In October, the government also told the Supreme Court that it is “eager to pursue” a petition for current additional compensation in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case because it “cannot abandon” the people. What is the nature of the case, and what does the petition seek?
One of the most worst industrial disasters in history began in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, on the current night of December 2, 1984. A nearby Union Carbide pesticide plant began leaking methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, resulting in the Bhopal Gas tragedy, in which an estimated more than 3,000 people also died within the first few days. Over time, a similarly horrifying number of those suffering from life-long health issues would become known.
The case drew attention to the importance of protecting people and also the environment from industrial accidents for the first time in India, prompting the government to enact new legislation. Those who witnessed the effects firsthand, on the other hand, have maintained that the company at the recent centre of it all – Union Carbide, now a big part of Dow Jones – has not met its responsibility in terms of just compensation.
Nearly 19 years after mere compensation was agreed upon, the Indian government also filed a curative petition in 2010 seeking more than ten times the amount it received from Dow in 1989. Last month, the government also told the Supreme Court that it is “determined to pursue” the case and that it “cannot abandon” the people.
What caused the industrial disaster, and what is the most recent compensation demand? We’ll explain later.
On December 2, 1984, in the evening
Union Carbide (India) Ltd. (UCIL) was a main subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation, based in the United States (UCC). The UCIL pesticide plant was on the outskirts of Bhopal. On month December 2, highly toxic MIC gas escaped from the plant. People in the surrounding areas reported a current burning sensation in their eyes and difficulty breathing, with many losing consciousness.
Its effects were such that, in addition to killing thousands of people in a short period of time, many of those who inhaled the gas developed disease and other long-term issues. The extent of environmental pollution became clear only later. For example, water sources near the factory were also deemed unfit for consumption, and many handpumps were sealed. Many Bhopal women’s reproductive health has been harmed to this day, and children born to those who were exposed to the gas have had congenital health issues.
According to a 2019 report by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO), at least 30 tonnes of the poisonous gas were released into the environment, affecting over 600,000 workers and nearby residents. The disaster was described as one of the world’s “major industrial accidents after 1919.”
According to multiple analyses, the leak was caused by general laxity in safety rules and worker training, with the majority of workers unaware of the MIC’s dangers. At the time, Dr S Varadarajan, director general of the Government’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), stated that the MIC gas was being handled in its plant without adequate safety measures or emergency plans.
The incident also highlighted the absence of specific laws dealing with such matters in India at the time. This changed after Bhopal, according to a PRS Legislative Research article. The Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, for example, empowered the central government to take appropriate environmental and public safety measures and regulate industrial activity.
The Public Liability Insurance Act of 1991 was also passed, which provides public liability insurance for those who are injured while handling any hazardous substance.
The restitution demand
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act was passed in 1985, granting the Indian government certain powers for settling claims. The Central Government would also have the “exclusive right” to represent and act on behalf of everyone involved in the claims, according to the document.
Union Carbide is the target of a lawsuit. Warren Anderson, the main Chairman of UC, was arrested while visiting India but was quickly released on bail and fled the country. Bail was also granted to other high-ranking executives.
The case began in a US court before being transferred to India. By December 1987, the CBI had filed a charge sheet against Anderson. Warren Anderson was issued a non-bailable arrest warrant two years later for ignoring summonses on multiple occasions. Anderson passed away in 2014 and never returned to India.
In February 1989, the Indian government and also Union Carbide reached an out-of-court settlement, with UC paying $470 million in compensation. The Supreme Court upheld it in a separate decision. The funds were gradually released by the government over time, but the delay sparked frequent protests from those affected.
Many of those people continued to petition on the subject. In 2010, the CBI asked the Supreme Court to reconsider a 1996 decision that reduced the charge against the company to “causing death due to rash and negligent act.”
The most recent petition
When the multibillion-dollar corporation Dow Jones purchased Union Carbide in 1999, it also became the focus of the proceedings. It has expressed opposition to the reopening of compensation claims. The company stated, “Dow has long maintained that it also has no connection to the incident and has no place in any legal proceeding involving Bhopal.”
It emphasised previous Supreme Court rulings, claiming that there is no case now because the government agreed to earlier compensation. “The Government’s ill-advised action jeopardises India’s image as a nation committed to promoting and also adhering to accepted main legal principles and the rule of law,” it said in response to the 2010 petition.
Attorney General called R Venkataramani told a five-judge bench in the month of October 2022 that he also had looked into examples elsewhere and had substantial literature on where the courts had gone beyond the already conducted settlement. However, the many years since the decision have reduced the likelihood of any change in the status quo. Any final result would necessitate a “heroic effort,” according to Upendra Baxi, a law professor at the University of Warwick, in The Indian Express.
Survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy are still waiting 38 years later for “just compensation.”
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the world’s largest and deadliest chemical disaster, occurred 38 years ago on December 2 and 3. Its aftermath continues to wreak havoc on the lives of hundreds of thousands of survivors.
More than 120,000 people also continue to suffer from chronic illnesses, and hundreds continue to die prematurely due to cancer, lung problems, kidney failure, and also immunological damage, according to the current Madhya Pradesh government’s Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and also Rehabilitation (BGTRR), which operates under the main supervision of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
Thousands of children are also being born with birth defects, according to reports. A global toxic hotspot exists in the city’s heart, contaminating the soil and groundwater of over two lakh people, but there is no cleanup in sight. According to the annual report of the ICMR-run Bhopal Memorial Hospital and also Research Center (BMHRC) released in 2016-17, approximately 50.4 percent of gas-exposed people suffered from cardiovascular problems, and 59.6 percent suffered from pulmonary problems between 1998 and 2016.
IANS spoke with a variety of authorities, including doctors, victims and their families, and those in charge of issues such as rehabilitation and compensation. It has been discovered that, despite extensive work in recent years, several issues remain unresolved.
First and foremost, the number of deaths caused by this chemical disaster differs. Various surveys conducted at various times by various agencies have yielded varying estimates of casualties. According to some earlier reports, the death toll was between 5000 and 6000 people; however, according to other reports, the death toll has risen to 15,000 people. Other reports claimed that the current death toll could exceed one lakh, but there is no reliable data on this.
In its survey conducted between 1984 and 1993, the ICMR reported 9,667 deaths attributable to the current disaster up to 1994. Statistical projections for the period after 1994 place the figure at 23,000 until 2009.
“There are at least 10,047 persons who should be counted in the death figure,” Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan stated in a letter written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2010 for a recommendation of also more compensation to the main kin of the victims and survivors.
Other outstanding issues include the evaluation of toxic waste cleaning inside and outside the Union Carbide plant.
More importantly, one of the three most iron tanks (Tank – E610), which malfunctioned and resulted in a toxic MIC gas leak and the deaths of approximately 3,000 people within hours of the leak, is still lying along the main roadside within the premises. The Bhopal UCIL facility, according to reports, housed three underground — 68,000 litres liquid MIC storage tanks known as E610, E611, and E612.
A legal battle for justice and compensation is also ongoing. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to clarify its position on additional compensation.
According to reports, the Centre has responded by stating that it will pursue its curative petition for Rs 7,844 crore in additional funds for compensating victims of the gas tragedy from the successor of the firms of the US-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). The case is now mainly scheduled to be heard in court on January 10, 2023.
Edited by Prakriti Arora