by exposure to the gas itself.

Subsequent Actions

Formal statements were issued that air, water, vegetation and foodstuffs were safe, but warned not to consume fish. The number of children exposed to the gases was at least 200,000. Within weeks, the State Government established a number of hospitals, clinics and mobile units in the gas-affected area to treat the victims.

Legal proceedings involving UCC, the United States and Indian governments, local Bhopal authorities, and the disaster victims started immediately after the catastrophe. The Indian Government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985, allowing the Government of India to act as the legal representative for victims of the disaster, leading to the beginning of legal proceedings.

Initial lawsuits were generated in the United States federal court system in April 1985. Eventually, in an out-of-court settlement reached in February 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay US$470 million for damages caused in the Bhopal disaster. The amount was immediately paid.

Post-settlement activity

UCC chairman and CEO Warren Anderson was arrested and released on bail by the Madhya Pradesh Police in Bhopal on 7 December 1984. Anderson was taken to UCC's house after which he was released six hours later on $2,100 bail and flown out on a government plane. Anderson, eight other executives and two company affiliates with homicide charges were required to appear in Indian court.

In response, Union Carbide said the company is not under Indian jurisdiction. In 1991, the local Bhopal authorities charged Anderson, who had retired in 1986, with manslaughter, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. He was declared a fugitive from justice by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal on 1 February 1992 for failing to appear at the court hearings in a culpable homicide case in which he was named the chief defendant. Orders were passed to the Government of India to press for an extradition from the United States. From 2014, Dow is a named respondent in a number of ongoing cases arising from Union Carbide’s business in Bhopal.

A US Federal class action litigation, Sahu v. Union Carbide and Warren Anderson, had been filed in 1999 under the U.S. Alien Torts Claims Act (ATCA), which provides for civil remedies for "crimes against humanity." It sought damages for personal injury, medical monitoring and injunctive relief in the form of clean-up of the drinking water supplies for residential areas near the Bhopal plant. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2012 and subsequent appeal denied. Anderson died in 2014.

Long-term Health Effects

A total of 36 wards were marked by the authorities as being "gas affected," affecting a population of 520,000. Of these, 200,000 were below 15 years of age, and 3,000 were pregnant women. The official immediate death toll was 2,259, and in 1991, 3,928 deaths had been officially certified. The government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release. Later, the affected area was expanded to include 700,000 citizens. A government affidavit in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial injuries and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries.

Ethical Negligence

The Corporate Negligence Argument: This point of view argues that management (and to some extent, local government) underinvested in safety, which allowed for a dangerous working environment to develop.

Safety audits: In September 1984, an internal UCC report on the West Virginia plant in the USA revealed a number of defects and malfunctions. It warned that "a runaway reaction could occur in the MIC unit storage tanks, and that the planned response would not be timely or effective enough to prevent catastrophic failure of the tanks". This report was never forwarded to the Bhopal plant, although the main design was the same.

The Disgruntled Employee Sabotage Argument:  Now owned by Dow Chemical Company, Union Carbide maintains a website dedicated to the tragedy and claims that the incident was the result of sabotage, stating that sufficient safety systems were in place and operative to prevent the intrusion of water.


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The world's worst industrial disaster harmed people even before they were born

Rhitu Chatterjee

bhopal gas tragedy case study indian kanoon

Members of the Bengaluru Solidarity Group in Support of the Bhopal Struggle take part in a candlelight vigil to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster in Bangalore on December 2, 2014. Manjunath Kiran /AFP via Getty Images hide caption

Members of the Bengaluru Solidarity Group in Support of the Bhopal Struggle take part in a candlelight vigil to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster in Bangalore on December 2, 2014.

Shortly after midnight on December 3, 1984, about 40 tons of deadly gas leaked out of a pesticide factory in the central Indian city of Bhopal. The highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) – used as an intermediary chemical for making pesticides – drifted across the city, exposing nearly half a million residents.

Thousands of people died over the next several days, and it's estimated that many thousands more have died from related health issues since. Survivors who are alive today still struggle with a range of debilitating chronic health issues, from cancer to lung disorders to neurological damage.

Now, a new study shows that the accident – often considered the worst industrial disaster in history – affected not just those who were exposed to the gas that night but also the generation of babies still in the womb when the accident happened. In fact, men born in Bhopal in 1985 have a higher risk of cancer, lower education accomplishment and higher rates of disabilities compared with those born before or after 1985.

"The paper is one of the first papers to demonstrate clearly this link between a huge industrial disaster and the effect on children in utero," says Jishnu Das , a public policy professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

The results inform an ongoing discussion about "what is owed to future generations" affected by disasters.

The study also found the accident affected health outcomes for people living much farther from the factory than previously known. Most previous studies looked for impacts in people living a few miles away; people as far as 62 miles from Bhopal were affected by the disaster, according to the new study, which received support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (a funder of NPR and this blog).

A survivor's story

Rehana Bi was 16 years old in 1984 when the accident happened. She lived in a neighborhood right near the pesticide plant along with her three brothers, father and mother, who was eight months pregnant at the time.

The family was fast asleep when some neighbors banged on their door, calling out her father's name, urging him to wake, says Bi. When her parents opened the door, they saw that it was hazy outside.

"There were a lot of people standing outside," she says. "They were all coughing, and no one could see very well."

Their eyes and lungs were burning. "It was as if someone was burning chilies," adds Bi.

She and her family tried to run away from the gas that now filled the air in the neighborhood but the crowds and the chaos meant they didn't get far. Her pregnant mother struggled to move quickly. "So we sat on the side of the road until the morning," she says.

By the end of the day, Rehana Bi's parents and her 3-year-old brother were among the thousands of people who died. In haunting detail, Bi recalls that some relatives saw the 8-month-old fetus in her dead mother's womb moving until the next morning. It was only then, she says, that they were able to find someone to wash the bodies and bury them in keeping with Muslim tradition.

Nearly 39 years later, she herself struggles with high blood pressure and diabetes as does her husband Shamimuddin, whom she married a year after the gas accident. Their health issues keep them from working these days, so the family depends on the earnings of her two sons, who work as daily wage laborers.

