Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy or the Bhopal Disaster is considered as the world’s worst industrial disaster in the history of mankind. This disaster occurred on the night of 2nd December 1984 in Bhopal (present capital of Madhya Pradesh) at UCIL (Union Carbide India Ltd.). The people around the industry were exposed to methyl isocyanate and some other types of chemicals as well. These chemicals were spread all over the shanty towers and other areas around the plant. Although not many people were dead immediately more than five lakhs became victims of these chemicals and suffered a lot. The government and survey team confirmed a total of 3787 deaths.

bhopal tragedy

The estimate of victims was not cleared before but later the number was found to be more than five lakh. Out of this, about 39 thousand people were partially injured and about four thousand had permanent diseases and injuries. Since the tragedy, around 14 thousand people had died out of which two thousand died immediately and about eight thousand died within a week or so after the disaster.

The cause of the disaster remains under debate. The Indian government and local activists argue that slack management and deferred maintenance created a situation where routine pipe maintenance caused a backflow of water into a MIC tank, triggering the disaster. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) contends water entered the tank through an act of sabotage.

The owner of the factory, UCIL, was majority owned by UCC, with Indian Government-controlled banks and the Indian public holding a 49.1 percent stake. In 1989, UCC paid $470 million ($907 million in 2014 dollars) to settle litigation stemming from the disaster. In 1994, UCC sold its stake in UCIL to Eveready Industries India Limited (EIIL), which subsequently merged with McLeod Russel (India) Ltd. Eveready ended clean-up on the site in 1998 when it terminated its 99-year lease and turned over control of the site to the state government of Madhya Pradesh. Dow Chemical Company purchased UCC in 2001, seventeen years after the disaster.

Civil and criminal cases were filed in the District Court of Bhopal, India, involving UCC and Warren Anderson, UCC CEO at the time of the disaster. In June 2010, seven former employees, including the former UCIL chairman, were convicted in Bhopal of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of about $2,000 each, the maximum punishment allowed by Indian law. An eighth former employee was also convicted but died before the judgment was passed.  Anderson died on 29 September 2014.

There are two main lines of an argument involving the disaster. The “Corporate Negligence” point of view argues that the disaster was caused by a potent combination of under-maintained and decaying facilities, a weak attitude towards safety, and an undertrained workforce, culminating in worker actions that inadvertently enabled water to penetrate the MIC tanks in the absence of properly working safeguards.

The “Worker Sabotage” point of view argues that it was not physically possible for the water to enter the tank without concerted human effort, and that extensive testimony and engineering analysis leads to a conclusion that water entered the tank when a rogue individual employee hooked a water hose directly to an empty valve on the side of the tank. This point of view further argues that the Indian government took extensive actions to hide this possibility in order to attach blame to UCC.

Theories differ as to how the water entered the tank. At the time, workers were cleaning out a clogged pipe with water about 400 feet from the tank. They claimed that they were not told to isolate the tank with a pipe slip-blind plate. The operators assumed that owing to bad maintenance and leaking valves, it was possible for the water to leak into the tank.

This water entry route could not be reproduced despite strenuous efforts by motivated parties. UCC claims that a “disgruntled worker” deliberately connecting a hose to a pressure gauge connection was the real cause.

Early the next morning, a UCIL manager asked the instrument engineer to replace the gauge. UCIL’s investigation team found no evidence of the necessary connection; the investigation was totally controlled by the government, denying UCC investigators access to the tank or interviews with the operators.

The corporation denied the claim that the valves on the tank were malfunctioning, and claimed that the documented evidence gathered after the incident showed that the valve close to the plant’s water-washing operation was closed and was leak-tight. Furthermore, process safety systems had prevented water from entering the tank by accident. Carbide states that the safety concerns identified in 1982 were all allayed before 1984 and had nothing to do with the incident.

The company admitted that the safety systems in place would not have been able to prevent a chemical reaction of that magnitude from causing a leak. According to Carbide, “in designing the plant’s safety systems, a chemical reaction of this magnitude was not factored in” because “the tank’s gas storage system was designed to automatically prevent such a large amount of water from being inadvertently introduced into the system” and “process safety systems—in place and operational—would have prevented water from entering the tank by accident”. Instead, they claim that “employee sabotage—not faulty design or operation—was the cause of the tragedy”.

UCC chairman and CEO Warren Anderson were arrested and released on bail by the Madhya Pradesh Police in Bhopal on 7 December 1984. Anderson was taken to UCC’s house after which he was released six hours later on $2,100 bail and flown out on a government plane. These actions were allegedly taken under the direction of the chief secretary of the state, who was possibly instructed from chief minister’s office, who himself flew out of Bhopal immediately. Later in 1987, the Indian government summoned Anderson, eight other executives and two company affiliates with homicide charges to appear in Indian court. In response, Union Carbide said the company is not under Indian jurisdiction.