Bhopal, 
30 years later

Lead Photo by Raghu Rai

The Union Carbide plant casts a long shadow on Bhopal.

On the intervening night of 2-3 December 1984, a poisonous gas called methyl isocyanate leaked from a pesticide plant run by Union Carbide India Ltd in Bhopal, turning the city into a gas chamber. Thirty years on from the Union Carbide gas leak tragedy Bhopal is a city defined—and divided—by the disaster. 

On the basis of the deaths that took place between 3 and 6 December 1984 from the leak of methyl isocyanate gas from the pesticide-making factory of Union Carbide India, the state government divided the capital city into two. A total of 62.6% of the population of Bhopal was affected, while the rest was unaffected.

What is now know as the Bhopal gas tragedy has so far led to 5,295 deaths, 4,902 cases of permanent disability and 42 cases of severe injury, according to Madhya Pradesh government records. Unofficial estimates put the death toll at over 22,000 and over 500,000 affected by exposure to the toxic gas.

Since many of those who died had no official record or ration cards and entire families were wiped out, leaving no one to report missing persons, the full magnitude of the leak may never be known.

After all, it is impossible to count the dead who never officially existed.

Thirty years after the worst chemical disaster ripped through the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, Mint looked at the state of economic, social and environmental rehabilitation in the shanty towns of Bhopal.

the many unlearnt lessons of the bhopal tragedy

Ruins of the Union Carbide India Ltd. Plant, Bhopal. Photo: MINT (2009) 

Warren Anderson died on 29 September at a ripe old age, comfortably distanced from the city of Bhopal. Just a few weeks remained for the 30th anniversary of the holocaust the company he had long served—before briefly getting it to serve him—had unleashed in a city that continues to suffer its consequences. 

Some saw the three decades of comfort Anderson had enjoyed after Bhopal as vengeance thwarted. Others, of more subtle disposition, saw it as testament to a monumental collapse of accountability and the enduring inequity of any bargain involving a developing country and a powerful global corporation. 

Soon after the former head of Union Carbide Corp. (UCC) went his unlamented way, a coalition representing Bhopal's victims and survivors began a demonstration at a prominent spot in India’s national capital. Their demand was simply for compensation in accordance with data gathered by official agencies tasked with mapping the human suffering caused by the toxic gas leak of December 1984. In three days, the protesters were compelled by the indifferent official response to raise the stakes from a hunger strike to the denial of even water. 

Following an assurance from relevant quarters in the government that their demands would be sympathetically considered and judged on merits, the victim-survivors of Bhopal called off their protest. Circumstances, though, are likely to make this no more than a provisional truce. India’s democratic institutions went a long way in seeking to assure justice for Bhopal, but finally failed. And there is an inescapable logic which suggests that the failure of justice in Bhopal implicates all India’s democratic institutions.

Just a few weeks remained for the 30th anniversary of the holocaust the company he (Anderson) had long served—before briefly getting it to serve him—had unleashed in a city that continues to suffer its consequences.

Democratic common sense has it that a citizen who suffers a serious invasion of rights should have the means available for due recompense. Article 32, which B.R. Ambedkar referred to as the "very soul" of the Constitution, guarantees such a right and names the Supreme Court as its ultimate guardian. In Bhopal, this principle was abridged since the citizens who had suffered an invasion of their rights were deemed incapable of seeking appropriate remedies. 

By a law enacted within four months of the disaster, the central government assumed sole litigative authority for all victim-survivors of Bhopal. The relevant clause—section 3 of the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act—was justified on the basis of the parens patriae (father of the country) principle. It did not take long for this assumption of litigative authority by the government on grounds of citizen immaturity or incapacity to assume the dimension of an usurpation of rights. 

At the moment of its passage, the Bhopal gas leaks Act showed an uneasy awareness of its potential to invade and undermine citizen rights. A safeguard was inscribed in the law, which allowed any person with a claim to “urge” it upon the central government. And if such a person should so desire, he or she would be allowed to engage a “legal practitioner of his (sic) choice to be associated in the conduct of any suit or any other proceeding relating to his (sic) claim”. 

The plain fact that emerges from the most recent fast by the victims and survivors of Bhopal is that the government had no idea of their numbers or identities. Neither was it inclined to ascertain the numbers or identities of citizens it had assumed exclusive litigative authority on behalf of, until threatened by the public relations disaster of the self-immolation of some among them. 

A fair measure of the extent of governmental default is available in the inconclusive character of the calculus of Bhopal’s dead and maimed. In 1989, the Supreme Court, in a tragically misconceived ruling, ordered a full and final settlement of the litigation arising from the tragedy. Later that year, in seeking to beat back the tide of public outrage over what plainly seemed a collusive settlement, the court laid out the rationale of its order. 

The plain fact that emerges from the most recent fast by the victims and survivors of Bhopal is that the government had no idea of their numbers or identities.

The total number of fatal cases, it estimated, “was about 3,000” and of “grievous and serious personal injuries… in the neighbourhood of 30,000”. In 1991, in pronouncing its decision on a review petition seeking the annulment of the contrived and collusive settlement, the Supreme Court held that “4,000 people lost their lives” in the chemical holocaust while injuries of various degrees of seriousness were suffered by an unspecified “tens of thousands”. 

By August 2004, while ordering a payout from funds held in reserve—pending final settlement with Union Carbide—the Supreme Court was dealing with over 15,000 death claims. And personal injury claims settled exceeded 550,000. Soon afterwards, the department created in the Madhya Pradesh government ceased updating figures on deaths and injuries attributable to the gas leak. Its website now provides boilerplate figures on the money spent and facilities created. It celebrates the wondrous themes of “life over death” and “hope over disaster and despair”, which it sees as the final outcome of the disaster. 

Vengeance is a primitive instinct. Yet when the principals involved in egregious mass crimes get away with punishment of no greater severity than a reckless driver who causes death through negligence, there is a worry that persists over the possible recurrence of similar disasters. This dilemma could have easily been avoided if the Indian government had been alive to the moral compulsions attendant on its assumption of sole litigative authority for Bhopal.

In the event, it took a Supreme Court battling a severe crisis of credibility to remind the government. In deciding on the constitutional validity of the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act, chief justice Sabyasachi Mukherjee held that the law proceeded “on the hypothesis that until the claims of the victims are realised or obtained from the delinquents (Union Carbide and its Indian subsidiary)…the central government must pay interim compensation or maintenance for the victims”. 

By August 2004, while ordering a payout from funds held in reserve—pending final settlement with Union Carbide—the Supreme Court was dealing with over 15,000 death claims. And personal injury claims settled exceeded 550,000.

But then, it was the Supreme Court that had in 1989, stepped into a terrain that it was not required to enter, in ordering a full and final settlement of civil suits arising from Bhopal and decreeing the abatement of all criminal charges, when the issue before it was simply one of interim compensation. In the event, the settlement it ordered was only moderately in excess of the interim compensation decreed by a Bhopal district court. Every subsequent ruling by the highest judicial bench in the country has been an effort to wash away this original sin.

While partially reversing its “full and final settlement” in 1991, the Supreme Court had entered a hapless plea of injured innocence. Justice for the victims of Bhopal was important, it held, but so too “the dignity of the Court”. The “credibility of the judiciary” it held, “is as important as the alleviation of the suffering of the victims”. 