Her neighborhood is filled with survivors struggling with a range of health issues in the decades since the disaster, says Rehana Bi, especially cancer.

"There's a lot of people who have cancer," she says. "Many of them have died."

bhopal gas tragedy case study indian kanoon

The Bhopal train station was overwhelmed as families fled the city following the leak disaster. Alain Nogues/Sygma via Getty Images hide caption

The Bhopal train station was overwhelmed as families fled the city following the leak disaster.

A multigenerational toxic legacy

The range of chronic health issues among survivors of the Bhopal gas accident have been documented by previous studies . But most of those studies have been limited to people directly exposed to methyl isocyanate that night and to people very close to the factory run by Union Carbide India Limited, a subsidiary of an American company.

"A lot of the studies focus on the populations that lived within three kilometers of the site," says Prashant Bharadwaj , an economist at University of California San Diego and an author of the new study.

Bharadwaj and his colleagues used data collected in 2015-2016 by the National Family Health Survey, which asks every family across the country about health, education and economic outcomes.

"It's interviewing women, getting all of their life history, including when they had children, whether those children survived, when those women themselves were born, their educational attainment, their level of health," says study co-author Gordon McCord, also an economist at UCSD. The survey interviewed men, too.

"So we were able to piece all these together to say, okay, let's look at the children who were born in the years right before 1984, in '85, and then afterward," says McCord.

Then they compared the people born in 1985 to those born before and after the accident to see if there was anything distinct about the 1985 cohort, which was exposed to the accident in utero.

They found an increase in pregnancy loss, which they expected, based on previous research.

But the analysis also illuminated something new about those pregnancy losses – the losses were likely to involve male fetuses.

"That 1985 birth cohort was very strange because it had a much lower male-to-female sex ratio" compared to the other birth cohorts in the study, says McCord.

A range of previous studies have shown that, in general, male fetuses are more vulnerable to any adverse effects in utero , says McCord. "And so when you get an adverse health shock to pregnant women, the likelihood of losing the male fetus is a bit higher."

And the males born in 1985 in Bhopal were unlike those who were born before or after, he adds. In fact, they are worse off in terms of health and employment even when compared to those who lived through the disaster.

"They have a higher likelihood of reporting to have cancer," he says. "They have a higher likelihood of reporting a disability that prevents them from being employed. And they on average have two years less of education."

That is "a really big deal" he adds, "because it goes beyond health to saying that these people have broader consequences for their lives, that prevent them from living full out, thriving lives."

The study doesn't prove that in-utero exposure to MIC caused these long-term health and economic impacts, which the study authors acknowledge. Other factors such as lack of access to health care and other aid following the disaster may have also played a role

However, the study is "the best kind of observational study that we can get on the question 'Did the Bhopal disaster lead to deficits in outcomes for children who were in utero at the time?' " says Das.

"The second thing that they show is that the radius of impact is closer to 100 kilometers [62 miles] rather than five," he adds. "That's worth thinking about too."

What does the world owe victims who weren't yet born?

No one in Rehana Bi's family has cancer yet, but she believes that her own exposure to MIC affected the health of her children who were born years later. She's lost two adult children in the last several years – a son who died from tuberculosis and a daughter who died during childbirth. Her remaining daughter is struggling with fertility issues, which Bi thinks is a generational effect of the industrial accident.

"Not only are we finding high rates of cancers, but also all kinds of immunological issues, neuro skeletal issues, musculoskeletal issues and huge number of birth defects in children being born to gas-exposed parents," says Rachna Dhingra, who works with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal , an advocacy organization.

The new study "just vindicates our stand that not just people of Bhopal but their children are also going to face a high number of disabilities and diseases in their life," she says.

This is not the first study to suggest that the impacts of the Bhopal disaster go beyond those directly exposed. A controversial, unpublished Indian study had also documented other intergenerational impacts of the Bhopal industrial accident.

Conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in 2016 , the study found that women who were exposed to MIC themselves, as well as the daughters of women survivors, had a 7 times higher risk of giving birth to a baby with birth defects compared to women who had no history of exposure to MIC.

But that ICMR study has remained mired in controversy over government and cooperate responsibility for the disaster, and has done little to help the families of survivors and their kids. The results were never published in a peer reviewed journal or released publicly. The results came to light only after Dhingra and other activists obtained the findings through India's Right to Information Act.

"Not a single child who was in utero or born after the disaster was ever compensated," says Dhingra.

The Supreme Court in India in March also rejected a plea for more compensation of survivors of the Bhopal accident. "The damages to the people who were directly exposed — all the curtains have been closed," says Dhingra.

But the curtain is still open for figuring out "damages to the next generation," she adds. And that's where she hopes the new study's findings will make a difference.

  • industrial accident
  • Union Carbide
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Bhopal Gas Tragedy – Case Study And Legal Consequences


The industrial manufacturing sector is pivotal for the buoyancy of the Indian economy. Since this production sector extended its hands to facilitate economic sustainability, it has branched with diversified industries indulged and engaged in manufacturing automobiles, pieces of machinery, equipment, mental and electric appliance, mineral-extractions, so on. To utilize our demographic dividend, Indian is supposed to alleviate unemployment. The attainment of such an object necessitates the growth of the industrial sector, which is capable to create large-scale employment opportunities for youths. Consequently, millions of families will move out of poverty and fulfill their economic needs.

On the other hand, every single thing has its highlights and challenges. With having an eye on accomplishing economic and technological culmination, the human community is resting in a vain attempt to bring back or keep up the ecological footprint. The status quo industrial societies are pervaded with noxious or hazardous substances; indeed without the same nothing could be processed and produced. Negligence in treatment, usage, or disposal of such kinds of stuff has its ramifications in all walks of human life; even history tells us the same. India has witnessed countless industrial accidents; one of the notable incidents which have still deeply-rooted in the minds of Indians is the Bhopal gas leak tragedy.

