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Bhopal Gas Tragedy

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. It is the most devastating industrial chemical incident ever.


Hundreds of articles and books have done a deep analysis of this incident, and important lessons have been drawn from it to prevent any more such accidents in the future. But what about the victims?


‘You want Osama, give us Anderson,’ reads a placard held by an old lady at a protest. The survivors fight enormous odds to get something more than the paltry compensations that put a monetary value on their suffering. They fight only to get justice, to get closure, to somehow ease their pain. Instead, they are insulted.


On the night of 2nd December, while the people of Bhopal slept, forty-three tonnes of highly toxic, MIC (Methyl Isocyanate) gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal. Stored in the underground tanks, well above the permissible limit, the gas spread quickly, affecting over 500,000 people, suffocating them to death, maiming them, and in many cases, their future generations.


Estimates vary on the death toll. The immediate official death toll was 2,259. Others estimate 8,000 died within two weeks and another 8,000 or more have since died from gas-related diseases. A government affidavit in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial injuries and approximately 3,900 permanently disabling injuries.


According to Ingrid Eckerman, Bhopal activist and author of a prominent book[1] on the Bhopal Tragedy, the production of pesticides at the Union Carbide plant in India was never a great success. Ignoring appeals within the company for a smaller plant to service the demand, the management opened a ‘big-bang’ plant. Right from the start the plant was in trouble. The sales, which were half of the production in 1982, declined to a fifth of the production in 1984. After attempts to move the plant to other locations failed, cost cutting remained the only option.


While the cause of the disaster remains under debate. The government of India and the activist community support the argument that ruthless cost-cutting lead to compromised safety measures, creating a situation that triggered the disaster. Ingrid Eckerman cites the case of an extremely competent and highly paid safety engineer who was replaced with another ‘lower-cost’ engineer. Worse, the new engineer was brought under the finance controller, making critical plant safety measures less important than cost cutting. 


In June 2010, seven ex-employees, including the former UCIL chairman, were convicted in Bhopal for causing death by negligence, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and asked to pay a paltry fine of $ 2,000 each, the maximum punishment allowed by Indian law. In the District Court of Bhopal, civil and criminal cases are still pending against Warren Anderson, the CEO at the time of the disaster.


As the CEO, Anderson was charged with manslaughter by Indian authorities. It is alleged that some of the cost cutting decisions he took led to the accident. On being summoned, he did fly to India and was promptly arrested, but he was released six hours later on a bail of $ 2,100.


‘Had we removed the land line phone from his room Anderson, would not have escaped. He possibly made calls from the phone to contacts in the US to help him leave India,’ the then Bhopal collector, Moti Singh, told India Today[2].


He was declared a fugitive by the Chief judicial magistrate of Bhopal on February 1, 1992, for failing to appear at the court hearings in a culpable homicide case in which he was named the chief defendant. Repeated attempts have been made to extradite him from US to India, but without success. He continues to enjoy a luxurious life in New York, while thousands of victims wait for justice.


In 1986, UCC proposed a settlement of $ 350 million to which the Government of India lodged a counter claim of $ 3.3 billion. Ultimately in 1989, an out-of-court settlement of $ 470 million was reached.


[1] The Bhopal Saga – Causes and consequences of the world’s largest industrial disaster

[2] A leading magazine of India

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