In June 2010, when a judgment was rendered in the criminal cases arising in Bhopal by a local magistrate, then-home minister P. Chidambaram stood up in Parliament to admit to a “deep sense of guilt” at how the process of justice had run aground. The executive branch of government and the legislature, he lamented, had failed to exercise the “vigil and the supervision that the situation warranted”. 

The “elected political class” of India, “had let down the victims of Bhopal” and this abdication had been enabled, indeed facilitated by the intrusive attentions of the judiciary. For years together, said Chidambaram, the executive and the legislature sat back as the judiciary took on virtually the entire onus of righting the wrongs of Bhopal. This was a grievous error, in fact a thorough miscarriage of the process of governance. 

Nobody it seems, is immune in the merry-go-round of the blame game arising from Bhopal. Three decades on, the lessons remain unlearnt and the severe deficit in institutional credibility unbridged. 

Sukumar Muralidharan is a senior journalist who was part of a fact-finding mission on Bhopal (2004). Story dated: 28 November 2014.

Whether we realize it or not, we all live in Bhopal

In the 30 years since the Bhopal gas leak disaster, Indian media has not minced words in pinning blame for the continuing plight of the survivors. But what about the media's responsibility? What role did it play in reporting the events and what effect did it have on the outcomes?

As part of its current series on the world’s worst industrial accident, Mint analysed reports in English and Hindi newspapers in the first week of December 1984. (The disaster occurred on the night of 2-3 December 1984.)

At the time of the gas leak, the English-language press commanded all the influence on the national stage; the Hindi-language press was nowhere near the force it is now.

To put the event in context, 1984 was the year anti-Sikh violence erupted in Delhi and other parts of India, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Her successor Rajiv Gandhi, a political novice, was grappling with the fallout of the assassination—one of the worst political crises in independent India—when 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from Union Carbide India Ltd’s Bhopal plant.

The scale and nature of the event—the perpetrator was the local unit of a multinational company and the victims were workers living in slums around the plant—caught the Indian media unprepared. This was the first time they were covering an industrial accident, and the magnitude of it was clearly beyond their grasp.

An analysis of the first week’s coverage shows that most English dailies stuck with the conservative estimates of the death toll, ranging between 350 and 410, while Hindi newspapers—interestingly, sometimes from the same media houses—put the number of dead at 500 and above.

For event orientation, Hindi newspapers consistently compared the gas leak to the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima and pralay (end of the world), while the English dailies were reluctant to go beyond daily reporting or question the politics behind different safety standards, and the industrial policies that had allowed a multinational to compromise on safety standards.

This year, by contrast, when news broke on 30 October that Warren Anderson, who led Union Carbide Corp. during the Bhopal disaster, had died, all national newspapers unanimously held the Indian government responsible for failing to punish him.

Interestingly, The Times of India (TOI), which called Anderson "Bhopal’s tormentor" in death, had carried an editorial soon after the gas leak, describing his arrest as a case of “Inexcusable Bungling”. The edit blamed what it called Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh’s “election gimmick” for “sullying” the nation’s image internationally. As Anderson flew out from Bhopal to Delhi and then to the US, the English media remained silent.

By contrast, when news broke on 30 October that Warren Anderson, who led Union Carbide Corp. during the Bhopal disaster, had died, all national newspapers unanimously held the Indian government responsible for failing to punish him.

By contrast again, Navbharat Times, the same media house’s Hindi newspaper, ran an editorial piece comparing the Bhopal accident to the Vietnam war and asked, “Should the company and the government, under whose watch our skies have turned poisonous, be treated the same way as war criminals? Tomorrow, due to some negligence, if an atom bomb explodes in America, will the matter be put to rest with the arrest of the lowest rung of administrators?”

The English media obediently repeated the company’s claims about not compromising on safety standards (Hindustan Times, 4 December) and reports on “human failure” (The Hindu, 5 December). Barring the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s publication Organiser, which questioned the government’s policies, the majority of the English-language media covered Bhopal with a myopic lens, repeating graphic images and eventually dropping the story altogether.

Through the month, the general election of December 1984 was the main focus of newspapers, with Bhopal remaining an event-centred news. In the English media, the events unfolding in Bhopal were consistently represented as an “unfortunate accident” caused due to the leak of a “killer gas” in a society known for its “departures from the strictly laid down rules of an industrial society”. (TOI, 4-7 December)

This was the English media narrative: the casualties were accidental, the technology was well-intended and any argument against it was portrayed as being at the cost of progress.

Repeated ad nauseam, this fostered a public opinion which the judiciary, government and Union Carbide could exploit to actively deny fundamental human rights when it came to compensation, access to best medical aid, decontaminated environment, safe drinking water and a fair chance of rehabilitation. Truth is, while the Hindi media was asking the tough questions, the English media was being pliant stenographers.

Thirty years on, what is clear is that the media failed the Bhopal victims just as much as the judiciary and the government.

This was the English media narrative: the casualties were accidental, the technology was well-intended and any argument against it was portrayed as being at the cost of progress.

While Bhopal has been a study in failures in emergency management, government response and media narrative, the most tragic aspect is that India has still not grasped the enormity or relevance of industrial pollution.

In Patancheru on the outskirts of Hyderabad, toxic effluents are directly discharged into the surrounding fields and water bodies. In Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, local residents are exposed to poisonous gases after regulators allowed chemical industries that use poorly maintained plants to manufacture pesticides, pharmaceuticals and bulk chemicals.

According to a report by the Energy and Resources Institute released last year, as of February 2009, more than six million tonnes of hazardous waste was reported in India; Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra were the top three contributors.

Whether we realize it or not, we all live in Bhopal.

Story by Vidya Krishnan, Mint. Date: 3 December 2014 | Pictures (Newspaper): Pretika Khanna/The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi

The endless wait for A 
clean-up in Bhopal  

Mohammad Khalid, a resident of New Arif Nagar, says he is still troubled by breathing problems and cysts. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint 

Thirty years on from the Union Carbide gas leak tragedy, Bhopal is a city defined—and divided—by the disaster.

On the basis of the deaths that took place between 3-6 December 1984 from the leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from the pesticide making factory of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), the state government divided the capital city into two.

A total of 62.6% of the population of Bhopal was affected, while the rest was unaffected.

Authorities labelled 36 wards gas-affected and 20 wards gas unaffected. Even today, the contrasts between these areas are clear.

In one stands a beautiful modern city dotted with lakes, restaurants overlooking the lakes, heritage sites converted into hotels, and shiny glass-fronted buildings housing private colleges. Thirty years on from the Union Carbide gas leak tragedy, Bhopal is a city defined—and divided—by the disaster.

Thirty years on from the Union Carbide gas leak tragedy, Bhopal is a city defined—and divided—by the disaster.

The other is home to shanty towns where the deaths took place. They surround the now-dilapidated factory. It is in these towns that the legacy of the 30-year-old gas disaster lives on.

Every child here can narrate the details of what took place on the intervening night of 2-3 December 1984. The government claims 5,295 deaths, 4,902 cases of permanent disability and 42 cases of severe injury. Unofficial estimates put the death toll at more than 22,000.

