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Bhopal Gas Tragedy

"If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed"-Adolf Hitler
"The world has enough for everyone's needs, but not everyone's greed"-Mahatma Gandhi

Bhopal Gas Tragedy was a chemical leak incident in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh situated in India. On the night of 2-3 December, 1984, 42 tons of a chemical called methyl isocyanate which is a deadly gas and other chemicals, leaked from the pesticide plant of the Union Carbide India Limited.

The signs and symptoms of methyl isocyanate poisoning includes cough, dyspnoea, chest pain, lacrimation, eyelid edema, and unconsciousness. These effects progress over the next 24 to 72 hours to include acute lung injury, cardiac arrest, and death[1].

The pesticide plant was owned by the Indian subsidiary of the American firm known as Union Carbide Corporation, which was located at the outskirts of the city. However, the gas spread its way to the densely populated neighborhoods around the plant killing approximately between 15,000 to 20,000 people and exposing around half a million[2].

The survivors suffered respiratory problems, eye irritation or blindness, and other maladies due to such exposure to the toxic gases. Of these, many were pregnant women, and the effects of the disaster passed on to generations to come even thirty-five years later.

Objectives of the study:
  1. To study and understand the history of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
  2. To analyse the repercussions of the disaster on the people and environment.
  3. To comprehend the legal perspective of the event.

History of establishment of the company
Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) was the Indian subsidiary of the 1917 incorporated American company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) which was earlier known as Union Carbide & Carbon Corporation.

The company was into manufacturing chemicals, petrochemicals, and related products. Formed during wartime, the company provided helium, ferrozirconium, and activated carbon for the U.S. military.

After the World War I, the company went into manufacturing consumer goods like the first antifreeze, Preston (introduced in 1927), and the first batteries for portable radios, under the Eveready brand (introduced in 1959). When World War II started, the company were the major contributor in the making of atomic bombs.

The Indian Government controlled banks and the Indian public held 49.1% ownership share in the UCIL. After the incident, the Bhopal plant was sold to McLeod Russel India Ltd., and in 2001, UCC became a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company.

Cause of the disaster
The UCIL factory was set up in 1969 to produce a pesticide with the trade name Sevin using methyl isocyanate as an intermediate. Before the 1984 gas leak, there were many other such incidents that took place where the lives of people were at stake.

In 1976, the trade unions in Bhopal complained of pollution within the UCIL plant. A few years later, a worker accidentally inhaled a large amount of dangerous phosgene gas, leading to his death within a few hours.

Two years before, around 45 workers who were exposed to phosgene gas were admitted to a hospital[3]. Between 1983 and 1984, there were leaks of phosgene, carbon tetrachloride, methyl isocyanate and mono methylamine.

In September 1982, a Bhopali journalist named Raj Keswani published in a local newspaper his ongoing findings of research on the factory stating, "Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano!"

Union Carbide India's Bhopal facility had three 68,000-litre liquid MIC storage tanks called E610, E611, and E619. Out of these, E610 and E611 were for normal use whereas E619 was for emergency usage.

A large volume of water had been introduced into the MIC tank. This caused a chemical reaction that forced the pressure release valve to open and allowed the gas to leak.
The MIC broke down into monomethylamine ammonia, hydrocyanic acid, and phosgene gas and it formed a deadly cloud over the city.

