On 3 December 1984, India woke up to one of the worst industrial disasters in Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India. The accident happened due to the leak of 27 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) in a pesticide plant at the outskirts of city of Bhopal. MIC is a chemical used in the manufacture of polyurethane foam, pesticides and plastics. Thousands died, many injured and a number of women delivering children with deformities in the aftermath of the incident. Independent India was just 37 years old at the time, the economy was not in good shape, and disaster management protocols were untested or non-existent. The country was also struggling after the assassination of then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi same year on October 31 which resulted in the revenge riots in many parts.
The pesticide manufacturing plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) which was subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) with headquarters in the USA. UCIL was listed on Calcutta Stock Exchange, with Keshub Mahindra as the non-executive Chairman of UCIL Board. Shares were held by Indian public, FII’s and majority (50.9%) was with the UCC. Multiple cases were filed in different courts and the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s premier investigating agency, was asked to investigate and fix criminal accountability. Late Warren Anderson, then Chairman of UCC, came to India to assess the ground reality and landed in Bhopal knowing well the anger was mounting on the ground. However, the government of Madhya Pradesh escorted him out of the city to avoid assaults by the angry citizens.
India was going through an economic downturn. However, there was no dearth of concerned fellow citizens who came forward to help the victims. These included young students in premier institutions who left their careers and devoted their lives to rehabilitate the impacted citizens living in the proximity of the accident site. They continue working for victims and have become the part of the community there.
There were multiple litigations till 1986 when Government of India filed civil suit against UCC. The litigation finally reached the Supreme Court (SC) of India in 1988. Rajiv Gandhi’s government at the Centre agreed to settle with UCC and UCIL in the Supreme Court for a compensation of US$ 470 million. The compensation was paid within a few days by UCC and UCIL. This resolved all civil cases and quashed the criminal proceedings.
Later in 1994, UCC was also allowed to sell its stake in UCIL to Mcleod Russel India Limited for ~US$90 million and UCIL was renamed Eveready Industries India Limited, a company that still exists today. The amount realized after the sales of UCC shares was retained in India and utilized to build a multispecialty hospital in Bhopal to treat impacted survivors free of cost and this hospital continues to work and serve the victims. In 2001, Dow acquired UCC globally as a wholly owned subsidiary.
Has Bhopal moved on since then? No!
The accident site in Bhopal is in the same state today. The rusted plant and machinery, hanging wires, overgrown weeds, the chemical raw material in rotten bags and much more remains at the site. Since then, Bhopal has also witnessed 38 monsoons and it is believed that some of the chemicals leached and polluted the sub soil water. In a recent representation by the NGO’s working in the area has written to the state government to expand piped water supplies as 29 additional colonies in vicinity has organochlorine contamination in the ground water.
While the settlement was done under the court’s watch, the issue was opened again in 2010. A curative petition was filed in SC by Government of India to seek an additional compensation of over US$1Bn (about Rs. 8000 crore). So, the liability which was considered closed opened again.
Both the Central and the State Governments continue to commit resources to ensure that welfare schemes remain uninterrupted for the survivor victims. Madhya Pradesh Government has dedicated department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation. The NGOs are adding their best efforts to support the survivors. However, there is no closure of the accident for people of Bhopal to move on.
The accident has had economic and reputational impact as well.
In December 1984, when the accident happened, a team of senior executives of Monsanto were already in India to explore the possibilities of joint investments in manufacturing one of their herbicides with Hindustan Insecticide Limited (HIL), a Government of India’s enterprise. The discussion got stalled and never progressed.
India has been an energy deficit country with major dependence on thermal power to meet its requirements. There is an urgent need to diversify into better technologies, sources and to reduce the carbon foot prints. Nuclear energy is one of the important components of the strategy and energy mix. US corporation, General Electric was to set up nuclear power plant in Andhra Pradesh. It never saw the light of the day as the company expected Government of India to create the statutory provision in the law to cap the liability. EDF, a French corporation has yet to make progress on proposed nuclear plant in Maharashtra and liability is one of the areas of difference between EDF and Government of India. Dow could not pursue their ambitious manufacturing plans in India as Bhopal issue remains unresolved. Most recently, India did not get the COVID vaccines from global healthcare companies who wanted to be indemnified from any future liabilities from the use of their vaccines.
Resolution of this issue is important. We, as nation, need to demonstrate our solution-based approach and bring finality to the issues to move on. Compensation to Bhopal needs to be adequate, final and to be decided quickly. We have adequate technological competence to remediate the site, dismantle the plant and clear the soil surface to stop further leaching of the chemicals, if any. We surely do not want to forget those who lost their lives – the accident site can be converted into a memorial. And state of the art research center for industrial safety and the training institute at the site can not only provide the learning from the accident but also avoid any future accidents as we move into an industrial economy. More and more people are going to work in the manufacturing sector, focus on safety is paramount. Bhopal must be remembered and known as the center of learning on industrial safety and excellence and people of Bhopal deserve this.
Rakesh K Chitkara has led public policy practice for major US corporations including Abbott Lab, General Electric, Dow Chemical and Monsanto. He is also Group Advisor to Indian Chamber of Food and Agriculture