Nearly every household here has people suffering from inexplicable diseases and medical complications. In one town you can find two 30-year-olds, named Zeher (poison) Lal and Gas Devi.

All these years later, only snail-like steps have been taken to resolve the issues related to environmental degradation and toxicity in the factory.

Around midnight on the intervening night of 2-3 December 1984, at the firm's sevin manufacturing plant, water entered a tank containing 42 tonnes of MIC gas, causing a chemical reaction that raised the temperature and pressure inside the tank.

This resulted in about 40 tonnes of MIC and many other toxic gases escaping the tank and entering the atmosphere of Bhopal, with the wind blowing the gases further towards southeastern Bhopal.

The factory was closed that December, leaving toxic waste that had collected over the years lying in the 67-acre area, contaminating the groundwater supplying drinking water to most of these shanty towns.

The Bhopal plant was owned and operated by UCIL, an Indian company in which Union Carbide Corp. (UCC) held a little over half the stock, while other stockholders included Indian financial institutions and thousands of private investors in India. In 1994, UCC sold its entire stake in UCIL to McLeod Russel India Ltd of Calcutta, a tea planter, which renamed it Eveready Industries India Ltd.

As a result of the sale of its shares in UCIL, UCC retained no interest in the Bhopal site. As the government closed off the site from all operations following the gas release, UCIL was only able to undertake clean-up work till 1994. However, in 1998, the Madhya Pradesh government, which owned and had been leasing the property to Eveready—and still owns the property today—cancelled its lease, took over the facility and assumed all responsibility for the site, including the completion of any additional remediation work.

In 1994, UCC sold its entire stake in UCIL to McLeod Russel India Ltd of Calcutta, a tea planter, which renamed it Eveready Industries India Ltd.

At this point, the clean-up efforts took a backseat, and that was the second tragedy of Bhopal, an official at the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPPCB) said on condition of anonymity.

Contrary to popular notion, the contamination of the water and soil within and outside the factory did not take place solely because of the 1984 disaster. Between 1977 and 1984, UCIL Bhopal was licensed by the Madhya Pradesh government to manufacture phosgene, monomethylamine (MMA), MIC and the pesticide carbaryl (also known as Sevin). MIC was manufactured primarily to make Sevin as well as smaller quantities of aldicarb (Temik) and butylphenyl methylcarbamate.

The contamination was the result of years of indiscriminate dumping of waste by UCIL on the site.

According to P.K Shrivastava, senior scientist, MPPCB, there are three main environmental issues facing Bhopal today that spring from the disaster: what to do with 350 tonnes of toxic chemicals dumped in the factory in bags; how to supply clean potable water to 18 settlements surrounding the factory; and how and when the dilapidated factory will be dismantled.

The issue of the disposal of 350 tonnes of chemicals is no closer to resolution today than it was in 2005. After years of deliberations, the waste that was excavated, packed and kept at the factory in 2005 by Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd, an environmental services company, is yet to be incinerated. Since 2005, three places have been considered for incineration—Ankleshwar in Gujarat, Nagpur in Maharashtra and Pithampur in Madhya Pradesh. In 2012, a proposal was made for burning the waste at the GIZ facility, an enterprise owned by the German government, but this was later withdrawn.

"The move keeps getting delayed because of protests of people at these (proposed) sites. It is a very delicate matter. The relief department’s job is to make the arrangements for incineration and then a report is to be submitted to the Supreme Court," said Babulal Gaur, Madhya Pradesh’s home minister and former minister for Bhopal gas tragedy relief and rehabilitation. “But otherwise there is no pollution anywhere around the site or in the groundwater. Trees and animals are thriving and people are also living healthily.”

In 2012, the Supreme Court said that it was indisputable that a huge amount of toxic waste was still lying in the factory and that its very existence was hazardous to health. It directed the central and Madhya Pradesh governments to take immediate steps for the disposal of this toxic waste in a scientific manner.

“Supreme Court directed the ministry of environment and forests to conduct trials through the Central Pollution Control Board. After the trial run, results were to be submitted. Supreme Court ordered government of India to take necessary measures to carry out a trial run of 10 mt (metric tonnes) in an incinerator,” said Shrivastava. “They have to make sure that emissions do not have harmful dioxin. Such gases should be contained in the incinerator. They have to submit a plan to SC regarding packaging of waste, transporting, monitoring of pollutants.”

The move keeps getting delayed because of protests of people at these (proposed) sites. It is a very delicate matter. The relief department's job is to make the arrangements for incineration and then a report is to be submitted to the Supreme Court 
— Babulal Gaur, Home Minister, Government of Madhya Pradesh

The bigger challenge, according to experts from Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and charitable organization Sambhavna Trust, is what to do with the waste that is lying in the premises of, and in 17 settlements near, the factory.

A 2013 report by Indian Institute of Chemical Technology found that most of the water samples from outside the UCIL premises and all the samples from the five borewells in the UCIL showed toxic lead levels that were above permissible limits for drinking water. The level of isomers of hexachlorocyclohexane, which have differing modes of toxicity, was found to be higher than the permissible limits outside UCIL premises in some of the groundwater samples.

While the water available in surrounding colonies was suitable for gardening and cleaning, it was not fit to drink. For years, residents in these colonies were using groundwater drawn by handpumps and wells as drinking water. It was only a year ago that handpumps were stopped to make way for piped water now supplied from Kolar dam on Narmada River. But residents say that the red-coloured water coming from tubewells is still used when water does not come in the pipes. In some cases, the damage may already have been done.

“My whole body feels defective. There is always some problem or the other. I keep going to the doctor with breathing problems and cysts,” said Mohammad Khalid, a resident of New Arif Nagar, showing his X-rays and medical prescriptions from Kamla Nagar Hospital. He has lost three children over the years to “gas-related” problems, and a surviving daughter claims to suffer from lung problems.

Most of the residents in New Arif Nagar have yellow medical cards given to Bhopal gas victims.

My whole body feels defective. There is always some problem or the other. I keep going to the doctor with breathing problems and cysts. - Mohammad Khalid, resident, Arif Nagar

“Decontamination of the groundwater in this area is the most humongous task, and the more it is delayed, the more it will increase,” said Chandra Bhushan from CSE, which has studied the contamination in the area.

Health impact

As a first step—based on the mortality data—Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) categorized the entire affected population into severely affected (32,476); moderately affected (71,917); and mildly affected (416,869). ICMR set up more than 24 research projects on the epidemiological and clinical aspects of the diseases caused by inhalation of the toxic gas. According to an ICMR technical report on the population-based long-term clinical studies carried out between 1985 and 1994, people from the affected areas suffer from several ailments .

The report, reviewed by Mint, shows higher incidence of abortions, perinatal and neonatal mortality in the affected areas; and impaired pulmonary and respiratory functions in children aged between 6-15 years. It was also estimated that approximately half the population in affected areas had mental health problems. There was also a higher incidence of cancer and damage to sight. However, in many ailments such as cancer, the connection with the gas leak could not be established.

By 1990, sixteen of the studies had been closed, and by 1994 all the studies had come to an end. Some say they were abandoned.