Brief About the Incident:

To produce the pesticide named  Sevin  comprises the reagents, Methyl Isocyanate and Alpha Naphthol;   the American enterprises entitled the Union Cambridge Corporation has established its subsidiary in Bhopal as qua the central place with excellent transport links. Later, the established Indian subsidiary was named The Union Cambridge India Limited (UCIL) since the Indian public had owned the ownership, nearly 40.1% share in the corporation.

The incident happened on the night of December 2 to 3, 1984, when the forty tons of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) was massively escaped from the Tank E106 at the UCC’s Indian subsidiary laid on at Bhopal. Since the plant has established in a crowded and inhabited area, within less than an hour, a great number of people and animals were befallen as victims and consequently died due to the toxicity of the leaked MIC. The estimated number of immediate death was 3500+, and the critical injury was 6+ lakh. Approximately, over the past decades since the incident, the death count has reached 20000. As per the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) estimation, 62.58% of the Bhopal population had suffered from inhalational toxicity, withal having survivors might have experienced and developed bodily morbidities.

Concerning the treatment and Medicare, due to lack of information about the gas ebullition, the doctors did not play an efficient role. One of the causes for such a ramification is that the UCC’s refusal to disclose the precise proportion of the escaped gas by relying on the trade secrecy as a reasonable exemption.

Following the mishap, the victims have gone on an endless travel quest for justice, who have either lost their lives or sustained permanent disability. The two-fold question presented before the law for consideration is that, on what basis, the parameters for quantifying the liabilities of the corporation engaged in processing such a dangerous substance with nullified safety standards will be fixed? And the further aspect was how the government is going to tackle and prevent future damages by the installation of necessary safety protocols.

Legal Consequences of Bhopal Gas Tragedy:

The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985:

Soon after the man-disaster, noticing the multitude of the suits arising out of the incident, the Indian parliament has passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act on 29th March 1985. This Act confers the government to file suit for damages in place as a representative of the victims (either survived or deceased). For the purpose of effective enforcement of the Act, Section 9 authorizes the central government to frame a scheme; amounts to the introduction of the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Registration and Processing of Claims) Scheme in 1985. The aforementioned government’s power to represent the affected party, both within and outside of India [1] , was predicated by the doctrine of  parens patriae.  However, the government has heavily criticized as, by enacting the Bhopal Act, it is attempting to smother the claimant from taking actions against the UCIL, since the government qua stakeholder at UCIL, is eligible to hold partially liable. Per contra, the government has managed to substantiate such enactment as, its  quo animo  is to secure the claims arising out of, or connected with, the Bhopal gas leak disaster, are dealt with speedily, effectively, equitably, and to the best advantage of the claimants and for matters incidental thereto . [2]

Does the Bhopal Act ultra vires the constitution:

Indeed, few allegations were brought before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Bhopal Act in relation to Article 14 , 19 and 21. It was confronted that Sections 3, 4 and 11 of the Bhopal Act violated the right of Indian citizens under the Constitution of India to choose their own counsel, and alleging a conflict of interest by the Indian government, for it could not represent the victims because of its shared responsibility for the disaster by failing to enforce safety regulations. [3]  However, the Apex court rejected the appeal and upheld its constitutionality [4] .

Initial litigation:

Following the Act’s promulgation, in April 1985, the Indian government filed a suit against the UCC (the parent company of UCIL) in the Federal District Court of the southern district of New York, claiming 3.3 billion US dollars i.e. Rs. 3900 Crores. The skepticisms are that, why the Indian government does propose the American judiciary on behalf of the claimants, despite preferring the Indian judiciary system? Whether India has mistrusted its own judicature, or perhaps, it is strategically a ligation, which desires a significant sum of damages that the American judiciary could award? Nevertheless, the UCC fruitfully availed of the aforementioned issues under discussion and requested for the case dismissal on the grounds of  forum non-conveniens. Withal, they pleaded that, since the accident was taken place in India (Bhopal), it might be more convenient to be tried in India. 

Thus the litigation seeking both damages and punitive damages, invoking UCC’s liabilities such as absolute liability, strict liability, multinational enterprises liability theories, misrepresentation, negligence, and breach of warranty, was dismissed by the federal District Court after accepting the plea of UCC on May 12, 1986.

Rejection of settlement offers:

Since the parent company is responsible for the tortuous acts of the subsidiary company abroad, several efforts were taken by the UCC for outside court settlement but it went vain attempt after rejection by the Indian government. The negotiated settlement initiated by Union Carbide stood ready to provide 350 million dollars, which was accepted by the private lawyers representing the injured (both victims and the deceased) but dismissed by the Indian government.

Justice combats in Indian courts:

After getting rejected by the American Court, the suit pursued battle in India. In 1986 the Indian union brought this issue before the Bhopal District Court to recover 3.5 billion rupees damages. Subsequently, the same was reduced by 30% to 2.5 billion rupees by the high court of Madhya Pradesh. Later on, the Indian government appealed against the reduced interim award, rendered by the Madhya Pradesh high court before the apex court.

The five-judge bench heard the case, concerning the condition and status of victims, who were filled with hopelessness and experiencing the agony of despair. After four years of the chronicle’s worst industrial catastrophe, to end the wild goose chase and provide the immediate remedy, the Apex court rendered its judgment on 14th February 1989.

The matter of fact is that the people have lacked credibility since their collective thought was that the wrongdoer might get them self out of liabilities by invoking the exceptions of the doctrine of strict liability. Per contra, relying on the absolute liability Doctrine, the Apex Court [5]  upheld the liabilities of UCC and ordered them to pay the sum of 470 million USD (approximately Rs. 700 crores) as compensation.

Although the Indian government has brought the golden justice by fixing the liability of the company to pay $470 million, it is deemed to be a bad move qua the fixed damages is hardly 15% of the original claim for $3.3 million. Lucidly, it is not a sufficient sum to compensate for all the damage caused in relation to the tragedy.

Concerning the distribution of the awarded compensation, Rs. 1 lakh was provided to the deceased person’s family, Rs. 50000 for persons suffering lasting damage and Rs. 25,000 for the temporarily injured.

