Bhopal Gas Tragedy


The Bhopal disaster was an industrial disaster that occurred in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, resulting in the immediate deaths of more than 3,000 people, according to the Indian Supreme Court. A more probable figure is that 8,000 died within two weeks, and it is estimated that the same number have since died from gas related diseases.

The incident took place in the early hours of the morning of December 3, 1984, in the heart of the city of Bhopal in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. A Union Carbide subsidiary pesticide plant released 42 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, exposing at least 520,000 people to toxic gases. The Bhopal disaster is frequently cited as the world's worst industrial disaster. The International Medical Commission on Bhopal was established in 1993 to respond to the disasters.


In the early hours of December 3, 1984, on what was a bracing winter morning, mixed with the winter breeze, was a highly toxic grey cloud that was emerging from the Union Carbide 'C' factory. This poisonous substance, stored in tank number 610 of the factory was later found to be Methyl Isocynate (MIC), which had got contaminated with water. According to experts, MIC is considered to be an extremely reactive chemical and is used to produce insecticides. When water got mixed with this MIC, an exothermal chemical reaction started which resulted in a lot of heat being produced. As the pressure in the tank built up beyond safe levels, the safety valve burst open violently and the gas leaked. As around forty tons of this gas spread through the city, there was no alarm or any kind to warn the inhabitants of this populous town. Since the gas leaked out from a 30 meter chimney, it was not high enough for the people to escape the effects. Later studies have shown that the effect of this toxic gas was especially harsh because of the high moisture content in the gas, which when exposed, started evaporating and being a heavy gas, the gas started moving downwards. The movement of the wind was also such that the gas spread through the city much faster than it otherwise would have.


The Union Carbide India, Limited (UCIL) plant was established in 1969. 51% was owned by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and 49% by Indian authorities. It produced the pesticide carbaryl (trade mark Sevin).

Methyl isocyanate (MIC), an intermediate in carbaryl manufacture, was used instead of less toxic but more expensive materials. UCC was well aware of the substance's properties and how it had to be handled.

In 1979, a plant for producing MIC was added to the UCIL plant. UCC was responsible for all technique and design. The plant was located close to a densely populated area, instead of on the other side of the town where UCIL was offered an area. MIC was stored in a few large tanks instead of several small tanks.

During the night of December 3rd 1984, large amounts of water entered tank 610, containing 42 tonnes of methyl isocyanate. The resulting reaction generated a major increase in the temperature of liquid inside the tank to over 400°F (200°C). The MIC holding tank then gave off a large volume of toxic gas, forcing the emergency release of pressure. The reaction was sped up by the presence of iron from corroding non-stainless steel pipelines.

There have been several theories on the reason for the entry of water into the tank. The workers claim that, because of the bad maintenance with leaking valves etc, it was possible for the water to climb from the point where the pipeline washing was performed to tank 610. UCC maintains that this was not possible, and that it was an act of sabotage by a "disgruntled worker" who introduced water directly into the tank.

The two most important factors leading to the mega-gas leak were plant design (using hazardous chemicals instead of less dangerous, storing in large tanks, possible corroding material in pipelines etc), and the economic pressure and cutting back on expences (reduction of staff, safety systems not functioning etc). Factors deciding the outcome of the leakage were location near a densely populated area, non-existing catastrophe plan, shortcomings in health care and socio-economic rehabilitation etc. Analysis shows that the parties responsible for the magnitude of the disaster are the two owners, Union Carbide Corporation and the Government of India, and to some extent, the Government of Madhya Pradesh.


Within hours, the streets of Bhopal were littered with human corpses and the carcasses of buffaloes, cows, dogs and birds. An estimated 3,800 people died immediately, mostly in the poor slum colony adjacent to the Union Carbide plant. Local hospitals were soon inundated with patients, a crisis further complicated by a lack of knowledge of exactly what gas was involved, what its effects were and what the possible cure could be. Since the incident took place on a cold night when most of the people where indoors, they woke up with a burning sensation in their eyes. They rushed outdoors only to breathe greater concentrations of the gas and in panic as they ran, breathing even greater volumes of the gas, ultimately choking themselves to death. Eventually the death toll rose to more than 20,000 people with more than 5,00,000 people being affected directly and indirectly and many more thousands of families were permanently affected for generations. Two decades later, more than a few lakhs of people are still suffering from the debilitating effects of the gas which includes respiratory problems, cancer, congenital birth defects, blindness and many other diseases. Every year since then, scores more are still dying in Bhopal from the various after effects. Some of the symptoms of Methyl Isocynate contamination include cough, dyspnea or disorder of the lungs, chest pain leading to acute lung failure, cardiac arrest and death. It has resulted in many children being born with genetic defects and mutations and mental retardation. It has also had a long term impact on the reproductive cycle of affected women and the quality of their breast milk.

