On the night of December 2, 1984, a chemical called Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) split out from Union Carbide India Ltd's (UCIL's) factory located in Bhopal City of Madhya Pradesh. The tragedy turned the city of Bhopal into a colossal gas chamber. It was India's first major industrial disaster which also is known as the world's worst industrial disaster.
In 1969, the UCIL factory was made to produce Sevin (a pesticide). It is made by using Methyl Isocyanate. In 1976, trade unions in Bhopal complained of pollution generated within the plant. A few years later, a worker accidentally inhaled a large amount of toxic phosgene gas which led to his death a few hours later.
Two years before tragedy struck Bhopal, around 45 workers at the factory, exposed to phosgene gas were admitted to a hospital. Between 1983 and 1984, there were three gas leaks of phosgene, carbon tetrachloride, methyl isocyanate, and mono methylamine at the factory.
UCI's Bhopal facility contained three 68,000-litre liquid MIC storage tanks named E610, E611, and E619. Months before the tragedy, MIC's production was in progress and was being filled in the tanks. No tanks were allowed to be filled more than 50% of its whole capacity and the tank was pressurized by inert Nitrogen gas. The pressurization of the tank allowed the liquid to be pumped out of each tank. However, one of the tanks (E610) lost the capability to contain the pressure of nitrogen gas, hence liquid MIC could not be pumped out. As per the rules, each of the tanks could not be filled with more than 30 Tonnes of MIC liquid. But the tank had 42 tonnes of MIC liquid. This failure forced UCIL to stop the production of methyl isocyanate in Bhopal and the plant was partly shut for maintenance. By then, most of the plant's methyl isocyanate related safety systems started malfunctioning. According to reports, by December 2, water had entered the malfunctioning tank, which resulted in a runaway chemical reaction. The pressure in the tank increased five times by night. By midnight, the workers at the MIC area started feeling the effects of MIC gas. The decision to address the leak was to be made a couple of minutes later. However, by then the chemical reaction in the tank had reached a critical state. About 30 tonnes of MIC escaped from the tank into the atmosphere within an hour.
Methyl isocyanate gas leak killed more than 15,000 people and affected over 600,000 workers. The stillbirth rate and the neonatal mortality rate increased by up to 300% and 200% respectively. The gas leak impacted trees and animals too. Within a couple of days, trees in the nearby area became barren. Bloated animal carcasses had to be disposed of. People ran on the streets, vomiting, and dying. The city ran out of cremation grounds.
Until then, the Indian government had never dealt with a disaster like this. Legal proceedings between India, UCC, and the US began right after the disaster. The Indian government passed the Bhopal Gas leak Act in March 1985, which allowed it to act as a legal representative for the victim. The UCC initially offered a $5 million relief fund to India. But the government turned down the offer and demanded $3.3 billion. Eventually, an out-of-court settlement was reached in February 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million for damages caused. The Supreme Court of India also laid down guidelines for the money—the family of the dead were to be given Rs 100,000-300,000. In addition, fully or partially disabled were to get Rs 50,000-500,000 and those with a temporary injury, Rs 25,000-100,000. The apex court asked UCIL to "voluntarily" fund a hospital in Bhopal to treat victims of the tragedy. In June 2010, seven former employees of UCIL, who were all Indian nationals, were convicted of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years of imprisonment.
As the legal battles were on in India and the US, Dow Chemical Company successfully took over UCC in 2001, after which it became a wholly-owned subsidiary. Thereafter, Dow claimed that UCC did not have any responsibility towards the tragedy, as it was a new company with new ownership.
By: Sai Shanmukh Habbar Kalle
School: Delhi Public School, Gautam Buddh Nagar