Bhopal disaster

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Coordinates: 23°16′51″N 77°24′38″E / 23.28083°N 77.41056°E / 23.28083; 77.41056

A view of the rural area in Bhopal, showing a wall on which it is written; "Bhopal disaster from 1984 to? The suffering continues, so does the struggle"
Bhopal memorial for those killed and disabled by the 1984 toxic gas release.

The Bhopal disaster, also referred to as the Bhopal gas tragedy, was a gas leak incident in India, considered the world's worst industrial disaster.[1] It occurred on the night of 2–3 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals. The toxic substance made its way in and around the shantytowns located near the plant.[2] Estimates vary on the death toll. The official immediate death toll was 2,259. The government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release.[3] Others estimate 8,000 died within two weeks and another 8,000 or more have since died from gas-related diseases.[4][5] 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.[6]

UCIL was the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), with Indian Government controlled banks and the Indian public holding a 49.1 percent stake. In 1994, the Supreme Court of India allowed UCC to sell its 50.9 percent interest in UCIL to Eveready Industries India Limited. The Bhopal plant was later sold to McLeod Russel (India) Ltd. Dow Chemical Company purchased UCC in 2001.

Civil and criminal cases are pending in the District Court of Bhopal, India, involving UCC and Warren Anderson, UCC CEO at the time of the disaster.[7][8] In June 2010, seven ex-employees, including the former UCIL chairman, were convicted in Bhopal of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of about $2,000 each, the maximum punishment allowed by Indian law. An eighth former employee was also convicted, but died before the judgment was passed.[1]


The pre-event phase

The UCIL factory was built in 1969 to produce the pesticide Sevin (UCC's brand name for carbaryl) using methyl isocyanate (MIC) as an intermediate.[5] A MIC production plant was added in 1979.[9][10][11] After the Bhopal plant was built, other manufacturers including Bayer produced carbaryl without MIC, though at a greater manufacturing cost. However, Bayer also uses the UCC process at the chemical plant once owned by UCC at Institute, West Virginia, USA.[12]

The chemical process employed in the Bhopal plant had methylamine reacting with phosgene to form MIC, which was then reacted with 1-naphthol to form the final product, carbaryl. This "route" differed from the MIC-free routes used elsewhere, in which the same raw materials were combined in a different manufacturing order, with phosgene first reacting with naphthol to form a chloroformate ester, which was then reacted with methyl amine. In the early 1980s, the demand for pesticides had fallen, but production continued, leading to buildup of stores of unused MIC.[5][12]

Earlier leaks

In 1976, two trade unions complained of pollution within the plant.[5][13] In 1981, a worker was splashed with phosgene. In a panic, he removed his mask, inhaling a large amount of phosgene gas which resulted in his death 72 hours later.[5][13] UCC was warned by American experts who visited the plant after 1981 of the potential of a "runaway reaction" in the MIC storage tank. Local Indian authorities had warned the company of the problem as early as 1979, but constructive actions were not undertaken by UCIC at that time.[5][12] In January 1982, a phosgene leak exposed 24 workers, all of whom were admitted to a hospital. None of the workers had been ordered to wear protective masks. One month later, in February 1982, a MIC leak affected 18 workers.[5][13] In August 1982, a chemical engineer came into contact with liquid MIC, resulting in burns over 30 percent of his body.[5][13] Later that same year, in October 1982, there was another MIC leak. In attempting to stop the leak, the MIC supervisor suffered intensive chemical burns and two other workers were severely exposed to the gases.[5][13] During 1983 and 1984, there were leaks of MIC, chlorine, monomethylamine, phosgene, and carbon tetrachloride, sometimes in combination.[5][13]

Contributing factors

Factors leading to the magnitude of the gas leak mainly included problems such as; storing MIC in large tanks and filling beyond recommended levels, poor maintenance after the plant ceased MIC production at the end of 1984, failure of several safety systems due to poor maintenance, and safety systems being switched off to save money— including the MIC tank refrigeration system which could have mitigated the disaster severity. The situation was worsened by the mushrooming of slums in the vicinity of the plant, non-existent catastrophe plans, and shortcomings in health care and socio-economic rehabilitation.[4][5]

Other factors identified by the inquiry included: use of a more dangerous pesticide manufacturing method, large-scale MIC storage, plant location close to a densely populated area, undersized safety devices, and the dependence on manual operations.[5] Plant management deficiencies were also identified – lack of skilled operators, reduction of safety management, insufficient maintenance, and inadequate emergency action plans.[5][13]