Besides the effects on people, according to environmentalists, the impact it has had on the ecology of that area is also far reaching. There are still hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste alone, which could lead to a continuous poisoning of the soil as well as ground water. Some areas in and around that area are still so polluted that someone entering that area is likely to lose consciousness in less than ten minutes.


Investigations into the tragedy showed that there were many shortcomings at all levels. The Union Carbide factory did not have much information about the safe storage of these highly toxic gases. The medical fraternity did not have the requisite know how to deal with such kind of contamination and at this scale. There was a lack of co-ordination between the factory and emergency services. There were not many trained professionals in that factory. Cost cutting had also had its impact on the safety of the plant, its employees and the people living around the plant. The plant was also in a densely populated area of the city which went against most known norms.

The Union Carbide factory closed down their operation in Bhopal following the tragedy, but they did not do a proper clean up of the site due to which it is a bio-hazardous zone even today. This lapse has resulted in, what many environmentalists claim, a slow and sustained pollution of the area within and around the closed factory.

After decades of court cases and arguments and investigations, though compensation has been paid to many of the victims, it is not enough and there is still a strong sense of injustice that lingers in the air. Though a compensation of nearly 470 million USD has been called for, it is undoubtedly a small amount based on the long term health consequences of exposure and the number of people affected. More than twenty years of passiveness has taken its toll. Many are calling it the world's biggest humanitarian disaster. Indirectly it has lead to massive unemployment, destitution and widespread psychological problems in the people.


Bhopal is not only a disaster, but a corporate crime. It began as a classic instance of corporate double-standards: Union Carbide was obliged to install state-of-the-art technology in Bhopal, but instead used inferior and unproven technology and employed lax operating procedures and maintenance and safety standards compared to those used in its US 'sister-plant'. The motive was not simply profit, but also control: the company saved $8 million, and through this deliberate under-investment managed to retain a majority share of its Indian subsidiary. It should have come as no surprise to Carbide's management when its factory began to pose a chronic threat to its own workers and to the people living nearby.

On December 25, 1981, a leak of phosgene killed one worker, Ashraf Khan, at the plant and severely injured two others. On January 9, 1982, twenty five workers were hospitalized as a result of another leak at the plant. During the "safety week" proposed by management to address worker grievances about the Bhopal facility, repeated incidents of such toxic leakage took place and workers took the opportunity to complain directly to the American management officials present. In the wake of these incidents, workers at the plant demanded hazardous duty pay scales commensurate with the fact that they were required to handle hazardous substances. These requests were denied. Yet another leak on October 5, 1982 affected hundreds of nearby residents requiring hospitalization of large numbers of people residing in the communities surrounding the plant. After the release – which included quantities of MIC, hydrochloric acid and chloroform – the worker's union printed hundreds of posters which they distributed throughout the community, warning:

• "Beware of Fatal Accidents"

• "Lives of thousands of workers and citizens in danger because of poisonous gas"

• "Spurt of accidents in the factory, safety measures deficient."

Opposition legislators raised the issue in the State Assembly and the clamor surrounding these incidents culminated in a 1983 motion that urged the state government to force the company to relocate the plant to a less-populated area. Starting in 1982, a local journalist named Rajkumar Keswani had frantically tried to warn people of the dangers posed by the facility. In September of 1982, he wrote an article entitled "Please Save this City." Other articles, written later, bore grimly prophetic titles such as "Bhopal Sitting on Top of a Volcano" and "If You Do Not Understand This You Will Be Wiped Out." Just five months before the tragedy, he wrote his final article: "Bhopal on the Brink of a Disaster."