Criticisms on the settlement:

As mentioned, firstly, it was assailed for the total sum of the compensation amount, as being the full and final settlement of all claims, rights, and liabilities arising out of that disaster, [6] the fixed amount leads to inadequacy of sum to compensate. Secondly, in terms of the final payment, vide its judgment ‘ this settlement shall finally dispose of all past, present and future claims, causes of action and civil and criminal proceedings (of any nature whatsoever wherever pending) by all Indian citizens’. Comprehensibly, it quashed the criminal proceedings and concluded all the civil proceedings, further limited the liabilities for the claims which were filed later.

Considering the aforesaid criticisms,  in 1989, the Apex Court clubbed several petitions and revived the criminal proceedings, and held that if there is any shortage in the amount of compensation the state is bound to bridge the gap [7] .

In 1990, the Indian government sanctioned Rs. 258 crores funds to aid the victims for economic, social, environmental, and medical rehabilitation. Later in 2010, former UCIL chairman and other 6 Ex-employees were convicted for the term of 2 years with a 2000 USD fine for the offense of causing death by negligence.

Employed principle:

Absolute liability:.

The trite English principle of strict liability was laid by the case of Ryland v. Fletcher [8]  in 1868. The said principle states that the person will be held responsible for the leakage of any hazardous substance from his premises. Withal, it is noteworthy that, even though there is no negligence on his part, he will be held accountable for the act of keeping the dangerous things in his premises.  Vide  this case’s judgment; it elucidates the ingredients that are essential to invoke strict liability viz. there should be the possession of dangerous substances, it must be escaped from defendant’s premises, and it has been kept for non-natural use of the land. In addition, there are certain exceptions to this rule, which are as follows,

  • The fault of the plaintiff
  • Act of the third party
  • Consent of the party

Till the date of the  MC Mehta v Union of India case, [9] the rule of strict liability has governed the Indian judicature in relation to the matter of fact in issue. But then, the rule of absolute liability was introduced in the said oleum gas leak case, wherein the oleum gas was escaped from the fertilizer plant of Shriram foods and fertilizers enterprises. Since the enterprises had engaged in an ultra-hazardous activity, it is their absolute and non-delegable duty to safeguard others from getting injured out of their industrial process. In the case of any failure in discharging the obliged duties, the enterprises will be held liable to pay damages under tort law regardless of the cited strict liability exceptions. Indeed, the same was held in this oleum gas leak gas. Thus, in simple words, the concept of absolute liability is the strict liability without any exceptions, which means under no grounds a person could escape the liabilities.

Conclusion and Analysis:

After analyzing the given circumstance, it is pretty evident that the legislative lacunae lasted at the time of tragedy. Though the factories Act, 1948 was propounded even before the Bhopal catastrophe, it prioritizes the welfare of the workers employed in industries and factories and there is no first place law to deal with the concerned situation. This incident led to breakthroughs in the Indian legislature, the catena of legislations related to the environmental safeguard and determination of penalties were enacted. The status quo is that any similar incident that occurs now will be tried before the National Green tribunal and fall under the ambit of the Environmental protection Act, 1986. Even though, under the provisions of the Public liability Act, 1991, the injured could claim damages for the caused injury because of the leaked hazardous chemicals. In addition, the said Act of 1991 out on the basis of the concept of ‘no-fault liability.

Concerning the disposal of hazardous wastes from industry, we have Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling, and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, to govern the storage and disposal of such toxic substances with the aid of the pollution control board. Further, In the case of Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource policy v. Union of India, [10] the Apex court upholds the constitutionality of the Hazardous wastes (Management & Handling) Rules, 1989, and the applicability of directions provided in the BASEL Convention. Prior to this, Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness, and Response) Rules, 1996 was legislated to address gas leaks and to monitor the industries handling those deadly chemicals .

Thus, the aftermath of the Bhopal gas leak tragedy has substantially informed us about the importance of environmental protection and the concept of sustainable development . The wider array of Article 21 of the Indian constitution in relation to the r ight to a clean and healthy environment [11] has also been obtained only after the catena of judicial decisions interpreted the same. Besides, the Indian constitution prescribes the state as well as citizens to protect the environment under its Article, 39(b), 47, 48, 49, 48 A, and 51 A (g).

Even we have sufficient legislations to address the gas leaks issue; it is an absolute challenge to measure the injuries sustained by a person. However, the injured will receive damages in the light of law (Ubi jus ibi remidium). But then, how far it recompenses their loss? What about the people who lost their lives or happened to suffer the morbidities. Their psychological and physiological distresses are immeasurable. Hence, prevention is always better than cure by the mean, the government, industries, and citizens are obliged to take reasonable care because, ultimately, this is our environment.



[1] Section 3(1) of the Bhopal Act, 1985.


[3] Lewin,  Carbide Is Sued in U.S. by India in Gas Disaster,  N.Y. Times, April 9, 1985, at D2, col.4

[4] State of Madras v. V. G. Row,   AIR 1952 SC 607.

[5] Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India, 1990 AIR 273.

[6] Supra note 5.

[7] Zia Modi, 10 Judgments that changed India, 44, {2013}

[8] Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[9] 1987 AIR 1086.

[10] AIR 2012 SC 2627.

[11] Subhash Kumar v. the State of Bihar, 1991 AIR 420, 1991 SCR (1) 5.

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Snegapriya V S

A third-year student of law at Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT School of Law), budding first-generation lawyer cum legal researcher with multiple publications in various web journals and portals on different subject matters of law in issue. Being a zealous-natured person with thoughts enrooted in epistemophilia has boosted my passion for research writings by interpreting diversified legal facets. As a perceptive observer and reader, I pay greater attention to the overlooked legal fields where divergent challenges might arise, that include cyber law, environmental law, consumer law, and several constitutional provisions. Besides, I prioritize construing legal problems with social psychology. My dream and vision are to catch myself as a skilled legal adroit.