Work conditions

Attempts to reduce expenses affected the factory's employees and their conditions. Kurzman argues that "cuts...meant less stringent quality control and thus looser safety rules. A pipe leaked? Don't replace it, employees said they were told ... MIC workers needed more training? They could do with less. Promotions were halted, seriously affecting employee morale and driving some of the most skilled ... elsewhere".[14] Workers were forced to use English manuals, even though only a few had a grasp of the language.[15][16]

By 1984, only six of the original twelve operators were still working with MIC and the number of supervisory personnel was also halved. No maintenance supervisor was placed on the night shift and instrument readings were taken every two hours, rather than the previous and required one-hour readings.[15][14] Workers made complaints about the cuts through their union but were ignored. One employee was fired after going on a 15-day hunger strike. 70% of the plant's employees were fined before the disaster for refusing to deviate from the proper safety regulations under pressure from the management.[15][14]

In addition, some observers, such as those writing in the Trade Environmental Database (TED) Case Studies as part of the Mandala Project from American University, have pointed to "serious communication problems and management gaps between Union Carbide and its Indian operation", characterised by "the parent companies [sic] hands-off approach to its overseas operation" and "cross-cultural barriers".[17]

Equipment and safety regulations

The MIC tank alarms had not been working for four years and there was only one manual back-up system, compared to a four-stage system used in the United States.[4][5][15][18] The flare tower and several vent gas scrubbers had been out of service for five months before the disaster. Only one gas scrubber was operating: it could not treat such a large amount of MIC with sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), which would have brought the concentration down to a safe level.[18] The flare tower could only handle a quarter of the gas that leaked in 1984, and moreover it was out of order at the time of the incident.[4][5][15][19] To reduce energy costs, the refrigeration system was idle. The MIC was kept at 20 degrees Celsius, not the 4.5 degrees advised by the manual.[4][5][15][18] Even the steam boiler, intended to clean the pipes, was inoperational for unknown reasons.[4][5][15][18] Slip-blind plates that would have prevented water from pipes being cleaned from leaking into the MIC tanks, had the valves been faulty, were not installed and their installation had been omitted from the cleaning checklist.[4][5][15] The water pressure was too weak to spray the escaping gases from the stack. They could not spray high enough to reduce the concentration of escaping gas.[4][5][15][18] In addition to it, carbon steel valves were used at the factory, even though they were known to corrode when exposed to acid.[12]

According to the operators, the MIC tank pressure gauge had been malfunctioning for roughly a week. Other tanks were used, rather than repairing the gauge. The build-up in temperature and pressure is believed to have affected the magnitude of the gas release.[4][5][15][18] UCC admitted in their own investigation report that most of the safety systems were not functioning on the night of 3 December 1984.[20] The design of the MIC plant, following government guidelines, was "Indianized" by UCIL engineers to maximise the use of indigenous materials and products. Mumbai-based Humphreys and Glasgow Consultants Pvt. Ltd., were the main consultants, Larsen & Toubro fabricated the MIC storage tanks, and Taylor of India Ltd. provided the instrumentation.[21] In 1998, during civil action suits in India, it emerged that the plant was not prepared for problems. No action plans had been established to cope with incidents of this magnitude. This included not informing local authorities of the quantities or dangers of chemicals used and manufactured at Bhopal.[4][5][12][15] An investigation of the piping on the spot in 2004 indicated that a saboteur must have had intimate knowledge of piping into and out of the tank as well as act extremely fast and exact.[22]

The leakage and its immediate effects

The release

Methylamine (1) reacts with phosgene (2) producing methyl isocyanate (3) which reacts with 1-naphthol (4) to yield carbaryl (5)

The 1985 reports give a picture of what led to the disaster and how it developed, although they differ in details.[23][20][24]

In November 1984, most of the safety systems were not functioning and many valves and lines were in poor condition. In addition to this, several vent gas scrubbers had been out of service as well as the steam boiler, intended to clean the pipes was nonoperational. Other issue was that, Tank 610 contained 42 tons of MIC which was much more than what safety rules allowed.[5] During the night of 2–3 December 1984, water entered Tank E610 containing 42 tons of MIC. A runaway reaction started, which was accelerated by contaminants, high temperatures and other factors. The reaction was sped up by the presence of iron from corroding non-stainless steel pipelines.[5] The resulting exothermic reaction increased the temperature inside the tank to over 200 °C (392 °F) and raised the pressure. This forced the emergency venting of pressure from the MIC holding tank, releasing a large volume of toxic gases. About 30 metric tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) escaped from the tank into the atmosphere in 45 to 60 minutes.[2]