Theories on how water entered the tank
There were two theories as to how water entered the tank:
  • The Water Washing Theory, which was given by the Indian Government;
    The Water Washing Theory suggests that, at the time of cleaning out the clogged pipe as a routine maintenance, the workers not knowing the plant operating SOP's, did not insert the slip-blind plate that is used to prevent water from entering the MIC storage tank E610. And that is how the water entered the tank.
  • The Sabotage Theory as given by the Union Carbide Corporation.
    Meanwhile, the Sabotage Theory suggested that, an angry employee intentionally introduced a large amount of water into the E610 storage tank by removing a detachable pipe and connecting a water hose directly to the tank. The UCC on behalf of a report by UCC's intermediary Arthur D. Little Inc. claimed that such large amount of water couldn't have entered the tank by accident and it was done intentionally. It has three pieces of evidence that indicate the theory:
    1. There was a water hose found near the tank.
    2. A plant employee reported that on the morning of the 3rd the local pressure indicator for tank E610 was missing and there was a rubber hose next to it. The tank man heads, where the gauge belonged, was one of the places where a hose could be directly attached to tank E610.
    3. A worker at another part of the plant overheard MIC operators saying that water entered the tank and they had taken steps to deal with the situation.
    There were however certain discrepancies in the report. Due to poor maintenance, many pieces of plant equipment were missing at the time of the accident. The report does not say who the plant worker was, or whom he overheard. UCC claims to know who the saboteur was and yet they never pursued the matter legally.
Other factors that led to the disaster
There were supporting factors that led to the aggravation of the leak. Some of them are:
  1. MIC was stored in the tanks beyond their capacity. At the time of the disaster, the MIC unit was storing 63 tons of methyl isocyanate; 42 of which were in tank E610. Regulations stated that tanks should be at most half full, but E610 was almost full.
  2. MIC was supposed to be stored at a temperature of 4.5-degree Celsius. Due to budget cuts all the refrigeration unit had been shut down.
  3. On the night of the disaster none of the safety systems in the MIC unit were working. A burner, designed to burn off any gas leaks, and a scrubber cylinder designed to decontaminate the leaks, were both switched off. They could not be switched back on, as they had parts removed for maintenance.
  4. MIC can be neutralized by water. However, the water hose designed for this purpose could not reach the MIC leak.
  5. There was a lack of skilled operators in the plant. No proper training was provided to them about the safety and emergency operations in the plant. In order to cut cost, safety training in the MIC unit was cut from 6 months to 15 days and the position of night-shift MIC supervisor was scraped.
  6. The plant's European and American counterparts had computerised safety systems capable of detecting the smallest leak. Whereas in Bhopal, the entire working was manual, staff noses were given the job of detecting leaks in a process to increase employment.
Union Carbide's website admits that even if safety systems had been operational, they would not have been able to cope with the quantity of gas that was stored beyond limit in the E610 tank. Had the tank not be full, it may have been able to contain the reaction inside.

Allegations, suits filed and compensation offered
  • A suo-motu FIR was recorded on 3rd December 1984, by the SHO at Hanumanganj police station against UCC, UCIL and its executives and employees under Section 304 (A) i.e., Death by Negligence, of the Indian Penal Code.
    The record indicated:
    "3828 died on the day of the disaster (the unofficial toll is feared to be much higher: by 2003 over 15,000 death claims have been processed). Over 30,000 injured on the fateful day (a figure that now stands at 5.5 lakhs). 2544 animals killed."[4]
  • On 3rd December 1984, five junior employees of UCIL were arrested. Jai Mukund (Works Manager), Satya Prakash Chaudhary (Assistant Works Manager), K. V. Shetty (Plant Superintendent), R. B. Roy Chaudhary (Assistant Works Manager), and, Shakeel Ibrahim Qureshi (Production Assistant).
  • The case was handed over to the CBI on 6th December 1984. The government of Madhya Pradesh set up a commission of inquiry, called the "Bhopal Poisonous Gas Leakage Inquiry Commission", presided by Justice N.K. Singh, a sitting judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
  • Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson, and Keshub Mahindra and Vijay Prabhakar Gokhale who were the senior level management officials, were arrested and released on bail on 7th December 1984, the same day.
Anderson after being released on bail of USD 2,000, and upon a promise to return, was escorted out to Delhi on CM Arjun Singh's special plane.