In the midst of this clamour, in May 1982, Union Carbide sent a team of U.S. experts to inspect the Bhopal plant as part of its periodic safety audits. This report, which was forwarded to Union Carbide's management in the United States, speaks unequivocally of a "potential for the release of toxic materials" and a consequent "runaway reaction" due to "equipment failure, operating problems, or maintenance problems." In fact, the report goes on to state rather specifically: "Deficiencies in safety valve and instrument maintenance programs.... Filter cleaning operations are performed without slip blinding process. Leaking valves could create serious exposure during this process." In its report, the safety audit team noted a total of 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC units. It had warned of a "higher potential for a serious incident or more serious consequences if an accident should occur." Though the report was available to senior U.S. officials of the company, nothing was done. In fact, according to Carbide's internal documents, a major cost-cutting effort (including a reduction of 335 men) was undertaken in 1983, saving the company $1.25 million that year.

Although MIC is a particularly reactive and deadly gas, the Union Carbide plant's safety systems were allowed to fall into disrepair. Between 1983 and 1984, the safety manuals were re-written to permit switching off the refrigeration unit and shutting down the vent gas scrubber when the plant was not in operation. Cost-cutting measures directed by the Danbury Headquarters of Union Carbide included reducing the MIC plant crew from 12 to 6. In the control room, there was only 1 operator to monitor 70+ panels. Safety training was cut from 6 months to 15 days. On the night of the deadly MIC leak, none of the safety systems designed to prevent a leak - six in all - were operational, and the plant siren had been turned off.

The process safety system included a design modification installed in May 1984 on the say-so of US engineers. This 'jumper line', a cheap solution to a maintenance problem, connected a relief valve header to a pressure vent header and enabled water from a routine washing operation to pass between the two, on through a pressure valve, and into MIC storage tank 610. Carbide's initial investigation agreed that the pressure valve was leaking but declined to mention the jumper line. Exposure to this water led to an uncontrolled reaction; a deadly cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, mono methyl amine soon settled over much of Bhopal, and people began to die.


In the wake of the disaster, the survivors assembled to fight for justice. In January 1985 a petition was circulated by Mr. Syed Irfan, leader of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangarsh Morcha organization, and other survivors addressing the heads of the Madhya Pradesh government for medical and monetary aid.

Few people were healthy enough after the disaster to do the sort of manual labor they had done beforehand. Many needed to be taught new crafts. The Indian Government initially set up lessons for survivors to learn trades, but did not provide decent jobs. The women at one stationary factory decided to unionize, forming the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karamchari Sangh or “Bhopal Gas-Affected Women's Stationary Worker's Union”. Led by future Goldman Award Winners Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, the union tried for months to negotiate with the government for decent wages. Finally, they marched from Bhopal to Delhi to petition the Prime Minister of India. It took them thirty-three days to reach Delhi, and even after having received some promises of support, little was done. Although the BGPMSKS struggle lasted for more than a decade, it was ultimately successful. Meanwhile, the union became deeply involved in the broader campaign for justice in Bhopal, becoming one of four key survivors organizations to spearhead the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

Today, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal is stronger than ever before. Within the past two years the campaign has won several significant victories, improving the lives and the condition of the people of Bhopal.

Despite the horror of the night of December 3, 1984 and the chemical terror that its survivors have endured, the people of Bhopal continue their struggle for justice, for corporate accountability, and for their basic human right to an environment free of chemical poisons. The outcome of their struggle holds vast implications for all of us; if corporations aren't held accountable for their crimes, they're destined to be repeated. We all live in Bhopal.

The only memorial ever built in Bhopal was privately funded, designed by the daughter of Holocaust victims. In bold letters, the inscription reads, “No Hiroshima, No Bhopal, We Want To Live.” With your help and that of others, the justice that has been so long delayed in Bhopal cannot be denied.


The disaster did pave the way for much stricter international standards for environmental safety, preventative strategies to avoid similar accidents and a better state of preparedness to meet future industrial disaster. In India, a number of changes were made in the Indian Factories Act and environmental legislation. There is a much better understanding of the fact that industries need to apply good process safety management systems and have efficient and safe handling and storage capacities of individual reactive chemicals. Following the disaster, environmental awareness and activism in India has increased tremendously. It serves as a warning to developing nations to create the right balance between human, environmental and economic status on the path to industrialization.


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