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Four decades on, fresh hope for victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy

Upendra baxi writes: babasaheb ambedkar constantly reminded us that past injustices carry no expiry date. revival of a curative petition in the supreme court marks a new commitment to justice for the bhopal victims..

bhopal gas tragedy case study indian kanoon

It is a toxic insult to the devastated communities of Bhopal to continue to describe what happened on December 2 and 3, 1984, as a mere “gas leak”. The release of 47 tonnes of lethal methyl isocyanate gas at the Bhopal plant of Union Carbide, India, Ltd. (UCIL), a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which owned 50.9 per cent of the stock of its Indian subsidiary, is a continuing catastrophe. Certainly, best industry standards dictated a modern security system and alert management, but risk minimisation is the signature tune of corporate governance. However, even Judge Keenan (of the Southern District Court) described this as the “largest peacetime industrial disaster” in “recorded human history.”

The managers of public institutions often privilege amnesia and the rules of closure, but the victims have no choice but to weaponise social justice. Not all closures are just and fair. A decent society respects the struggles and voices of justice and human rights. Babasaheb Ambedkar constantly reminded us that past injustices carry no expiry date. The valiant victims of Bhopal have uniquely shown that a continuing struggle even against giant multinationals is possible.

bhopal gas tragedy case study indian kanoon

They secured the Bhopal Act, which allowed the Indian State to function both as parens patriae (the legal protector of citizens unable to protect themselves) and a sovereign plaintiff to sue the UCC in New York for $3 billion in compensation for the victims and for the restoration of the environment. The long-drawn litigation was prematurely settled in early 1989 by the Supreme Court for $470 million. The settlement denied a modicum of natural justice to the victims who were parties to the suit properly before the court (justifying my naming it the Second Bhopal Catastrophe). The SC review petition declined to touch the amount but cancelled the criminal immunity accorded to the corporation and its affiliates.

What now matters is the declaration in the 1989 review that if the “basic assumptions underlying the settlement become wholly unrelated to the realities,” the “element of ‘justness’ of the determination and of ‘truth’ of its factual foundation” is seriously “impaired”. This “justness”, based on “these assumptions of truth”, stands disturbed when “the total number of cases of death or of permanent, or partial, disabilities” reaches “catastrophic injuries”, which renders “the basic assumptions underlying the settlement …wholly unrelated to the realities”.

bhopal gas tragedy case study indian kanoon

The curative petition in 2010 urging this ground was revived on October 11, 2022, when the Narendra Modi government informed the SC that it “will go ahead with the curative declaration submitted” by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking additional compensation for the Bhopal victims. However, a decade of governmental silence makes the task before the Attorney General even more formidable.

The 2010 petition shows the number of deaths has risen from 5,295 to 22,872 (an increase of almost 76.5 per cent). Is there any further need to update the Indian Council of Medical Research study of over 80,000 exposed and over 21,000 unexposed gas-affected populations? Or its estimates of 2,500 deaths in the month of December 1984, and its findings about 3,500 “spontaneous abortions attributable to exposure in the first five years”? A similar question is raised regarding the large numbers of claimants who were awarded the lowest rate of compensation. Or, does one best proceed with the curative petition of 2010, which specifies a total compensation requirement of $8.1 billion (or Rs 675.96 crore in April 2011)?

Not all of the new settlement amount is for the victims; the curative petition also claims compensation on behalf of the state. The claim is for “the actual sums which the state has expended towards relief and rehabilitation of irremediable justice measures,” which should be paid by the tortfeasors, not taxpayers. Tortfeasors may not escape further liability to reimburse the state for relief and rehabilitation and remedial environmental measures based on the polluter pays principle. It is wrong to say, as some have maintained, that the additional compensation thus sought (in terms of the three options detailed in the petition) has little to do with the Bhopal victims or that the expansion of the Bhopal principle (urged in the original suit) is here abused for the unjust enrichment of the Indian state.

bhopal gas tragedy case study indian kanoon

Undoubtedly, as the petition says, there was a “gross miscarriage of justice and perpetration of irremediable injustice,” and heroic effort would be needed to enforce any ultimate result, even as the UCC and its successor in India, Dow Jones, stand named as respondents. It is unlikely that the former would submit to Indian jurisdiction, and the latter may disown any liability. The only way, in such a situation, is to attach all the assets of the corporation. Non-appearance by UCC would be a roadblock, but the Court may appoint an amicus curiae (as was done in the Kasab case). Surely, such a decision may not be faulted for a lack of due process. And the 1989 review itself contemplates situations where “assumptions of justice” themselves change and there exists a valid basis for re-opening the settlement.

Settlements reached in good faith are usually honoured and not subject to later judicial change. But ordinary rules of interpretation may not apply to extraordinary contexts of sui generis mass tort litigation, where a sovereign plaintiff holds a trial in India as mandated by a US judge and settles it through a judicial order by its highest court. But, though infrequent, even judicially ordered settlements have been reopened when there is “a qualifying reason.” Many cases of mass tort litigation against the pharmaceutical industry urge determination of this very issue in the US courts, and the asbestos, tobacco, and Agent Orange litigations furnish a long but precious history.

In any event, one hopes that the revival of the curative petition and proceedings will be welcomed by the summit court as marking a new commitment to doing complete justice for the Bhopal victims.

P Chidambaram writes: one nation one elections

The writer is professor of law, University of Warwick, and former vice chancellor of Universities of South Gujarat and Delhi

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What is Bhopal Gas Tragedy? (Detailed Case study)

The Bhopal gas tragedy is also known as the Bhopal gas disaster, was a gas leak incident on the wintry night of 2 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. It is considered to be the world’s worst industrial disaster.


Table of Contents

MIC Chemical Reactions :

Bhopal disaster

Bhopal gas tragedy case study :

On 2nd December night when the night shift staff of the Union Carbide Factory, Bhopal, took around at 11 pm. There were three double-walled, partly buried S.S. tanks (No. 610, 611and 619) each of 60-tonne capacity and all containing the poisonous gas MIC (Methyl isocyanate) to be used to produce a deadly pesticide Carbaryl.