“These moves were politically motivated. There were some studies which were stopped because they gave objective data that showed how the gas caused systemic poisoning and would fix responsibility on Carbide (the company), beyond just lungs and eyes being damaged,” said Satinath Sarangi whose Bhopal Group for Information and Action runs a small allopathic dispensary and an ayurvedic clinic, Sambhavna Trust, for those exposed to MIC released from the factory. “We still have letters from principal investigators of some studies begging to let them continue research,” he added.These moves were politically motivated. There were some studies which were stopped because they gave objective data that showed how the gas caused systemic poisoning and would fix responsibility on Carbide (the company), beyond just lungs and eyes being damaged. - Satinath Sarangi, activist

These moves were politically motivated. There were some studies which were stopped because they gave objective data that showed how the gas caused systemic poisoning and would fix responsibility on Carbide (the company), beyond just lungs and eyes being damaged. - Satinath Sarangi, activist

There are not many studies on the health impact on the third and fourth generation of people born in these areas. A literature review by scientists from ICMR, Chirayu Medical College, Bhopal, and department of medical education, Bhopal, published in 2013 did show that symptomatic sicknesses were significantly higher in people living close to solar evaporation ponds. But there was no evidence to suggest that toxicants had reached either groundwater or the food chain in toxic doses.

But activists point to other evidence.

“In contaminated areas, we still get a lot of babies with birth defects. In our clinic we see many cases of brain damage, learning disabilities, behavioural disabilities, extremely painful menstruation in third generation girls, too many women with polycystic ovarian disease. Because there is no system, and people don’t get expensive diagnosis done, it is underreported,” says Sarangi.

“If ICMR had continued the studies, we would today know who the victims are, apart from the people who had died. It makes it impossible to settle the claims of people who died subsequently because of effects of the gas,” says Sunita Narain, director-general of CSE. “The administration has to be more responsive because there are still many slow Bhopals happening and mini Bhopals waiting to happen.”

Story by Nikita Mehta, Mint. Date: 3 December, 2014

'This place was destined
 to be in ruins'

T.R. Chouhan, plant operator, Union Carbide India Ltd. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

5 December 1984 was one of T.R. Chouhan's last days at work. He was a plant operator at Union Carbide India Ltd’s (UCIL) pesticide factory in Bhopal. He had worked for the company at the factory since 1975.

That day, Chouhan, now 60, remembers that he was called in for emergency duty.

It was the first time he was returning to work after the night of 2 December when a toxic gas leak at the factory had forced him to move to a safer part of the city—one outside the cloud of gas that many survivors recall seeing—with his family.

Getting back to work was not a pleasant task.

"The street leading up to the factory was littered with dead bodies. It was horrible. It was also the first time I realized how lethal MiC (methyl isocyanate) was and we were handling it like it was water, every single day," says Chouhan, who went on to write Bhopal - The Inside Story, a book based on eyewitness accounts and personal testimonies of people who worked at the plant. UCIL used methyl isocyanate, a highly unstable, intermediate chemical to make sevin, a pesticide.

The street leading up to the factory was littered with dead bodies. It was horrible.

The gas leak is widely believed to be the world’s worst industrial accident. In 1989, Union Carbide Corp. paid $470 million to settle the litigation related to the leak. In 1994, it sold its stake in UCIL to its partner—the Khaitans. This was eventually renamed Eveready Industries India Ltd. In 2001, Dow Chemical Co. acquired Union Carbide Corp.


In the years since, Chouhan, his book, and his reports have become a focal point for activists who believe the accident that killed thousands and left many more with lasting scars could have been avoided.

These days, like for many years now, Chouhan can be found on the premises that house the now-abandoned plant. He is sought after by journalists and visitors, and, for a derelict factory, the UCIL one in Bhopal gets a lot of those.

“This place was always destined to end up like this. In ruins,” says Chouhan.

He didn’t always feel that way.

Back in 1975, when he got the job, he was “excited”.

“It was a big step up for me and I needed the money. I was under the impression that Bhopal plant would be a duplicate of the parent plant in West Virginia and I was looking forward to working in modern, sophisticated and automatic chemical plant.”

It didn’t take him long to realize that wouldn’t be the case.

UCIL was owned by Union Carbide Corp. (which owned 51% of it) and other investors including the Khaitan family and the government of India.

It had set up the Bhopal factory to make pesticides in 1970. The company also made chemicals, plastics and batteries.

At the time, many thought, like Chouhan, that the Bhopal facility would mirror the one at West Virginia it was modelled after.

Once he started work, though, Chouhan realized that the company’s main emphasis was on keeping costs low.

"It affected everything, construction, maintenance, training, manpower and most importantly, our morale. Instead of the mandatory 6-month training, I was put in-charge of the MiC plant after 22 days of training. The toxicity of that chemical still shocks me. I cannot shake off images of dead bodies around the factory till day. And I was operating that plant without knowing about the dangers of our plant," he adds somberly. It became evident soon after joining that the Bhopal plant was not designed to handle emergencies.

Immediately after the leak, UCIL shut down the factory.

This was illegal but that was overlooked by both the company and the government.

I cannot shake off images of dead bodies around the factory till day. And I was operating that plant without knowing about the dangers of our plant.

On paper, UCIL reasoned that the Bhopal factory had to be shut down because of a “dispute between the workers and management.”

Chouhan was let go.

“The company did not even acknowledge the leak on papers while shutting down the factory. I got four month’s salary despite working with them for 10 years,” Chouhan says.

He and a few other employees filed cases in Bhopal’s district court challenging the closure of the plant. They won the case in lower court but lost it in Jabalpur high court in 2011. “Every aspect of Bhopal is a case study on how the government can let you down. This was a powerful multinational company, which produced documents convincing the Indian government that they were setting up one of the safest plants in Bhopal. They got away with murder. They got away with illegal closure. They also got away without neutralizing a single gram of toxic substance,” adds Chouhan.

The company did not even acknowledge the leak on papers while shutting down the factory. I got four month's salary despite working with them for 10 years

His reference is to the toxic waste that remains at the factory site.

The company’s lease was cancelled by the state government and the government took possession of the land. Since then the land on which the pesticide plant stands has changed hands from the UCIL to the department of gas relief and rehabilitation and now awaits the construction of a museum. “What will we do with a museum when basic needs of survivors have not been met?”

Most people living around the Carbide factory still say in disbelief that the company initially denied the leak altogether, and then stated that MiC gas was like a tear gas and the effects would be temporary. Worse, the loud siren to raise alarm did not start at the proper time and was shut down after five minutes since the company’s siren policy had been modified and allowed it to be turned off.

When asked to recount the most disturbing part of this sequence of events, Chouhan says: “There was no evacuation plan.” As an afterthought, he repeats, “This could have ended only one way—in ruins.”

Story by Vidya Krishnan, Mint. Date: 27 November, 2014. 

one night, 876 autopsies

Dr. D.K. Satpathy at Medico-Legal Institute, Bhopal. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

It was around four in the morning when the calling bell rang at D.K. Satpathy's home in Idgah Hills on 3 December 1984.

"Try to reach the mortuary as soon as possible, there are casualties beyond our imagination," was the message received by Satpathy, then a 35-year-old forensic doctor with the state government’s Hamidia Hospital.

On the way to the mortuary, Satpathy saw that the entire campus of the adjacent Gandhi Medical College was flooded with people who were visibly ill.

Some were gasping, others were vomiting, and most were weeping.

Scores of others lay dead.