The gas cloud

The gases were blown in southeastern direction over Bhopal.[5][25]

As of 2008, UCC had not released information about the possible composition of the cloud. Apart from MIC, the gas cloud may have contained phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, oxides of nitrogen, monomethyl amine (MMA) and carbon dioxide, either produced in the storage tank or in the atmosphere.[5] The gas cloud was composed mainly of materials denser than the surrounding air, stayed close to the ground and spread outwards through the surrounding community.[5]

The nature of the cloud is still discussed. The chemical reactions would have produced a liquid or solid aerosol with high density. The concentrations at ground level would have been much higher than earlier published. [26]

Release theories

Much speculation arose in the aftermath. The closing of the plant to outsiders (including UCC) by the Indian government and the failure to make data public contributed to the confusion. The initial investigation was conducted entirely by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Theories differ as to how the water entered the tank. At the time, workers were cleaning out a clogged pipe with water about 400 feet from the tank. They claimed that they were not told to isolate the tank with a pipe slip-blind plate. The operators assumed that owing to bad maintenance and leaking valves, it was possible for the water to leak into the tank..[5][15]

However, this water entry route could not be reproduced.[27] UCC maintains that this route was not possible, but instead alleges water was introduced directly into the tank as an act of sabotage by a disgruntled worker via a connection to a missing pressure gauge on the top of the tank.

Early the next morning, a UCIL manager asked the instrument engineer to replace the gauge. UCIL's investigation team found no evidence of the necessary connection; however, the investigation was totally controlled by the government, denying UCC investigators access to the tank or interviews with the operators.[28][23]

UCC believed that a "disgruntled worker" deliberately connected a hose to a pressure gauge connection and was the real cause.[5][28]

Acute effects

Reversible reaction of glutathione (top) with methyl isocyanate (MIC, middle) allows the MIC to be transported into the body

The initial effects of exposure were coughing, vomiting, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation. People awakened by these symptoms fled away from the plant. Those who ran inhaled more than those who had a vehicle to ride. Owing to their height, children and other people of shorter stature inhaled higher concentrations. Many people were trampled trying to escape.

Thousands of people had succumbed by the morning hours. There were mass funerals and mass cremations. Bodies were dumped into the Narmada River, less than 100 km from Bhopal. 170,000 people were treated at hospitals and temporary dispensaries. 2,000 buffalo, goats, and other animals were collected and buried. Within a few days, leaves on trees yellowed and fell off. Supplies, including food, became scarce owing to suppliers' safety fears. Fishing was prohibited causing further supply shortages.[5]

Within a few days, trees in the vicinity became barren, and 2,000 bloated animal carcasses had to be disposed of.[5] On 16 December, tanks 611 and 619 were emptied of the remaining MIC. This led to a second mass evacuation from Bhopal.[5] The Government of India passed the "Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act" that gave the government rights to represent all victims, whether or not in India.[5] Complaints of lack of information or misinformation were widespread. An Indian Government spokesman said, "Carbide is more interested in getting information from us than in helping our relief work."[5]

Formal statements were issued that air, water, vegetation and foodstuffs were safe within the city. At the same time, people were informed that poultry was unaffected, but were warned not to consume fish.[5] No one under the age of 18 was registered at the time of the accident. The number of children exposed to the gases was at least 200,000.[5]

The acute symptoms were burning in the respiratory tract and eyes, blepharospasm, breathlessness, stomach pains and vomiting. The causes of deaths were choking, reflexogenic circulatory collapse and pulmonary oedema. Findings during autopsies revealed changes not only in the lungs but also cerebral oedema, tubular necrosis of the kidneys, fatty degeneration of the liver and necrotising enteritis.[29] The stillbirth rate increased by up to 300% and neonatal mortality rate by around 200%.[5]

Hydrogen cyanide debate

Whether hydrogen cyanide (HCN) was present in the gas mixture is still a controversy.[29][30]

Cyanide concentrations of 300 ppm can lead to immediate collapse. The non-toxic antidote sodium thiosulfate (Na2S2O3) in intravenous injections increases the rate of conversion from cyanide to non-toxic thiocyanate.