At 11-30, pm. workers in the plant realized that there was a MIC leak somewhere: their eyes began to tear. A few of them went to the MIC structure and noticed a drop of liquid with yellowish-white gas, about 50 feet of the ground. They told the supervisor who, however, decided to deal with the leak after the tea break which ended at 12:40 night. Meanwhile, the events had moved very fast.

The temperature of tank 610 had reached 25°C at the top of its scale and the pressure was increased twenty times rushing towards 40 psi at which the emergency safety valve was to open. Soon the pressure gauge showed 55 psi, the top of the scale, and the safety valve had opened releasing MIC With a loud hissing sound and tremendous heat. A white cloud drifting over the plant was moving towards the sleeping neighborhood.

The workers tried to operate the safety devices, but nothing seemed to work. The water jet failed to reach the top of the 120 feet stack from which MIC was escaping. The vent gas scrubber to neutralize the escaping gas did not work. The scrubber was under maintenance, the flow meter was not indicating the circulation of caustic soda whose concentration was also not known since October.

The flare tower to burn off the gas could not be ‘used because its piping was corroded and not replaced. The refrigeration system, of 30-tonne capacity, to keep the MIC in a liquid state at 0°C was closed down since June 1984 as an economy drive and the gas was at 15°-20°C Which was unsafe. For approximately two hours, the safety valve remained opened releasing over 50000 pounds of MIC (might also contain Phosgene, Chloroform, Hydrogen cyanide. Carbon dioxide, etc.) out of 90000 pounds stored in tank No. 610 at the time of the incident. Sometime between 1-30 to 2-30 am. the safety valve reseated as the tank pressure went below 40 psi.

As per official records, the Bhopal gas leak killed 3,787 people. The figures were updated by the Madhya Pradesh government later as the immediate official estimate had put the death toll due to gas leak from the Union Carbide factory at 2,259.

However, activists fighting for justice for Bhopal gas tragedy victims put the figures of death between 8,000 and 10,000. In an affidavit, submitted in 2006, the government said that the Bhopal gas leak caused 5,58,125 injuries that included approximately 3,900 severe and permanently disabling injuries.

Bhopal gas tragedy  Causes of the Accident :

(a) unsafe conditions of bhopal gas tragedy  .

From the published press reports they seem to be:

  • The refrigeration system to keep the gas cool was closed for since long.
  • The vent gas scrubber was under-designed, not repaired, and not connected.
  • The corroded flare tower pipe not replaced and not connected.
  • The water curtain jests were under-designed to reach the maximum height.
  • All the three tanks were filled in while one ought to have kept empty to use as an emergency bypass.
  • The computerized pressure/temperature sensing system, a warning device to give the alarm and to control the situation at the time of abnormal condition was not installed.
  • The carbon steel valves were used instead of stainless steel and the valves ‘were notorious for leaking.
  • The instruments to check the valve-leakage were not available.
  • The wind direction and velocity indicator were not installed to warn the people about leakage direction and severity.
  • The neighboring community was not told of the significance of the danger alarm and the dangers posed by the materials used in the plant.
  • Control instruments at the plant were faulty.
  • Maintenance and operational practices deteriorated.
  • Chemical reactors, piping, and valves were not purged, washed, and aired before maintenance operations.
  • The blind disc to disallow the water in the tank through the valve was missing.
  • Under qualified workers were running the factory.
  • People with chemical engineering backgrounds were replaced by less skilled operators.
  • The workers’ strength was reduced from 850 to 642 during the preceding two years and the operator’s duty relieving system was suspended.
  • The operating manual was grossly inadequate, not specifying all necessary emergency procedures to control abnormal conditions.
  • At the time of the accident, in the MIC control room, there was only one operator who found it virtually impossible to check the 70-odd panels, indicators, and controllers.
  • A design modification of the jumper line to interconnect relief valve vent header and the process vent header was defective, as it allowed the water to go into the MIC tank.

(B) Unsafe Actions of Bhopal gas tragedy   :

  • The leak was not attended as soon as it was reported. Initial time passed in tea break.
  • The first information of five-fold pressure rise was dismissed in the belief that the pressure gauge could be faulty.
  • A newly recruited supervisor had asked a novice operator to clean a pipe and the blind disc was not inserted while doing so.
  • The public siren was put on around 1 am. nearly an hour after the gas leakage and that too for a few minutes.
  • The correct antidotes and medical treatments were not suggested to surrounding doctors. On the contrary confusion of MIC or Phosgene or Hydrogen cyanide was confounded.

(C) Unsafe Reactions of Bhopal gas tragedy  :

Above unsafe conditions and actions lead to the violent unsafe reaction. Different hypotheses have been expounded by Carbide’s scientists, Indian experts, and Dr. S. Varadrajan, who lead the investigations on behalf of the Government. According to him a small quantity of water reacted with Phosgene in the tank, mixed with MIC as an impurity to make it unstable. The Phosgene water reaction (hydrolysis) produced heat, CO2, and HCI.

The heat and HCI acted as the accelerators of the polymerization, additions, and degradation of MIC leading to a runaway reaction. According to others, the increased temperature of MIC (it vaporizes above 38°C) generated heat, pressure, and side-reactions, higher than normal amounts of Chloroform in the stored MIC and an iron catalyst lead to the violent reaction. Because of the colder night of December, the escaped MIC settled down and traveled downward covering the sleeping surroundings with the blanket of death and damages.

What is Methyl isocyanate –

Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) is a chemical that is used in the manufacture of polyurethane foam, pesticides, and plastics. It is handled in liquid form which can be easily burned and explosive. It evaporates quickly in the air and has a strong odor. Its molecular formula is CH3NCO or C2H3NO and its molecular weight is approx. 57.05 g/mol. It is used in the production of pesticides, polyurethane foam, and plastics.

Remedial Measures of Bhopal gas disaster :

All the 25 major causes of this accident stated above in (A) and (B) suggest remedial measures. To avoid repetition, all these contributing causes should be removed first and necessary steps should be taken to run the plant always safe and sound, with all the safety devices properly working. The working conditions must be improved and unsafe actions must be removed by proper policy, training, and education.

Bhopal incident opened my eyes and gave many lessons for multinationals, developed countries, and developing countries.