Doctors were giving the patients symptomatic treatment. The casualty medical officer informed Satpathy that around midnight, people started coming in with burning eyes, breathlessness and nausea.

Unknown to Satpathy and his colleagues, four hours earlier, about 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, along with other chemicals, had leaked into the atmosphere of Bhopal from the Union Carbide India Ltd factory, which was surrounded by several heavily inhabited settlements.

The leak of the poisonous MIC gas, the main ingredient in Sevin pesticides manufactured by Union Carbide, was caused by a backflow of water in tank E610 at the factory.

It is now recognized as the worst industrial disaster in history. By the end of the night, the lethal gas had spread across an area of around 8 sq. km. By the end of 3 December, Satpathy says he had performed autopsies on 876 bodies. By the end of December, this number rose to 1,300.

By 1996, Satpathy had performed autopsies on 11,000 bodies, all related to the gas leak.

That night, Satpathy was informed, someone from the hospital had called up the medical officer of Union Carbide factory.


“It is just tear gas. Just wash their eyes and mouth with water. It will affect patients only mildly,” the medical officer had responded.

By the time Satpathy reached the mortuary on the morning of 3 December, there were nearly 500 dead bodies there.

Satpathy cleared his head. His mission as a forensic expert was to identity the person, carry out the post-mortem, ascertain the cause of death and fix responsibility.

There were four forensic experts at the hospital. It seemed like an impossible task to complete autopsies on so many bodies, so they decided to choose a random sample because the symptoms were similar and they had died in similar circumstances. The remaining bodies were merely examined externally.

Each dead body was photographed. Most were unclaimed and unidentified.

Without exception, every person had died of respiratory failure; there was froth in their mouths and noses, serious pulmonary damage, their eyes were red, and their skin had rashes. Satpathy found one peculiarity: the blood in both the veins and the arteries of the bodies was red, whereas, usually that in the veins is darker. “One of the chemicals that can cause this is cyanide,” he says.

The next day, Satpathy and the other doctors were informed that the leaked gas was MIC; the team stored all the collected tissue and the blood.

Meanwhile, a German scientist, Don Derreira, who had arrived in Bhopal to establish that the tissue and blood had elements of MIC, informed the doctors that the appropriate treatment for exposure to MIC was sodium thiosulfate—administered intravenously—which would cause all the toxic elements to pass out through urine. All the tissues were analysed and upto 22 compounds were isolated, out of which all but two were identified. All 22 compounds were also found in tank E610.

“This tank was responsible, the owner was the culprit. We had linked the responsibility of the deaths. We also suggested the treatment. Our job was done,” says Satpathy.

Medical research terminated

“There was much misleading on the part of Union Carbide. Apart from initially claiming the leaked gas was tear gas, they also claimed that MIC could not cross the placental blood barrier of a pregnant woman to affect the foetus,” says Satpathy, now 66 and retired, sitting at the forensic museum at the Medico-Legal Institute in Bhopal that is currently exhibiting pictures of postmortems conducted by him.

Satpathy had performed an autopsy on the body of a woman who was two months pregnant, and he found that the traces of chemicals found in her were also present in the foetus.

God forbid something like this happens again with the same gas—we will still not know the ABC of how to manage the disaster.

The government showed appalling negligence toward medical and scientific research which should have been carried out to find out more about the unknown effects of MIC on the human body. In 1985, more than 20 clinical and non-clinical research projects were sanctioned on MIC’s effect on the foetus, endemic areas, and health. But all the projects were terminated by 1990, after the completion of only two or three studies.

“These studies could have been crucial because even (the) third and fourth generation could face the consequences; even genetic mutations can take place. But we were a complete failure in that regard,” says Satpathy. “God forbid something like this happens again with the same gas—we will still not know the ABC of how to manage the disaster.”

Samples were collected from the bodies and sent for analysis to various labs across the country, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. “It was very hard for us to preserve the tissue in a refrigerator for 30 years, for nothing. One time, the fridge was out of power, and some tissue samples were completely decomposed,” Satpathy says

Many of the foetuses from pregnant women killed in the disaster are still lying preserved at Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal, and the tissues are preserved in formalin.

“They can be used for analysis, but no one is interested,” says Satpathy, pointing to an unresolved legacy from the world’s worst industrial tragedy.

Story by Nikita Mehta, Mint. Date: 28 November 2014


how nGOs innovate to keep the issue alive

Satinath Sarangi at Sambhavna Trust Clinic, Bhopal. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

If activism is an experiment in innovation, Bhopal is the perfect lab. Ask any journalist who has been to the city.

Thanks to the zeal of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the annual Bhopal pilgrimage made by national and international journalists every December on the anniversary of the city's gas tragedy can be easier than a paid junket.

Don’t know the language? No worries; you’ll have a translator. Not sure of facts? Here’s a dossier, chronology of events and the latest press release for you. The Bhopal activist will even provide you with a helpful angle for your report, so that no two journalists write identical stories. The NGO will be happy to arrange characters to liven up your report—a victim, a survivor, a doctor, a lawyer. They’ll even pick you up on arrival and help you find hotels closer to the sites.

Keeping an issue alive despite three decades of political apathy can do that to civil society organizations. The most high-profile NGO here is Satinath Sarangi’s Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA). The organization, which is globally known, also runs a small allopathic dispensary and an Ayurvedic clinic, Sambhavna Trust, for those exposed to the methyl isocyanate poison gas released from the Union Carbide factory.

The trust is fully funded by individual donations as well as royalties from Five Past Midnight In Bhopal, a book by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro on the accident. The trust was set up in 1996, with donations received after a series of advertisements named Bhopal Medical Appeal were placed in UK newspapers on the 10th anniversary of the gas leak.


Sarangi may not always be the most accurate provider of happenings related to the gas tragedy, but he is, at any given point of time, the most convenient link between events unfolding in Bhopal and the outside world, which has always been in a rush to move on.

On 30 October, while news of the death of Warren Anderson (Union Carbide’s chairman at the time of the gas tragedy) was breaking internationally, BGIA was already emailing journalists with a prepared statement. For those who could not access the Internet, text messages were sent, incorporating just the operative part of the statement.

If activism is an experiment in innovation, Bhopal is the perfect lab. Ask any journalist.

In the past five years, Sarangi’s NGO has partnered six other local civil society organizations, all of whom were recently in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to protest against the government’s indifference to their cause. However, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, one of the city’s most important organizations led by survivor-activist Abdul Jabbar, was not among them.

"While the goals of all NGOs are the same, the methods are hugely different. Without going into specifics, I decided to stay away from the gimmicks because our priority is attending to the needs of the survivors," said Jabbar, who runs a small centre providing vocational training for survivors.

As a PhD student in metallurgical engineering, Sarangi was visiting a village near Bhopal when he heard on the radio that something had happened and many people were dead. “I thought I should go and see what I can do. When I got to the station, it was completely deserted. Outside, people were in excruciating pain, thousands were already dead. Many of them were women. All of them were poor. I decided to stay and help,” Sarangi says.

The man sums up the nightmare unfolding in Bhopal as follows: “It came without warning in the dead of the night. Most people drowned in their own body fluids… It was a total failure of all systems. The 574,000 people who survived wish they were dead too. A whole generation born after the disaster is marked, damaged.”

