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The Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Causes, Affects, & Why Centre Tried to Reopen the Case in 2022

The Supreme Court of India dismisses the Central Government’s plea seeking further compensation for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

Aarushi Chadha
On the evening of December 2nd, 1984, a plant operator noticed a small leak of MIC and the increasing pressure inside the storage tank
On the evening of December 2nd, 1984, a plant operator noticed a small leak of MIC and the increasing pressure inside the storage tank

On Tuesday, March 13 the Supreme Court of India dismissed the central government’s plea seeking additional compensation from UCC (Union Carbide Corporation) for the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. The government seeks Rs 7,400 additional compensation from the successor firm of UCC, Dow Chemical Company.

What is the Bhopal Gas Tragedy?

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy or Bhopal Disaster is a chemical leak that took place in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. At the time of the incident, it was declared the worst industrial accident in history. On the fateful night of 3rd December 1984, approximately 45 tonnes of methyl isocyanate, a dangerous gas, escaped from an insecticide plant owned by the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation.

The gas leak created an immediate panic as thousands of people immediately died from exposure to the toxic gas after it spread to the neighboring densely populated area. Estimates tend to vary on the death toll. While the official number of initial deaths is approximately 3,000, however, it is claimed that somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 people perished.

In 2008, the Government of Madhya Pradesh paid compensation to the family members of at least 3,787 victims that were killed in the gas tragedy and to the 5 lakh injured victims. In 1989, Union Carbide Corporation paid $470 million to settle the litigation that stemmed from the disaster. There were civil and criminal cases filed in the United States against UCC and the chief executive officer of the UCC at the time of the disaster.

Causes of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

In the 1970s, Union Carbide Corporation decided to build a plant for the manufacture of Sevin, a pesticide commonly used throughout Asia. At first, the plant was authorized to formulate pesticides from methyl isocyanate (MIC) that was imported from the parent company. However, stiff competition in the chemical industry led Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) to start manufacturing raw materials and its intermediate products for formulation of the final product.

In 1984, UCIL made plans to dismantle key production units in India due to decreased demand for pesticides because of widespread crop failures and famine in the subcontinent. At the same time, the facility was operating with safety equipment and procedures that were far below the standards, something that the local government was aware of.

On the evening of December 2nd, 1984, a plant operator noticed a small leak of MIC and the increasing pressure inside the storage tank. This was caused by a faulty valve that had allowed water to mix with MIC which led to a vigorous exothermic reaction in the tank that continued to build over a long time.

After the safety valve gave way, MIC gas was released into the air. Within hours, the streets of Bhopal were filled with the corpses of thousands of people, dogs, and cattle. Effects of overexposure to Sevin, which is a toxic pesticide for humans, can lead to excessive discharge from the nose, mouth-watering, sweating, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, causes defects in offspring, and convulsions.

The toxicity of Methyl isocyanate or MIC, which is used to make Sevin, leads to cough, chest pain, eyelid edema, dyspnea, and unconsciousness. As the effects progress, the person can also experience acute lung injury, cardiac arrest, and death within the next 24 to 72 hours. At the time of the incident, doctors were not prepared to deal with MIC toxicity. The gas leak not only impacted human beings and animals but also impacted the trees, causing the neighbouring area to become barren.

Long-Term Health Effects of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Some of the reported long-term health effects of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy are-

  • Chronic bronchitis

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • High rate of birth defects

  • High rate of miscarriages

  • Intellectual impairment

  • Stunted growth

Central Government Seeks More Compensation from Union Carbide Corporation in 2022

A Constitution bench headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and comprising Justice J K Maheshwar, Justice Vikram Nath, Justice Abhay S Oka, and Justice Sanjiv Khanna, rejected the petition filed by the centre to reopen the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case and seek additional compensation from the successor firms of Union Carbide Corporation.

The Centre argued that Dow Chemical Company, the successor firm of UCC should be directed to pay an additional compensation of Rs 7,844 crore to the victims of the tragedy because the enormity of the actual damage to human lives and the environment could not be assessed properly at the time of settlement in 1989.

"We are unsatisfied with the Union of India for not furnishing any rationale for raking up this issue after two decades. Settlement can be set aside only on the ground of fraud. No ground of fraud has been pleaded by the Union of India," observed the five-judge bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul.

The Court added that the Centre was unable to provide any rationale for bringing up this matter after 30-plus years of the settlement. It also directed the Centre to use a sum of Rs 50 crore that is with the Reserve Bank of India to clear any pending compensation claims. The Centre had previously filed a petition in 2010 for more compensation.

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