Initial reports based on the autopsies of victims' bodies suggested cyanide poisoning based on which UCC's Dr. Bipan Avashia advised amyl nitrate and sodium thiosulphate.[31][32] Treatment was tentatively used on some people, with mixed results.[33][5]

Critics argue that both the Government and Union Carbide tried to avoid mentioning the emotionally provocative word "cyanide."[32]

Exposed to high temperatures, MIC breaks down to hydrogen cyanide (HCN). According to Kulling and Lorin, at +200 °C, 3% of the gas is HCN.[34] However, according to another scientific publication,[35] MIC when heated in the gas-phase starts to break down to hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and other products above 400 °C.

Chemically, HCN is known to be very reactive with MIC.[36] HCN is also known to react with hydrochloric acid, ammonia, and methylamine (also produced in tank 610 during the vigorous reaction with water and chloroform) and also with itself under acidic conditions to form trimers of HCN called triazenes.

Laboratory replication studies by CSIR and UCC scientists failed to detect any HCN or HCN-derived side products. None of the HCN-derived side products were detected in the tank residue.[37]

Long term effects

Long term health effects

All data about the health effects are still not available. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was forbidden to publish health effect data until 1994.[5]

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.[4][5] The official immediate death toll was 2,259, and in 1991, 3,928 deaths had been officially certified. Others estimate 8,000 died within two weeks.[4][5]

The government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release.[3]

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.[6]

Health care

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the health care system became overloaded. Within weeks, the State Government established a number of hospitals, clinics and mobile units in the gas-affected area to treat the victims.[5] Since the leak, large number of private practitioners were opened in Bhopal. In the severely affected areas, nearly 70 percent were under qualified doctors.[5] Medical staff was unprepared for the thousands of casualties. Doctors and hospitals were not aware about proper treatment methods for MIC gas inhalation and they were directed to give cough medicine and eye drops to the patients.[5]

The Government of India had focused primarily on increasing the hospital-based services for gas victims thus hospitals had been built after the disaster.[5] When UCC wanted to sell its shares in UCIL, it was directed by the Supreme Court to finance a 500-bed hospital for the medical care of the survivors. Thus, Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) was inaugurated in 1998 and was obliged to give free care for survivors for eight years.[5] BMHRC was a 350-bedded super speciality hospital were heart surgery and hemodialysis were done however, there was dearth of gynaecology, obstetrics and paediatrics. Eight mini-units (outreach health centres) were started and free health care for gas victims were to be offered till 2006.[5] The management had also faced problems with strikes, and the quality of the health care being disputed.[38][39] Sambhavna Trust is a charitable trust, registered in 1995, that gives modern as well as ayurvedic treatments to gas victims, free of charge.[5][40]

Environmental rehabilitation

When the factory was closed in 1986, pipes, drums and tanks were sold. The MIC and the Sevin plants are still there, as are storages of different residues. Isolation material is falling down and spreading.[5] The area around the plant was used as a dumping area for hazardous chemicals. In 1982 tubewells in the vicinity of the UCIL factory had to be abandoned and tests in 1989 performed by UCC's laboratory revealed that soil and water samples collected from near the factory and inside the plant were toxic to fish.[41] Several other studies had also shown polluted soil and groundwater in the area. Reported polluting compounds include 1-naphthol, naphthalene, Sevin, tarry residue, mercury, toxic organochlorines, volatile organochlorine compounds, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, hexachloroethane, hexachlorobutadiene, and the pesticide HCH.[5]

In order to provide safe drinking water to the population around the UCIL factory, Government of Madhya Pradesh presented a scheme for improvement of water supply.[42] In December 2008, the Madhya Pradesh High Court decided that the toxic waste should be incinerated at Ankleshwar in Gujarat, which was met by protests from activists all over India.[43] On 8 June 2012, the Centre for incineration of toxic Bhopal waste agreed to pay INR25 crore (US$4.55 million) to dispose of UCIL chemical plants waste in Germany.[44] On 9 August 2012, Supreme court directed the Union and Madhya Pradesh Governments to, take immediate steps for disposal of toxic waste lying around and inside the factory within six month.[45]

A US court rejected the law suit blaming UCC for causing soil and water pollution around the site of the plant and ruled that responsibility for remedial measures or related claims rested with the State Government and not with UCC.[46] In 2005, the state government invited various Indian architects to enter their "concept for development of a memorial complex for Bhopal gas tragedy victims at the site of Union Carbide". In 2011, a conference was held on the site, with participants from European universities which was aimed for the same.[47] [48]