When the world’s worst corporate crime plays out in a land where few speak English, men like Sarangi are the stuff journalists dream of. Most organizations do not have any Web presence and none can match the library of precious, countless documents concerning the subject that Sarangi has created.

It came without warning in the dead of the night. Most people drowned in their own body fluids… It was a total failure of all systems. The 574,000 people who survived wish they were dead too. A whole generation born after the disaster is marked, damaged.

“Unlike other places in India, the activist community is well-organized in Bhopal,” says Mandakini Gahlot, India correspondent for France24, a television channel. “They seem to work in sync with each other, which is not usually the case. It took me more than a couple of visits to understand they have internal rifts. The bigger issue, however, is that after a point, everything they say sounds very rehearsed because they have been telling this story for 30 years. It is hard to get them to speak candidly. For a journalist who works for an international channel, BGIA is a one-stop shop for all things Bhopal, but are they doing the most work on the ground? I don’t know,” she said.

Sarangi explains how he started his work. “I realized soon as I reached Bhopal that knowing English and a little bit of science could be immensely helpful. Our organizations evolved as we adapted to technology, carved out an international audience for the stories of survivors,” Sarangi says, sitting in his office in old Bhopal. “If we are to deal with powerful multinational organizations, our public relations (PR) machinery has to be just as competent,” added Sarangi. “Why do you think during London Olympics, Dow Chemicals received so much negative publicity?” he asks before answering his own question, “because that is how good we are. We were able to deal with their PR, at their level.” Union Carbide was acquired by Dow Chemicals in 2001.

For those who know the city and the subject well, the real story lies with the smaller organizations that work with victims who will never speak a word in English or get on the Internet to rant about the injustice done to them. But it will take more time than the annual two-day media visits ahead of anniversaries to reach them.

Story by Vidya Krishnan, Mint. Date: 1 December 2014

from survivor to activist

Gas tragedy survivor turned activist Abdul Jabbar in his office. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Abdul Jabbar began fighting for the rights of people around him decades ago when he demanded a clean environment for people in his neighbourhood where smoke used to billow from a brick kiln.

And he helped neighbours get ration cards.

But what turned out to be his lifelong fight came along on the night of 2-3 December 1984.

Jabbar, a construction worker who used to dig borewells, was sleeping in his home when lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas descended on the city of Bhopal after leaking from the Union Carbide India Ltd factory.

Rajendra Nagar, where Jabbar stayed with his mother, was 1.5km from the factory.

When the gas with its odour of burning chilli entered his house, Jabbar took out his scooter and drove his mother out of town.

When he returned later that night after leaving his mother in safety, some 40km away, the streets of Rajendra Nagar were lined with dead bodies.

"I started bubbling over with anger. But at that point, as a representative of the colony, it was my duty to help these people," says the activist, now 58.

That night, he helped many people get treatment at the state hospital, and got bodies taken for post-mortem.

Jabbar's struggle for Bhopal victims had only just begun.

Thirty years on, in any of the gas-affected neighbourhoods, 'Jabbar Bhai' is a household name.

In 1987, he set up the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (Bhopal Gas Female Victims’ Association), an advocacy and recognition group for victims and survivors, and took out protest marches demanding sustenance allowance and compensation, especially for widows of gas victims.

"We carried out so many protests in Delhi those days, and created quite a stir in Parliament," Jabbar recalls.

After the settlement of compensation for victims in 1989, Jabbar started focusing on skill development for those who suffered from physical ailments. Today, women can be seen working on sewing machines in the modest building where Jabbar started the Swabhimaan Kendra (self-respect centre), an economic rehabilitation centre, which, he says, has helped at least 5,000 women get jobs.

Khairaat nai, rozgaar chahiye (not charity, we want jobs)

“It angered me to see the government distributing milk and ration, but not employment. It was crippling them.”

Khairaat nai, rozgaar chahiye (not charity, we want jobs),” he says, quoting the slogan for the campaign. On his left is a Danish journalist and her translator waiting to interview him, and on his right are piles after piles of yellow postcards—20,000 of them—addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster.

The wall behind him is covered with pictures of maimed victims of the disaster.

Jabbar did not escape the effects of exposure to the gas. Today, he suffers from lung fibrosis, and the vision in his eyes has diminished by around 50%. Along the road to justice, he lost his mother, father and brother, who suffered from the after-effects of the gas leak. “Today, the most troubling aspect from both the central and the state governments is that people did not get justice. There was no proper compensation, medical rehabilitation, economic rehabilitation, or environmental rehabilitation,” Jabbar says.

He thinks it’s a shame that Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide Corp. at the time of the gas leak, died before India could bring him to justice; that the nation did not even know of his death until after a month when the media reported it.

“You rent a house and you mess it up in your own way. Before you leave the house, should you not check the mess you have left in all the rooms?” Jabbar asks.

It’s a mess activists like Jabbar have been left to clean up.

Story by Nikita Mehta, Mint. Date: 2 December 2014

bhopal in the grip of history

Ruins of the Union Carbide India Ltd plant. Photo: AFP

History offers a premonition of what will be repeated. The repetition reveals that we did not learn our lessons, or that we misread history. Bhopal seems set for exactly that kind of a horrifying rerun. 

It has been 30 years since the world's worst industrial disaster asphyxiated Bhopal. From that point, we have been uninterruptedly talking of the lessons to be learnt. Brilliant minds from every part of the globe have invested their wisdom in understanding the consequences of Bhopal and the resultant lessons to be learnt. Each has this paramount concern: Bhopal should not be allowed to happen again anywhere in the world. 

The most pertinent question here, obviously, would be: what really caused the disaster? Answers to that question have led to one unanimous prescription: tougher laws to regulate safety systems in dangerous plants.

But I feel that we are missing the finer points, especially the one which is the most crucial. It relates to corporate greed for profits, and a wholly corrupt system that works hand in hand with corporate interests to violate all safety rules. 

We cannot afford to ignore the fact that we are living in an age of extreme complexity—Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is jolting us right now. Growing money power of corporations in this era of globalization is sweeping away our concerns for the environment and human life. At any rate, human life is being appraised in euros and dollars. 

The case of Bhopal is the most glaring example of this devaluation of humanity because of which the state happily agreed to bail out Union Carbide Corp. from criminal proceedings in return for the paltry sum of $470 million. It meant just 50 cents for each Carbide share.

Another vital aspect that needs to be studied and thoroughly understood is the aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy. It has been, in fact, much more apocalyptic than the disaster itself. These 30 years after the leak have yielded greater shock, despair and disbelief for the survivors. Their lives have been beset with unending mental and physical suffering. They walk like characters of Greek tragedies—doomed to eternal misery and death.

The case of Bhopal is the most glaring example of this devaluation of humanity because of which the state happily agreed to bail out Union Carbide Corp. from criminal proceedings in return for the paltry sum of $470 million. It meant just 50 cents for each Carbide share.

The aftermath exposed the unpreparedness to deal with medical care and social and economic rehabilitation of the survivors. It exposed the political system which chose to collude with a criminal corporation rather than ease the torment of its own people. It also demonstrated the nonchalance of the so-called justice in US courts and the inability of the Indian judicial system to dispense justice to victims even in 30 years. And the verdict which was delivered on 7 June 2010, by the Bhopal district court appeared to have been based on the dictum that in the long run, we are all dead. Hence, it seemed, it’s not a big deal if people died in Bhopal.

