Industrial disaster in Bhopal – 39 years and questions

We all pray for the victims of one of the biggest industrial disasters that occurred 39 years back on December 02 and 03, 1984, in Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh. There have been many questions since – was justice served with US$470 million as compensation and building a hospital in Bhopal? Should there […]

We all pray for the victims of one of the biggest industrial disasters that occurred 39 years back on December 02 and 03, 1984, in Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
There have been many questions since – was justice served with US$470 million as compensation and building a hospital in Bhopal? Should there be additional compensation for the victim’s families and survivors? What about the settlement of the survivors or managing the impact of deadly gas on the next generations? These questions have gone through judicial scrutiny again and again. The Supreme Court in the judgement asked the Government of India to fill in if there were any future requirements for being a welfare state. This seems to settle the issue of financial support.
A fundamental question that is often missed is – what was or is being done to restore the accident?
Since the time of the accident, the area has been in the same state even today. I did visit the site sometime back. While I was not allowed into the premises, from outside, I could see the rusted machines, pipes, hanging wires, and scattered bags of chemicals and raw materials from outside. These chemicals slowly leach into sub-soil water with every rain. Communities around use hand pumps to get this water for their consumption. Piped water has reached some localities but contaminated groundwater is still in use. The dried contaminated soil and chemicals pollute the air.
The plant was owned by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), listed on the Calcutta Stock Exchange. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) owned 50.9% shares. This plant produced agrochemicals for the Indian market and used Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) as an ingredient for the pesticides. MIC’s accidental leak exposed thousands of residents of the city, mainly those who were living in the proximity of the plant. MIC is widely used to make polyurethane foam, pesticides, and plastics.
There were multiple cases filed till 1986 when the Government of India (GoI) filed a civil suit against UCC. The litigation reached the Supreme Court (SC) of India in 1988. Congress Government at the Centre agreed to settle with UCC and UCIL in the Supreme Court of India for a compensation of US$470 million. The compensation was promptly settled by UCC and UCIL. This brought resolution of all the civil cases and criminal cases were quashed. The criminal case was reopened again. Later in 1994, UCC was allowed by the SC to sell its stakes in UCIL for US$90 million to McLeod Russel India Limited. UCIL was renamed by McLeod Russel as Eveready Industries India Limited (EIIL). The amount realised after sales of UCC shares was used to build a state-of-the-art multidisciplinary hospital in Bhopal to treat the survivors free of cost. I have been to the hospital – it competes with one of the best private-sector hospitals in India. UCC exists as an independent global company but has no presence in India. Dow Chemical acquired the shares of UCC in 2001.
The perpetual environmental catastrophe from the accident site and un-remediated plant for the past 14235 days is a cause of very serious concern. Civil society has been closely monitoring the spread of chemical pollutants in subsoil water.
It is still unclear who is accountable for the restoration of the impacted site. Is it the Ministry of Environment & Forests or the Ministry of Chemicals & Fertilizers of GoI or the State Government of Madhya Pradesh or the polluter i.e. UCIL/EIIL? Civil society should be raising questions and pushing for site remediation to stop further contamination and damage. The civil society groups include Bhopal Group for Information & Action, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila, Purush Sangharsh Morcha and even Dr Sunita Narain of CSE who has done a lot for the environmental causes. Serious attention to this issue is for the larger good of the survivors and the generations to come.
India aspires to be an industrialised nation to stand in the league of Japan, USA, Germany and China. Indian industry and Government endeavours to operate on ‘zero’ accidents. While even the most advanced industrial countries have accidents and disasters, we all need to make efforts to manage tragedies, contain the damages and remain vigilant for the future. It is important to learn from the crisis, modify our SOP and strengthen the laws to regulate industrial safety. And we have learnt our lessons from this accident.
The continuous environmental pollution, even today, being caused by the unfortunate Bhopal accident site does not tell a good story of an industrialised nation.
A recent example of a tragic accident managed effectively is the massive train crash on June 02, 2023. Three trains collided in eastern India killing 296 people and 1220 injured.  It was one of the deadliest train disasters in Indian history. We did not leave bogies scattered and rail tracks broken. Ashwani Vaishnav, Rail Minister got personally involved and had the site cleaned and repaired to restore the traffic. The families of the deceased were compensated and the injured were provided treatment. This kind of disaster relief, rehabilitation and restoration was not implemented for the people of Bhopal, who are still living with the impacts of the past. We are not doing justice to the people of Bhopal letting them live in the polluted environment.
Sections of civil society have objected to site restoration by saying that India does not have the technical know-how to remediate 85 acres of plant site. This argument undermines India’s industrial competence – we run one of the world’s biggest refineries, and massive sea ports and our agrochemical production is 4th biggest in the world at about US$8 Bn. We have a vibrant shipbreaking industry in India. We can handle waste of all kinds very efficiently and successfully.
What India needs is the will to take the decisions and measures to clean the site; a memorial to remember those who lost their life and an advanced institute on disaster management to help industrial India to become a safer place to work.

Rakesh K Chitkara runs public policy practice for India and the UAE and has decades of leadership experience with large multinational corporations in South Asia.