Occupational and habitation rehabilitation

33 of the 50 planned work-sheds for gas victims started. All except one was closed down by 1992.[5] 1986, the MP government invested in the Special Industrial Area Bhopal. 152 of the planned 200 work-sheds were built and in 2000, 16 were partially functioning.[5] It was estimated that 50,000 persons need alternative jobs, and that less than 100 gas victims had found regular employment under the government's scheme.[5] The government also planned 2486 flats in two- and four-story buildings in the "Widows colony" outside Bhopal. The water did not reach the upper floors and it was not possible to keep cattle which were their primary occupation. Infrastructure like buses, schools, etc. were missing for at least a decade.[5]

Economic rehabilitation

Immediate relieves were decided two days after the tragedy. Relief measures commenced in 1985 when food was distributed for a short period along with ration cards.[5] Madhya Pradesh government's finance department allocated INR874 million (US$15.91 million) for victim relief in July 1985.[49][50] Widow pension of INR200 (US$3.64)/per month (later INR750 (US$13.65)) were provided.[5] They government also decided to pay INR1,500 (US$27.3) to families with monthly income INR500 (US$9.1) or less.[5] As a result of the interim relief, more children were able to attend school, more money was spent on treatment and food, and housing also eventually improved.[5] From 1990 interim relief of INR200 (US$3.64) was paid to everyone in the family who was born before the disaster.[5]

The final compensation, including interim relief for personal injury was for the majority INR25,000 (US$455). For death claim, the average sum paid out was INR62,000 (US$1,128.4).[5] Each claimant were to be categorised by a doctor. In court, the claimants were expected to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that death or injury in each case was attributable to exposure. In 1992, 44 percent of the claimants still had to be medically examined.[5]

By the end of October 2003, according to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, compensation had been awarded to 554,895 people for injuries received and 15,310 survivors of those killed. The average amount to families of the dead was $2,200.[51]

In 2007, 1,029,517 cases were registered and decided. Number of awarded cases were 574,304 and number of rejected cases 455,213. Total compensation awarded was INR1,546.47 crore (US$281.46 million).[42]

On 24 June 2010, the Union Cabinet of the Government of India approved a INR1,265 crore (US$230.23 million) aid package which would be funded by Indian taxpayers through the government.[52]

Union Carbide's defence

Now owned by Dow Chemical Company, Union Carbide denied the allegations against it on its website dedicated to the tragedy. The corporation claimed that the incident was the result of sabotage, stating that safety systems were in place and operative. It also stressed that it did all it could to alleviate human suffering following the disaster.[53]

Investigation into possible sabotage

Theories differ as to how the water entered the tank. At the time, workers were cleaning out pipes with water. The workers maintain that entry of water through the plant's piping system during the washing of lines was possible because a slip-blind was not used, the downstream bleeder lines were partially clogged, many valves were leaking, and the tank was not pressurised. The water, which was not draining properly through the bleeder valves, may have built up in the pipe, rising high enough to pour back down through another series of lines in the MIC storage tank. Once water had accumulated to a height of 6 metres (20 feet), it could drain by gravity flow back into the system. Alternatively, the water may have been routed through another standby "jumper line" that had only recently been connected to the system. Indian scientists suggested that additional water might have been introduced as a "back-flow" from the defectively designed vent-gas scrubber. However, none of these postulated routes of entry could be duplicated when tested by the Central Bureau of Investigators (CBI) and UCIL engineers.[5][15]

Union Carbide cited an investigation conducted by the engineering consulting firm Arthur D. Little, which concluded that a single employee secretly and deliberately introduced a large amount of water into the MIC tank by removing a meter and connecting a water hose directly to the tank through the metering port.[28] Carbide claimed that such a large amount of water could not have found its way into the tank by accident, and safety systems were not designed to deal with intentional sabotage. Documents cited in the Arthur D. Little report stated that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) along with UCIL engineers tried to simulate the water-washing hypothesis as a route of the entry of water into the tank. This test failed to support this as a route of the water entry. UCC claims the plant staff falsified numerous records to distance themselves from the incident, and that the Indian Government impeded its investigation and declined to prosecute the employee responsible, presumably because that would weaken its allegations of negligence by Union Carbide.[54]

Safety and equipment issues

The corporation denied the claim that the valves on the tank were malfunctioning, and claimed that the documented evidence gathered after the incident showed that the valve close to the plant's water-washing operation was closed and was leak-tight. Furthermore, process safety systems had prevented water from entering the tank by accident. Carbide states that the safety concerns identified in 1982 were all allayed before 1984 and had nothing to do with the incident.[55]