The court verdict, coming after 26 years, pronounced seven accused people guilty of causing death by negligence, under section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code. The quantum of punishment was two years’ imprisonment. A simple calculation will tell you that two years’ imprisonment for seven people for causing the death of 25,000 innocent people comes to just 35 minutes in jail for each death. 

But this is what should make us gasp: the accused were granted instant bail for a surety of Rs.25,000 each—a rupee against each death. 

It would not be out of place to draw public attention to a dismaying tactic adopted in the Bhopal case. In March 1985, the Union government took away the rights of the victims to sue killer Carbide and appointed itself as the sole representative of the victims. It entered an out of court settlement with Union Carbide in February 1989. 

The Supreme Court put a seal of approval on this dubious deal, granting Union Carbide immunity from "…all past, present and future claims, causes of action and civil and criminal proceedings by all Indian citizens…" No citizen of Bhopal was consulted in any manner by any forum. 

The accused were granted instant bail for a surety of Rs.25,000 each—a rupee against each death.

Similarly, on 7 June 2010, when the Bhopal district court was to pronounce its verdict in the criminal case, restored after the 1989 settlement was challenged, none of the gas survivors were allowed inside the court. Only the seven accused, their lawyers and a Central Bureau of Investigation team were let in. When I insisted on entry into the courtroom as one of the petitioners on whose plea the criminal case was restored in October 1991, the police retorted with brute force. These were the very same policemen who have been receiving the accused such as Keshub Mahindra and V.P. Gokhale at the court gate with the salutation of sir. 

One feels fearful about the fate of the future generations because these travesties suggest that we have not learnt a single lesson in the decades following the disaster. In 2010 I worked for an ESPN documentary project, The Children of Bhopal. The soil in and around the abandoned Union Carbide plant had been heavily contaminated by toxic materials used and dumped in the adjoining areas. People still live here with their children, without being aware of the danger beneath their feet. Though several diseases are commonplace among the residents of the area, authorities are unwilling to see that the poison is the cause of the damaging effects on the sufferers.

Indeed, there is no authority to save these children. Warnings from concerned individuals get a poignant response: Aur kahan khelenge? Doosri koi jagah hi nahin hai (Where else will we play? There is no other open space for us). 

The toxins from the dumps of the Union Carbide plant had seeped into the ground and contaminated the drinking water source of a nearby habitation. This peril has made some non-governmental organisations engage in an exhausting battle just to get safe water. Court intervention has brought some relief but is not enough. Similarly, the problem of disposing of toxic materials lying within the factory premises is still unresolved. 

It is going to be a challenging task for all those who care for the preservation of the environment—and of humanity—to find hope for the victims. 

These days companies audaciously sell their products with slogans like daag achhe hain (blots are good) with the help of media. In fact, a book by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, elaborates on the bleak tale of polluter companies using public relation agencies to justify every wrong. 

Today's PR professionals are recruited from the ranks of former journalists, retired politicians, and eager-beaver college graduates anxious to rise in the corporate world.

To conclude, I will borrow a thought from this highly provocative, eye-opener of a book: “'Publicity’ was once the work of carnival hawkers and penny-ante hustlers smoking cheap cigars and wearing cheap suits. Today’s PR professionals are recruited from the ranks of former journalists, retired politicians, and eager-beaver college graduates anxious to rise in the corporate world.” 

Rajkumar Keswani is a senior journalist. He had written several stories about the poor safety standards at the Union Carbide plant before the accident occurred. Story here. Date: 1 December 2014

is india better prepared in 2014?

Photo: Press Trust of India

In 1984, the Bhopal gas tragedy shook the nation. The scale of it was numbing—more than 3,500 people died and 500,000 were injured in the immediate aftermath of the leak of methyl isocyanate gas from Union Carbide India Ltd's pesticide factory. Generations have been left maimed.

What followed, however, was the realization that if industrial development was unregulated and reckless—without adequate safeguards—the consequences could be far-reaching. Alongside, the demand grew for accountability of industries that engage in potentially hazardous activities.

Thirty years on, it is pertinent to ask: Is India any better prepared today to deal with a similar tragedy? The question acquires greater urgency amid a robust move by the government to promote manufacturing by foreign companies in India.

Thirty years on, it is pertinent to ask: Is India any better prepared today to deal with a similar tragedy?

Bhopal prompted a massive change in the legislative framework of disaster management and a number of laws were passed in its aftermath. The judiciary began taking an active role in environmental protection. Nearly exactly a year to the Bhopal gas tragedy—on 4 and 6 December 1985—the judiciary evolved what came to be called the Doctrine of Absolute Responsibility in a case of oleum gas leak from a Delhi Cloths Mill factory owned by Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries in Delhi.

To what extent are these laws relevant today? Have they been effectively used? Or is there a need for a more comprehensive law?

According to the website of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), 130 chemical accidents had been reported around the country in the decade to October 2013, causing 259 deaths and 563 serious injuries.

Since 1984, there have been several other industrial accidents, including a chlorine gas leak at Jamshedpur (2008), a fire at an Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) platform at Bombay High (2005), a toluene fire at a Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd factory in Mohali (2003) and a chlorine gas leak in Vadodara (2002) that affected 250 people.

In some cases, chemical accidents resulted from natural disasters—ammonia gas leaked at Oswal Chemicals and Fertilisers Ltd at Paradip, Odisha, in 1999 during a supercyclone, and an earthquake damaged a phosphoric acid sludge containment at Bhuj, Gujarat, in 2001.

Clearly, India can boast of more than enough laws to tackle a chemical disaster. However, the effectiveness of these laws needs to be assessed.

Since 1984, there have been several other industrial accidents, including a chlorine gas leak at Jamshedpur (2008), a fire at an Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) platform at Bombay High (2005), a toluene fire at a Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd factory in Mohali (2003) and a chlorine gas leak in Vadodara (2002) that affected 250 people.

One important change that followed Bhopal and the oleum gas leak case came in 1987, when the Factories Act, 1948, was amended to extend the scope of risk from such industries. What used to be a narrowly defined scope covering only workers and the premises of the factory 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.

Lawyer Anil Divan, who appeared for Union Carbide before the Supreme Court in the Bhopal case, said: "Once government allows setting up a factory manufacturing hazardous substances or is otherwise hazardous, if an accident occurs, it is essential for government to ensure an adequate buffer zone and not permit people to stay around in that zone or allow any business shops or constructions therein. Sufficient space must be kept in the buffer zone so that if something goes wrong or an accident occurs, the people are not affected. That is one lesson which must be implemented and vigorously enforced to avoid loss of life and injury.

"On 20 December 1986, in a public interest litigation filed by environmental lawyer M.C. Mehta, a five-judge bench of the apex court defined “absolute liability”.

“We are of the view that an enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which it has undertaken,” the judgement said.

It noted that compensation needs to have a “deterrent effect” and must be reflect the “magnitude and capacity of the enterprise”. The larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it, the court said.