Human life must be equally valued everywhere. No double standard for developed and developing countries. ‘Right to Know’ and ‘Obligation to tell’ concepts are to be covered by the legislation. Training to staff, and workers, emergency procedures, highest standards for plant operation and maintenance and safety equipment, ‘worst case’ study and assessment, etc. were incorporated in 1987.

After Bhopal gas leak incident :

Bhopal had a population of about 8.5 lakh back in 1984 and more than half of its population was coughing, complaining of itching in the eyes, skin and facing breathing problems. The gas caused internal hemorrhage, pneumonia, and death. The villages and slums in the neighboring areas of the factory were the worst affected.

The alarm system of the Union Carbide did not work for hours. No alarm was raised by the factory managers. Suddenly thousands of people started running to hospitals on the morning of December 3 with their complaints.

Unlike today, Bhopal of 1984 did not have too many hospitals. Two government hospitals could not have accommodated half of the population of the city. People were suffering, finding it difficult to breathe and confused. So were doctors, who did not immediately know the reasons for the sudden illness that afflicted every new rushing patient.

Patients complained of dizziness, breathlessness, skin irritation, and rashes, some others reported sudden blindness. Doctors of Bhopal had never faced a situation like this. They had no experience in dealing with industrial disasters.

Symptoms of methyl isocyanate exposure were not immediately known to them. And, the two hospitals reportedly treated around 50,000 patients in the first two days of the Bhopal gas leak. Officially, the government declared that the gas leakage was contained in eight hours, but the city has is still finding it difficult to come out of its grip even 33 years later. So Bhopal incident was the world’s worst  industrial mishap .

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Bhopal Gas Tragedy : Causes, effects and aftermath

The Bhopal gas tragedy occurred at midnight of December 2nd- 3rd December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) pesticide facility in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. This catastrophe affected around 500,000 people along with many animals. People who were exposed are still suffering as a result of the gas leak’s long-term health impacts. Chronic eye difficulties and respiratory problems were some issues due to it. Children who have been exposed have stunted growth and cognitive impairments. 

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Union Carbide was an American company that produced pesticides. MIC – methyl isocyanide, a dangerous poisonous gas began to leak at midnight on 2nd December 1984 from the Union Carbide factory. This MIC caused the Bhopal gas tragedy. The Bhopal gas tragedy was a fatal accident. It was one of the world’s worse industrial accidents. 

UCIL was a pesticide manufacturing plant that produced the insecticide carbaryl. Carbaryl was discovered by the American company Union Carbide Corporation, which owned a significant share in UCIL. As an intermediary, UCIL produced carbaryl using methyl isocyanate (MIC). Other techniques for producing the ultimate product are available, but they are more expensive. The very toxic chemical MIC is extremely dangerous to human health. Residents of Bhopal in the area of the pesticide plant began to feel irritated by the MIC and began fleeing the city. 

Causes of Bhopal Gas Tragedy

  • During the buildup to the spill, the plant’s safety mechanisms for the highly toxic MIC were not working. The alarm off tanks of the plant had not worked properly.
  • Many valves and lines were in disrepair, and many vent gas scrubbers were not working, as was the steam boiler that was supposed to clean the pipes.
  • The MIC was stored in three tanks, with tank E610 being the source of the leak. This tank should have held no more than 30 tonnes of MIC, according to safety regulations.
  • Water is believed to have entered the tank through a side pipe as technicians were attempting to clear it late that fatal night.
  • This resulted in an exothermic reaction in the tank, progressively raising the pressure until the gas was ejected through the atmosphere.

Effects of Bhopal Gas Tragedy

  • Thousands had died as a result of choking, pulmonary edema, and reflexogenic circulatory collapse.
  • Neonatal death rates increased by 200 percent.
  • A huge number of animal carcasses have been discovered in the area, indicating the impact on flora and animals. The trees died after a few days. Food supplies have grown scarce due to the fear of contamination. 
  • Fishing was also prohibited.
  • In March 1985, the Indian government established the Bhopal Gas Leak Accident Act, giving it legal authority to represent all victims of the accident, whether they were in India or abroad.
  • At least 200,000 youngsters were exposed to the gas.
  • Hospitals were overcrowded, and there was no sufficient training for medical workers to deal with MIC exposure.

Aftermath of Bhopal Gas Tragedy

In the United States, UCC was sued in federal court. In one action, the court recommended that UCC pay between $5 million and $10 million to assist the victims. UCC agreed to pay a $5 million settlement. The Indian government, however, rejected this offer and claimed $3.3 billion. In 1989, UCC agreed to pay $470 million in damages and paid the cash immediately in an out-of-court settlement.

Warren Anderson, the CEO and Chairman of UCC was charged with manslaughter by Bhopal authorities in 1991. He refused to appear in court and the Bhopal court declared him a fugitive from justice in February 1992. Despite the central government’s efforts in the United States to extradite Anderson, nothing happened. Anderson died in 2014 without ever appearing in a court of law.

FAQs on Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Q1. when did the methyl-isocyanate leak from the uc facility begin.

At 12 a.m. on December 2, 1984, a highly hazardous gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC) began escaping from the U.C. facility.

Q2. Who is responsible for the Bhopal gas tragedy? 

An American based company Union carbide is responsible for the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Q3. What caused the Bhopal gas tragedy?

In Bhopal gas tragedy, methyl isocyanide (MIC), a dangerous poisonous gas leaked from UCIL which caused a disaster. Many people along with animals were suffered. More than 8000 people died due to this Bhopal gas disaster.

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  • Corporate Greed and Bhopal’s Continuing Tragedy

The Untamed Monster: Corporate Greed and the Continuing Tragedy of Bhopal

In the early morning hours of December 3rd, 25 years ago, a poisonous gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant and crept over the city of Bhopal and within hours had taken a few thousand lives.   Since that fateful evening, close to 20,000 people have died.  Chernobyl still remains synonymous with industrial ‘accidents’; Bhopal, notwithstanding the valiant attempts of many survivors and their children, activists, and an entire array of organizations – among them, Sambhavna Trust, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, the International Medical Commission for Bhopal, the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh (the Bhopal Gas-Affected Women’s Stationery Trade Union) — that have been plunged in relief work to ameliorate the conditions under which victims and their communities live and labor, has been largely forgotten.