The company admitted that the safety systems in place would not have been able to prevent a chemical reaction of that magnitude from causing a leak. According to Carbide, "in designing the plant's safety systems, a chemical reaction of this magnitude was not factored in" because "the tank's gas storage system was designed to automatically prevent such a large amount of water from being inadvertently introduced into the system" and "process safety systems—in place and operational—would have prevented water from entering the tank by accident". Instead, they claim that "employee sabotage—not faulty design or operation—was the cause of the tragedy".[55]


The company stressed the "immediate action" taken after the disaster and their continued commitment to helping the victims. On 4 December, the day following the leak, Union Carbide sent material aid and several international medical experts to assist the medical facilities in Bhopal.[55] Union Carbide states on its website that it put $2 million into the Indian Prime Minister's immediate disaster relief fund on 11 December 1984.[55] The corporation established the Employees' Bhopal Relief Fund in February 1985, which raised more than $5 million for immediate relief.[56] According to Union Carbide, in August 1987, they made an additional $4.6 million in humanitarian interim relief available.[56]

Union Carbide stated that it also undertook several steps to provide continuing aid to the victims of the Bhopal disaster. The sale of its 50.9 percent interest in UCIL in April 1992 and establishment of a charitable trust to contribute to the building of a local hospital. The sale was finalised in November 1994. The hospital was begun in October 1995 and was opened in 2001. The company provided a fund with around $90 million from sale of its UCIL stock. In 1991, the trust had amounted approximately $100 million. The hospital catered for the treatment of heart, lung and eye problems.[53] UCC also provided a $2.2 million grant to Arizona State University to establish a vocational-technical center in Bhopal, which was opened, but was later closed by the state government.[57] They also donated $5 million to the Indian Red Cross after the disaster.[57] They also developed a Responsible Care system with other members of the chemical industry as a response to the Bhopal crisis, which was designed to help prevent such an event in the future.[56]

Legal action against Union Carbide

Number of women pictured in black and white colour, sitting and protesting against Anderson and the company.
Victims of Bhopal disaster asked for Warren Anderson's extradition from the USA

Legal proceedings involving UCC, the United States and Indian governments, local Bhopal authorities, and the disaster victims started immediately after the catastrophe. Legal action against UCC dominated the aftermath of the disaster. Other issues have continued to develop including the problems of ongoing contamination and associated criticism of the clean-up operation undertaken by UCIL.

Legal proceedings leading to the settlement

On 14 December 1984, the Chairman and CEO of UCC, Warren Anderson, addressed the US Congress, stressing the company's "commitment to safety" and promising to ensure that a similar incident "cannot happen again". 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,[56] leading to the beginning of legal proceedings. In 1985, Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, called for a US government inquiry into the Bhopal disaster, which resulted in US legislation regarding the accidental release of toxic chemicals in the United States.[58] In March 1986 UCC proposed a settlement figure, endorsed by plaintiffs' US attorneys, of $350 million that would, according to the company, "generate a fund for Bhopal victims of between $500–600 million over 20 years". In May, litigation was transferred from the US to Indian courts by US District Court Judge. Following an appeal of this decision, the US Court of Appeals affirmed the transfer, judging, in January 1987, that UCIL was a "separate entity, owned, managed and operated exclusively by Indian citizens in India".[56]

The Government of India refused the offer from Union Carbide and claimed US$ 3.3 billion.[5] The Indian Supreme Court told both sides to come to an agreement and "start with a clean slate" in November 1988.[56] 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, 15% of the original $3 billion claimed in the lawsuit.[5]

Throughout 1990, the Indian Supreme Court heard appeals against the settlement from "activist petitions". In October 1991, the Supreme Court upheld the original $470 million, dismissing any other outstanding petitions that challenged the original decision. The Court ordered the Indian government "to purchase, out of settlement fund, a group medical insurance policy to cover 100,000 persons who may later develop symptoms" and cover any shortfall in the settlement fund. It also requested UCC and its subsidiary UCIL "voluntarily" fund a hospital in Bhopal, at an estimated $17 million, to specifically treat victims of the Bhopal disaster. The company agreed to this.[56]