According to legal expert Usha Ramanathan, who has written extensively about the Bhopal disaster, “When you look at the Factories Act, Chapter IV A got added after Bhopal, there are a few things that are particularly significant. One is the question of siting—that is, how you locate an industry. Where there are large populations and the industry that actually exists, we do not seem to know what to do with it. Except in Delhi where they outlawed all such industries, courts have found siting to be a complicated exercise. But at least we are aware of (the issue of) siting.”

“The second is about the disaster management plan. It is a complete disaster. They are supposed to have disaster management plans that local authorities—which include hospitals, fire stations and the like—will know and are supposed to communicate to the local people what they are supposed to do in the event of a disaster. These plans are also supposed to be updated regularly. Many companies have disaster management plans for themselves, but what we learnt from Bhopal was the importance of communication on disaster to the local population. This has still not happened and people live in the vicinity of disaster and have no idea what a disaster is, what is likely to happen and what they are supposed to do in the event that it happens. People continue to live treating a hazardous industry as just another risk,” Ramanathan added.

The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, also has provisions for management of hazardous waste, but the rules were last amended in 2010. In the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster, the environment ministry came up with the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Substances Rules, 1989, which detail and catalogue chemicals deemed “hazardous” entering the country, the port of entry and the quantity imported.

Many companies have disaster management plans for themselves, but what we learnt from Bhopal was the importance of communication on disaster to the local population. This has still not happened.

In addition, the Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, provide for means of safe storage and disposal of “hazardous waste” (which is listed in its schedules) with the help of central and state pollution control boards. These rules also fix responsibility on those who have control over a facility dealing with such hazardous substances, and those who import, handle or transport such waste, making them “liable for all damages caused to the environment or third party” as well as payment of “financial penalties”.

In addition, there is the Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness, and Response) Rules, 1996, which address gas leaks and similar events. The Chemical Accidents Rules seem to have been framed for the exact purpose of monitoring plants or industries like the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. It sets up a Central Crisis Committee with the secretary of the environment ministry as chairman and twenty other members “to deal with major chemical accidents and to provide expert guidance for handling major chemical accidents”. It has provisions for state-, district- and even local-level crisis groups.

These rules define both “chemical accident” and a “major chemical accident”. They define a chemical accident as “an accident involving a fortuitous or sudden or unintended occurrence while handling any hazardous chemicals resulting in continuous, intermittent or repeated exposure to death, or injury to, any person or damage to any property but does not include an accident by reason only of war or radio-activity”. Major chemical accidents are those which occur from “uncontrolled developments in the course of industrial activity or transportation or due to natural events” and extend to “adverse effects” on the environment. The Bhopal gas leak disaster would thus be a “major chemical accident”.

The central crisis group is required to constantly monitor post-accident situations, conduct analyses of these accidents and suggest preventive steps to avoid recurrence. Apart from being generic and to some extent vague, the rules don’t provide for any accountability or deterrence against the industries actually involved in these processes.

Next in India’s response was the Public Liability Insurance Act in 1991, which was supposed to provide for immediate and interim relief to disaster victims till their claims of compensation were finally decided. A cursory look at the provisions of this law shows that the amount of compensation is abysmally low and that it fails to provide for something basic such as inflation indexation. Owners of industries dealing in hazardous substances are required to take out insurance policies under this Act. While on the one hand it requires the insurance policy to not be less than the paid-up share capital of the company, on the other, it imposes a cap of Rs50 crore on the policy. The provisions of the Act could seem dated in the present-day scenario. In a system where it takes years for such claims to be decided, the compensation under this law is completely inadequate.

“Under this law, the hazardous industries were supposed to take out insurance within one year. At the end of one year, they found that nobody had taken insurance because the insurance companies were unwilling to insure them. They argued that if we have unlimited liability, even if the figures are meagre, in terms of the quantum that has to be given, if there is another Bhopal, they would be wiped out since the number of people to be compensated would be too large. So they asked for a ceiling on how much they have to pay,” says Ramanathan.

An attempt was then made to set up a National Environment Tribunal in 1995 to deal with a Bhopal-like disaster, but it was never enforced. The idea was that the Public Liability Insurance Act would provide interim relief and that the tribunal would determine the final compensation. This responsibility now rests with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which was set up by an Act of Parliament in 2010. The Act also provides for the “principle of no fault liability”, which means that the company can be held liable even if it had done everything in its power to prevent the accident. This principle still provides for exceptions like natural disasters. The compensation that is ordered to be paid by the NGT is credited to the Environmental Relief Fund scheme, 2008, established under Public Liability Insurance Act of 1991.

In 2013, the NGT fined the Gujarat Pollution Control Board and cement company Ambuja Cements Ltd in a case involving leakage of toxic gases that damaged agricultural fields. While the Gujarat Pollution Control Board was fined Rs1 lakh, the company was fined Rs5 lakh. From the facts of the case, it is clear that the compensation was decided between the affected farmers and the company, and that the NGT did not determine the amount.

The NDMA had, in 2007, published a 98-page guideline on chemical disasters. The guidelines were intended to be a “proactive, participatory, well-structured, fail-safe,multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approach” to tackle chemical disasters. Through the seven chapters, various aspects including existing gaps in the management of chemical accidents, regulatory framework, preparedness, transportation of hazardous chemicals have been discussed. (The report can be accessed at mintne.ws/1rNx9KW.)

“Disasters like Bhopal are very few in number in the history of humanity. What you have every year is a small Bhopal which doesn’t stick in people’s consciousness. The kind of disaster management that should have taken place has not happened,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment . “Bhopal is not just about the leak of a lethal gas, it is also about contamination of the environment. The disposal of toxic waste dumped by the factory has still not happened. Bhopal is also a reminder that the capacity of the institutions in this country to resolve conflict was and remains poor. That is why there is still a feeling that the guilty were never held accountable.

Disasters like Bhopal are very few in number in the history of humanity. What you have every year is a small Bhopal which doesn't stick in people’s consciousness. The kind of disaster management that should have taken place has not happened.

Environmental lawyer M.C. Mehta said: “I don’t think we have learnt much from the Bhopal disaster so far. Most of the laws are still on paper and their enforcement is poor. What Bhopal and the many accidents that have followed it show us is that we only talk, but the affected persons are not given compensation and no liability is fixed on erring companies. Now the Prime Minister of India is talking about 'Make in India’ and the government wants to give fast-track clearances without looking at their impact on the environment. If we can give fast-track clearances, why can’t we set up fast-track courts to deal with claims arising out of such accidents?”

With the experience of Bhopal serving as a sobering of the poor implementation of the nation’s abundant legislation, experts are wary about India’s planned move to embrace nuclear energy.

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, is the most recent law that has provision for compensation of more than Rs100 crore, which could reach up to Rs1,500 crore, depending on severity. It also comes with a cap of three million special drawing rights (SDR), an international reserve asset that countries can use to supplement their official reserves. The constitutional validity of this Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court and the case is pending.

“The atomic power plants which have completed their lifespan of 30-40 years have still not been decommissioned since there is no proper mechanism for that. Even the Nuclear Liability Act is inadequate to deal with such disasters,” said environmental lawyer Mehta.

“In Kudankulam (nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu), if you ask around, you will find that there has been no safety drill at all. There is no learning from the past,” Ramanathan added.

Story by Apoorva and Shreeja Sen, Mint. Date: 2 December 2014