Bhopal gas tragedy
On the intervening night of December 2–3, 1984, India witnessed the world’s worst industrial tragedy. Toxic gasses like Methyl isocyanate were leaked from a pesticide factory owned by Union Carbide. More than 20,000 people died because of the exposure to the gas till now. The people responsible for the incident were never brought to justice. To this day, the victims who suffered the consequences of the catastrophic industrial disaster are fighting for justice.
For the first time in India, the case led to a focus on the need for protecting people and the environment from industrial accidents, with new laws introduced by the government afterwards. But those who suffered the effects firsthand have continued insisting that the company at the centre of it all — Union Carbide, now a part of Dow Jones — has not fulfilled its responsibility in terms of providing just compensation.
Around 19 years after compensation was agreed upon, the Indian government filed a curative petition in 2010 to seek additional compensation from Dow, of more than ten times the amount it gave in 1989. Last month, the government told the Supreme Court that it is “keen to pursue” it, saying it “cannot abandon” the people.
Its effects were such that apart from killing thousands of people in a short span of time, it led to disease and other long-term problems for many who inhaled the gas. The scale of environmental pollution also became clearer only later. For example, the sources of water around the factory were deemed unfit for consumption and many handpumps were sealed. To date, the reproductive health of many of Bhopal’s women has been affected, and children born to those exposed to the gas have faced congenital health problems.
The demand for compensation
After the disaster, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act was passed in 1985, giving certain powers to the Indian government for settling claims. It said the Central Government would have the “exclusive right” to represent, and act in place of every person connected with the claims.
A case was lodged against Union Carbide. Warren Anderson, the Chairman of UC, was arrested when he visited India but was shortly released on bail, after which he left the country. Other high-level executives were also released on bail.
The case was also in a US court for some time but was later transferred to India. By December 1987, the CBI filed a charge sheet against Anderson. Two years later, a non-bailable warrant of arrest against Warren Anderson was issued, for repeatedly ignoring summons. Anderson never returned to India and died in 2014.
In February 1989, the Indian government and Union Carbide struck an out-of-court deal and compensation of $470 million was given by UC. The Supreme Court also upheld it in a judgement. Over the years, the government gradually released the money, but the delay led to frequent protests by those affected.
The tragedy of Bhopal continues to be a warning sign at once ignored and heeded. Bhopal and its aftermath were a warning that the path to industrialization, for developing countries in general and India in particular. If the Provisions Relating to Hazardous Processes would be present at the time of accident and other safety, health and welfare provisions would be followed, we would never had to face such Industrial disaster. Some moves by the Indian government, including the formation of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), have served to offer some protection of the public’s health from the harmful practices of local and multinational heavy industry and grassroots organizations that have also played a part in opposing rampant development.