Charges against UCC and UCIL employees

UCC Chairman, CEO Warren Anderson was arrested and released on bail by the Madhya Pradesh Police in Bhopal on 7 December 1984. The arrest, which took place at the airport, ensured Anderson would meet no harm by the Bhopal community. 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. These actions were allegedly taken under the direction of then chief secretary of the state, who was possibly instructed from chief minister's office, who himself flew out of Bhopal immediately.[59][60][61] Later in 1987, the Indian government summoned Anderson, eight other executives and two company affiliates with homicide charges to appear in Indian court.[62] In response, Union Carbide balked, saying the company is not under Indian jurisdiction.[62]

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. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the decision of the lower federal courts in October 1993, meaning that victims of the Bhopal disaster could not seek damages in a US court.[56]

In 2004, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the Indian government to release any remaining settlement funds to victims. And in September 2006, the Welfare Commission for Bhopal Gas Victims announced that all original compensation claims and revised petitions had been "cleared".[56] The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City upheld the dismissal of remaining claims in the case of Bano v. Union Carbide Corporation in 2006. This move blocked plaintiffs' motions for class certification and claims for property damages and remediation. In the view of UCC, "the ruling reaffirms UCC's long-held positions and finally puts to rest—both procedurally and substantively—the issues raised in the class action complaint first filed against Union Carbide in 1999 by Haseena Bi and several organisations representing the residents of Bhopal".[56]

In June 2010, seven former employees of UCIL, all Indian nationals and many in their 70s, were convicted of causing death by negligence and each sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined Rs.1 lakh (US$2,124). All were released on bail shortly after the verdict. The names of those convicted are: Keshub Mahindra, former non-executive chairman of Union Carbide India Limited; V.P. Gokhale, managing director; Kishore Kamdar, vice-president; J. Mukund, works manager; S.P. Chowdhury, production manager; K.V. Shetty, plant superintendent; and S.I. Qureshi, production assistant.

Federal class action litigation, Sahu v. Union Carbide and Warren Anderson, 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 and subsequent appeal denied. [63]

Ongoing contamination

A view of MIC plant surrounded by few metal pipes
Deteriorating portion of the MIC plant, decades after the gas leak. Contributor to ongoing contamination.

Chemicals abandoned at the plant continue to leak and pollute the groundwater.[64][65][66] Whether the chemicals pose a health hazard is disputed.[67] Contamination at the site and surrounding area was not caused by the gas leakage. The area around the plant was used as a dumping ground for hazardous chemicals and by 1982 water wells in the vicinity of the UCIL factory had to be abandoned.[5] UCC states that "after the incident, UCIL began clean-up work at the site under the direction of Indian central and state government authorities", which was continued after 1994 by the successor to UCIL, Eveready Industries, until 1998, when it was placed under the authority of the Madhya Pradesh Government.[56] The successor, Eveready Industries India, Limited (EIIL), ended its 99-year lease in 1998 and turned over control of the site to the state government of Madhya Pradesh.[53]

UCC's laboratory tests in 1989 revealed that soil and water samples collected from near the factory were toxic to fish. Twenty one areas inside the plant were reported to be highly polluted. In 1991 the municipal authorities declared that water from over 100 wells was hazardous for health if used for drinking.[5] In 1994 it was reported that 21% of the factory premises were seriously contaminated with chemicals.[41][68][69] Beginning in 1999, studies made by Greenpeace and others from soil, groundwater, wellwater and vegetables from the residential areas around UCIL and from the UCIL factory area show contamination with a range of toxic heavy metals and chemical compounds. Substances found, according to the reports, are naphthol, naphthalene, Sevin, tarry residues, alpha naphthol, mercury, organochlorines, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, hexachlorethane, hexachlorobutadiene, pesticide HCH (BHC), volatile organic compounds and halo-organics.[68][69][70][71] Many of these contaminants were also found in breast milk of women living near the area.[72] Soil tests were conducted by Greenpeace in 1999. One sample (IT9012) from "sediment collected from drain under former Sevin plant" showed mercury levels to be at "20,000 and 6 million times" higher than expected levels. Organochlorine compounds at elevated levels were also present in groundwater collected from (sample IT9040) a 4.4 meter depth "bore-hole within the former UCIL site". This sample was obtained from a source posted with a warning sign which read "Water unfit for consumption".[73] Chemicals that have been linked to various forms of cancer were also discovered, as well as trichloroethylene, known to impair fetal development, at 50 times above safety limits specified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).[72] In 2002, an inquiry by Fact-Finding Mission on Bhopal found a number of toxins, including mercury, lead, 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane and chloroform, in nursing women's breast milk. A 2004 BBC Radio 5 broadcast reported the site is contaminated with toxic chemicals including benzene hexachloride and mercury, held in open containers or loose on the ground.[74] A drinking water sample from a well near the site had levels of contamination 500 times higher than the maximum limits recommended by the World Health Organization.[75] In 2009, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi based pollution monitoring lab, released test results showing pesticide groundwater contamination up to three kilometres from the factory. [76] Also in 2009, the BBC took a water sample from a frequently used hand pump, located just north of the plant. The sample, tested in UK, was found to contain 1000 times the World Health Organization's recommended maximum amount of carbon tetrachloride, a carcinogenic toxin.[77] In October 2011, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment published an article and video by two British environmental scientists, showing the current state of the plant, landfill and solar evaporation ponds and calling for renewed international efforts to provide the necessary skills to clean up the site and contaminated groundwater.[78]