Nearly 145 claims were filed on behalf of the victims in various US courts. These were consolidated and placed before the Southern District Court, New York presided over by Judge John Keenan.
  • In February 1985, the Indian Government filed a case in the U.S Court for a claim of $3.3 billons against the Union Carbide Corporation.
  • The Indian Government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act on 29th 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.
  • On 8th April 1985, The Union of India filed a complaint on behalf of all victims in Keenan's court in the US.
  • The N.K. Singh commission wound up on 15th December 1985. And after a week, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research submitted a detailed report implicating the Union Carbide for faulty design of the plant as well as its reckless disregard of operational safety.
  • On 12th May 1986 Judge Keenan dismissed the Union of India's claims submitting to the jurisdiction of Indian courts.
In 1986, two writ petitions were also filed in the Supreme Court of India challenging the validity of the Claims Act.
  • 5th September 1986, The Union of India filed a suit against UCC in the Bhopal district court.
  • 1st December 1987, The CBI filed a charge-sheet against Anderson and other accused, including UCC (USA), Union Carbide (Eastern Hong Kong) and UCIL, in the court of the CJM, Bhopal.
The accused were charged for offences under S. 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), S. 326 (Voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means), S. 324 (Voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means), S. 430 (Mischief by injury to works of irrigation or by wrongfully diverting water) read with S. 35 of IPC.

CJM, Bhopal issues summons against Anderson.
  • An interim compensation of Rs 350 crore was ordered by Bhopal district judge M.W. Deo on 17th December 1987.
  • This compensation was challenged before the Madhya Pradesh High Court. By a judgment dated 4th April 1988, the HC reduced the interim compensation to Rs 250 crore. The UCC challenged this further before the Supreme Court.
  • On the UCC appeal, the SC approved a settlement on 14th February 1989 whereby UCC and UCIL would pay $470 million to the Union of India in a full and final settlement of all claims, and criminal proceedings would thereby stand quashed.

Only a part of the settlement amount was disbursed by the Government towards the victims.
Following widespread protests over the manner of arriving at the settlement and quashing criminal proceedings, the Supreme Court agreed to review the settlement.
  • The court on 22nd December 1989 upheld the validity of the Claims Act applying the doctrine of "parens patriae[5]" [Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India[6]].
  • Despite issuing multiple summons against Anderson, The Bhopal CJM on 1st February 1992 declared Anderson, UCC and UCC (Eastern, Hongkong) as proclaimed offenders.

The magistrate directed that if the parties do not appear on 27th March 1992, he would order attachment of UCC's shares in UCIL under S. 82 of Cr.PC (warrant for an absconder).
27th March 1992, Anderson and both the UCCs failed to appear before the magistrate. However, attachment of shares was put off at UCIL's request.
  • The trial of the Indian accused was separated and committed to sessions court on 22nd June 1992.
  • 19th August 1992, the central government announced a scheme of interim relief to the gas victims.
  • Despite numerous petitions, in September 1994 the SC allowed UCC to sell entire stake in UCIL to Indian tea company McLeod Russel Ltd for Rs 170 crore.
It later renamed UCIL as Eveready Industries India Ltd, which still operates in the Indian market.

Meanwhile, the Indian accused failed in their challenge to the order framing charges before the Madhya Pradesh HC. Then they approached the Supreme Court by way of Special Leave Petitions. On 13th September 1994, the court diluted the charges against the Indian accused from Section 304 Part II of the IPC to Section 304 A (causing death by negligence).

� In the US, a fresh class action litigation was filed in the court of the Southern District New York by Sajida Bano, Haseena Bi and five other victims on 15th November 1999, claiming damages under human rights law and environmental law.
  • February 2001, UCC refuses to take responsibility for UCIL's liabilities in India.
    UCC counterclaims that it did not design, construct or operate the Bhopal plant. It claims that all of the decisions with respect to the plant and its design, construction, and operation were either made by UCIL or mandated by GOI policies and directives.