The facts surrounding the ‘Bhopal Gas Leak’ are no longer disputed, except, of course, by that cowardly and criminal corporation known as Union Carbide, which in 2001 was acquired by Dow Chemical.  Shortly after midnight on December 3rd, 54,000 pounds (24,500 kilograms) of untreated methyl isocyanate, known as MIC, escaped from a tank at Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, then (as now) a city with a venerable history and a population of over a million.   By about 1 AM the alarm had been sounded and people began to flee as the gas, moved along by the wind, swept over the city.  None of the six safety systems at the plant were functioning, and the tank refrigeration system, which alone would have sufficed to prevent the leak, was out of order.  The Indian Government, which too bears a heavy and to this day largely unacknowledged responsibility for the catastrophe, admits that over 521,000 people were exposed to the gas.  By all reasonable estimates, some 7,000 people were killed within the first week of exposure to the lethal gas; in subsequent years, another 15,000 people, perhaps more, have succumbed to their medical ailments as a consequence of their exposure.  The number of people still under treatment is many times more.

Why, one might ask, was a chemical plant allowed to function in a densely inhabited portion of the city?  The same question should be asked in many countries such as the US, where hazardous wastes’ disposal sites are disproportionately located in poor and minority communities.  We know that long before the incident, numerous warnings had appeared in the local press of the dangerous and unsafe conditions in the plant.  Raj Kumar Keswani, the Bhopal-based writer for the Hindi weekly, Jansatta , penned a piece in June 1984, six months before the disaster, entitled “Bhopal:  On the brink of a disaster.”  Had the article appeared in India Today , perhaps – only perhaps – someone may have paid attention, but no one deemed Keswani’s Hindi-language investigative journalism of any consequence.  There are far too many hidden scripts, many hitherto still unexplored, in the narrative that is now known as the ‘Bhopal Gas Leak Tragedy’.

While, in the immediate aftermath doctors, nurses, and ordinary citizens struggled valiantly to save people, Union Carbide refused to divulge the chemical composition of the gas.  Consequently, since toxological information about MIC was not forthcoming, doctors were compelled to offer symptomatic treatment.  Indeed, all of Union Carbide’s endeavors had but one purpose, namely to find ways to absolve itself of all responsibility for a catastrophic failure at one of its plants.  Allegations that the company had compromised on the safety of the plant in an effort to cut costs were met with the astounding claim, which the company’s own investigative officers could not substantiate, that a “disgruntled employee” had sabotaged the plant and caused the leak.  With 50.9% ownership of Union Carbide India Limited, Union Carbide was the principal shareholder of its Indian subsidiary; but now a resounding effort would be made to depict the relationship between Union Carbide and its Indian subsidiary as a remote and distant one.  Now that Union Carbide has ceased to exist, the day may not be very far when Dow Chemical will, in a manner of speaking, pretend that the incident never occurred.  In the US, of course, Dow Chemical, as conversant with the insipid languages of multicultural democracies as any other corporation, will continue to project itself as a corporation that ‘cares’ for people’s lives, is committed to safe and ‘nurturing’ work environment to ensure a ‘better future’ for our children and their children, and so on.  Meanwhile, other victims will be roasted at the altar of profit.

The story of Bhopal has been told often enough and the struggle continues.  The toxic wastes that litter the plant have seeped into the soil and the groundwater has been contaminated, giving rise to a new generation of those who, even if they are not the offspring of victims of the gas leak, are suffering from the consequences of the leak.  A mere few days after the leak, American lawyers were flying into India, boasting about the billions that they would win for the victims.   The story of the litigation surrounding Bhopal makes for unpleasant reading, but is fully suggestive of the consideration that ethical considerations have never been even remotely present in the minds of governments, courts, Union Carbide, and most lawyers.  [See my article on Bhopal and the lawyers on MANAS.]  By terms of the Bhopal Gas Leak Act of 1985, the Government of India assumed responsibility as the sole legal representative of the victims, and shortly thereafter the Supreme Court of India awarded a paltry US $470 million, two-thirds of which today still lies unused in the Reserve Bank of India, as a final settlement to all the victims.  The maximum compensation to those injured is Rs 25,000 ($550), and to the next of kin of those who died the amount is Rs 62,000 ($1,300):  as a Union Carbide spokeswoman once put it, the amount is generous, “plenty good”, for an Indian.

Nearly everything that can be said about corporate responsibility has been said.  The monster cannot be tamed, and it is time to recognize that rather than to pretend that, as we become wiser and democracies ‘mature’, rogue corporations can be coaxed into civility.  When I think of gas and atrocities, I think of the gassing of Jews by the murderous Nazis.  But while the Nazis were brought to justice, the then-CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, a fugitive from justice for whom an arrest warrant has been out for two decades, is enjoying his retirement years lapping up the sun in one of his many vacation homes.  The first ever convictions, of eight former employees of Union Carbide, for causing ‘death by negligence’, took place in July 2010, nearly three decades after the gas leak.  (One of those convicted had expired before the judgment was delivered; the other seven have said that they are bound to appeal the decision.)  Meanwhile, as if to suggest that Union Carbide remains an anomaly, we will be told, as in the New York Times of 5 July 2010, by no less a person than the famed author of Maximum City that Union Carbide has failed to abide by the norms that are inculcated in all American children:  “It’s a wonderful American tradition:  you always clean up the mess you made.”  Somehow, the mess that democratic America –– where children, unlike in Mumbai (so avers Mehta), are taught to clean up their mess –– has left behind in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, much of central America, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention countless other places, has been forgotten.  Once America starts to clean up the mess it has left behind wherever its footsteps are to be found, it will find no need for any other occupation for years to come.

Copyright:  Vinay Lal, July 2010

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  1. (PDF) Case study for Bhopal Gas Tragedy

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