Since 1984, individual activists have played a role in the aftermath of the tragedy. The most welknown is Satinath Sarangi (Sathyu), a metallurgic engineer who arrived at Bhopal the day after the leakage. He founded several activist groups, as well as Sambhavna Trust, the clinic for gas affected patients, where he is the manager. [5] Other activists are Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, who received the Goldman Prize in 2004, and Abdul Jabbar.[79][80]

Local activism

Soon after the accident, representatives from different activist groups arrived. The activists worked on organising the gas victims, which led to violent repression from the police and the government.[5]

Numerous actions have been performed: demonstrations, sit-ins, hungerstrikes, marches combined with pamphlets, books, and articles. Every anniversary, actions are performed. Often these include marches around Old Bhopal, ending with burning an effigy of Warren Anderson.

International activism

Cooperation with international NGOs including Pesticide Action Network UK and Greenpeace started soon after the tragedy. One of the earliest reports is the Trade Union report from ILO 1985.[81]

In 1994, the International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB) met in Bhopal. Their work contributed to long term health effects being officially recognized.

Important international actions have been the tour to Europe and USA in 2003,[82] the marches to Delhi in 2006 and 2008, all including hungerstrikes, and the Bhopal Europe Bus Tour in 2009.

Bhopal is one of the knots in an international NGO network, working against corporations' violations of environment and human rights.[5]

Activist organisations

At least 14 different NGOs were immediately engaged.[5] The first disaster reports were published by activist organisations, Eklavya and the Delhi Science Forum.

Around ten local organisations, engaged on long term, have been identified. Two of the most active organisations are the women's organisations Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila-Stationery Karmachari Sangh and Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangthan.[5]

More than 15 national organisations have been engaged along with a number of international organisations.[5]

Some of the most important organisations are:

Settlement fund hoax

Bichlbaum as Finisterra on BBC World News

On 3 December 2004, the twentieth anniversary of the disaster, a man claiming to be a Dow representative named Jude Finisterra was interviewed on BBC World News. He claimed that the company had agreed to clean up the site and compensate those harmed in the incident, by liquidating Union Carbide for US$12 billion.[83][84] Immediately afterward, Dow's share price fell 4.2% in 23 minutes, for a loss of $2 billion in market value. Dow quickly issued a statement saying that they had no employee by that name—that he was an impostor, not affiliated with Dow, and that his claims were a hoax. The BBC later broadcast a correction and an apology.[85]

Jude Finisterra was actually Andy Bichlbaum, a member of the activist prankster group The Yes Men. In 2002, The Yes Men issued a fake press release explaining why Dow refused to take responsibility for the disaster and started up a website, at "", designed to look like the real Dow website, but with what they felt was a more accurate cast on the events.[86]

Monitoring of Bhopal activists

A release of an email cache related to intelligence research organisation Stratfor was leaked by WikiLeaks on 27 February 2012.[87] It revealed that Dow Chemical had engaged Stratfor to spy on the public and personal lives of activists involved in the Bhopal disaster, including the Yes Men. Regular, even daily emails to Dow representatives from hired security analysts list the YouTube videos liked, Twitter and Facebook posts made and the public appearances of these activists, including the Yes Men.[88] Stratfor released a statement condemning the revelation by Wikileaks while neither confirming nor denying the accuracy of the reports, and would only state that it had acted within the bounds of the law. Dow Chemical also refrained to comment on the matter.[89]

The Swedish family physician (MD) Ingrid Eckerman, member of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal in 1994 and author of "The Bhopal Saga - causes and consequences of the world's largest industrial disaster",[90] published in 2004, is since 2008 denied visa to India.[91]

See also


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Further reading

External links