"The UOI controlled the terms of the agreements and precluded UCC from exercising any authority to 'detail design, erect and commission the plant,' which was done independently over the period from 1972 to 1980 by UCIL process design engineers...." [7]

The US Federal Trade Commission approved the merger of UCC with Dow Chemical Company.
  • October 2002, CJM Bhopal issues fresh warrant against Anderson to which the US authorities did not execute and returned.
Indian government then formally conveys to the US its request for extradition of Anderson.
  • March 2004, the Court of Appeal said it could order Dow Chemicals to clean the soil and water of the affected area to which the Union of India and Madhya Pradesh issued NOC.
  • June 2004, US rejects extradition of Anderson.
  • 25th October 2004, Victims protest the failure of government to pay the victims' compensation money.
  • 26th October 2004, SC sets deadline of November, 2004 to pay the rest of the USD 470 Million.
  • 22nd July, 2009, CJM, Bhopal issues fresh non bailable warrant against Anderson
  • June 2010, all eight accused, including the then chairman of Union Carbide, Keshub Mahindra, were convicted by a court but let off with minor punishment.
  • August 2010, The CBI filed a curative petition regarding the dilution of charges against Union Carbide's Indian officials by the SC.
  • May 2011, the court dismissed the CBI's curative petition for harsher charges against UCIL's Indian officials.
  • August 2011, the central government filed another curative petition in the Supreme Court with regard to additional compensation for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The Centre said UCC, now owned by Dow, should be directed to pay an additional compensation of Rs 7,413 crore.
  • July 2013, the Bhopal district court asked Dow to explain why UCC repeatedly ignored court summons.
  • September 2014, Warren Anderson dies. It became known publicly only at the end of October 2014.
  • February 2020, Curative petition listed before a judge bench for regular hearing.

Aftermath of the incident
Just after the disaster, the two hospitals withing the area, the Hamidia Hospital and the Jayaprakash Hospital were swarm by casualties. What made the situation even more difficult to understand was what gas exactly caused the issue and what were its effects on human lives.

Speculations about the gas were ongoing if it was the phosgene or the Chlorine as informed by the UCIL. The Gandhi Memorial Hospital carried out post-mortems on the bodies and came to a conclusion that it could be cyanide poisoning. Hence, the medical staffs were absolutely unprepared for this kind of disaster. The doctors merely administered eye drops to the victims as no treatment for MIC was then known.

"Operation Faith" was carried out on 16th of December, 1984 wherein the E611 and E619 tanks were emptied out of the remaining MIC. Immediate effects of the gas was seen in the environment as the leaves of the plants had fallen and around 2,000 bloated animal carcasses were disposed of.

Public health infrastructure was very weak in Bhopal in 1984. Tap water was available for only a few hours a day and was of very poor quality. With no functioning sewage system, untreated human waste was dumped into two nearby lakes, of which one was a source of drinking water. The city had four major hospitals but there was a shortage of physicians and hospital beds. There was also no mass casualty emergency response system in place in the city.

Following the events of 3rd December, 1984 awareness regarding the environmental in India increased significantly. The Environment Protection Act was passed in 1986, creating the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and strengthening India's commitment to the environment. Environment Ministry on 5th March, 2016 released new categorisation of industries, under which the criteria of categorisation were based upon 'Range of Pollution Index'. Accordingly, the industrial sectors were categorised as Red, Orange, Green and White with Red having a pollution index score of 60 and above; Orange with 41 to 59; Green, 21 to 40 and White inclusive and up to 20.

In 1987 a new chapter was added to the Factories Act, 1948, in the aftermath of Bhopal and the oleum gas leak in New Delhi in 1986. Earlier, the scope was narrowly defined by covering only workers and the premises of the factory. After the addition of the new chapter, it was extended to the general public in the vicinity of the factory. The changes also provided for appraisal when hazardous industries were being set up or expanded.

In 1991, the Public Liability Insurance Act (PLIA) came into force to provide interim compensation to the victims in the event of an industrial disaster without having to prove neglect or wrongful act of any person. According to the Act, it requires industry owners to obtain insurance policies which shall not be less than the paid-up capital of the unit and limited to Rs 50 crore. This was amended in 1992 because insurance companies were unwilling to insure hazardous companies for a sum without a cap on compensation per victim. And, so, the maximum compensation that a victim can claim under this Act is Rs 25,000.

The Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) was inaugurated in 1998, which was obliged to give free medical treatment to the survivors for a period of 8 years. "The institute was started as per the directive of the honourable Supreme Court of India to provide advanced tertiary level super-specialty care to the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy (1984) as well as to extend its services to the public at large."[8]

When UCC wanted to sell its shares to the UCIL, it was directed by the Supreme Court to finance a 500-bed hospital for the medical care of the survivors. The meagre compensation freed UCC of all its charges.

India was under great pressure to industrialise, which outweighed the need to regulate businesses. An industrial disaster was likely, because due to lack of knowledge nobody would have known what to do in a time of crisis, for which the Union Carbide Cooperation was at fault. The Madhya Pradesh government insisted that the plant be heavily reliant on manual labour, because the government wanted to increase employment within the masses, but at what cost?

The plant's European and American counterparts had computerised safety systems capable of detecting the smallest leak. In Bhopal, staff's noses were given the job of smelling and detecting the leaks.

The factory was designed to create more Sevin pesticide than the Indian market could absorb. As the plant lost money, UCC ordered its Indian subsidiary, the UCIL to cut costs. Large-scale redundancies meant safety checks were done less regularly. The MIC team was cut by half and other staff were used as 'floaters', moving from one area to another, despite having no expertise in that area. Safety training in the MIC unit was cut from six months to 15 days and the position of night-shift MIC supervisor was axed.

Due to the negligence of the UCC and at some point, even the Indian Government, the disaster took place, taking away thousands of innocent lives. The horrors of which are even evident today after 38 years.

  • The Constitution of India
  • Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985
  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (n.d.), Bhopal Disaster, Retrieved 15th February, 2022, from
  • Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (4th April, 2018), Case Definition: Methyl Isocyanate Poisoning, Retrieved 15th February, 2022, from
  • Business Standard (n.d.), What is Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Retrieved 16th February, 2022, from
  • The Print (11th February, 2020), SC to begin hearing in Bhopal gas tragedy-all you need to know about 36 yr old case Article by Debayan Roy, Retrieved 16th February, 2022, from
  • UCC Website (n.d.), Cause of the Bhopal Tragedy, Retrieved 17th February, 2022, from
  • Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (n.d.), Introduction, Retrieved 18th February, 2022, from
  • Hindustan Times (3rd December, 2021), Bhopal gas tragedy: 37 years of one of the world's worst industrial disasters, Retrieved 18th February, 2022, from
  • First Post (3rd December, 2021), Bhopal gas tragedy: Remembering India's worst industrial disaster as victims still await justice, Retrieved 16th February, 2022, from
  • History Today (2nd December, 2021), Clearing the Fog: The Bhopal Gas Tragedy Article by Thomas Benge, Retrieved 16th February, 2022, from
  • Press Information Bureau Government of India (5th March, 2016), Environment Ministry releases new categorisation of industries, Retrieved 24th February, 2022, from
  • Live Mint (2nd December, 2014), Industrial disasters: Is India better prepared than it was in 1984, Retrieved 24th February, 2022, from
  1. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (4th April, 2018), Case Definition: Methyl Isocyanate Poisoning, Retrieved 15th February, 2022, from
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (n.d.), Bhopal Disaster, Retrieved 15th February, 2022, from
  3. Business Standard (n.d.), What is Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Retrieved 16th February, 2022, from
  4. The Print (11th February, 2020), SC to begin hearing in Bhopal gas tragedy-all you need to know about 36 yr old case Article by Debayan Roy, Retrieved 16th February, 2022, from
  5. In Latin means "parent of the nation". An authority acts as a legal protector of citizens' rights when they are unable to assert those rights themselves.
  6. (1990) 1 SCC 613
  7. UCC Website (n.d.), Cause of the Bhopal Tragedy, Retrieved 17th February, 2022, from
  8. Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (n.d.), Introduction, Retrieved 18th February, 2022, from

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