Little did the people of Bhopal know that on December 2, 1984, many will not wake up to the next day when the world’s worst industrial disaster befell them. The haunting stories of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy were wrung out of the lives of ordinary people when 45 tonnes of methyl isocyanate leaked from a pesticide plant owned by the Indian subsidiary of the American firm Union Carbide Corporation.
This noxious gas pervaded the densely populated locales surrounding the plant, killing thousands immediately and causing thousands more to frantically try fleeing the city.
Local accounts state that the leakage in the factory developed after 10 p.m. on December 2, only to get noticed an hour later; but this one hour had already claimed thousands of lives. At least 5 lakh people were affected due to this tragedy.
Subsequent investigations laid bare the cause of the catastrophe: substandard operating and safety procedures at the plant that was also under-staffed.
According to official records, about 3,500 people died. About half a million people that did not die from inhaling the toxic gas were left with lasting ailments – respiratory troubles, severe eye problems and even blindness, paralysis, neurological disorders, and hormonal alterations, to name a few.
The effect of the disaster remains as the second and third generation gas-affected people continue to be vulnerable to certain diseases. Many children are still-born or born with birth defects.
For nearly four decades, as the year draws to a close, Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 is remembered for its horror and desperate attempts at resilience.
To this day, the survivors of the tragedy grapple with life — the loss of loved ones and the legal battle for justice. Several are said to have been awarded a few hundred dollars in compensation.
It was way back in 1969 that Union Carbide had begun dumping chemical waste which leached in the land, contaminating groundwater. Five years after the disaster, in 1989, the multinational reportedly commissioned a study on the toxicity levels of the land and the result was so terrifying, they hid it.
Here is a chronology of the events that followed the 1984 tragedy:
December 2-3: Toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, killing over 3,500 people. Clouds of poison engulfed the area around the plant.
December 4: N.K. Singh, Judge of Madhya Pradesh High Court, appointed a single-member commission to investigate the ‘accident’.
December 7: Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson flew to Bhopal and was arrested at the airport. He was released on a $2,000 bail before leaving India. Union Carbide is named as the 10th defendant in a criminal case for wrongful death.
December 9: American attorneys John Coale and Arthur Lowy arrived in Bhopal.
December 11: R. Ramachandran was appointed to head the CBI inquiry into the gas leak.
December 19: Evacuation camps outside of Bhopal were closed.
December 30: Madhya Pradesh government planned to seek compensation in US courts.
This year, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, which conferred exclusive rights to the Indian government to represent all claimants and directed the government to register and process claims of victims, came into being.
January 1: Gas victims protested against the state government for suspension of relief funds.
January 3: A committee was established for free legal aid to victims.
February: The Central government filed a $3.3 billion lawsuit on Union Carbide in a US court.
April 8: Government of India filed complaint against the multinational.
November 26: Plan for disbursal of the $5 million relief fund was approved by Judge Keenan.
December 3: First anniversary was marked in Bhopal by bandh, rallies; a settlement of approximately $1,000 each was reached on the compensation of workers dismissed by the closure of Bhopal plant.
December 9: Plans of GAF to offer $68 per share to acquire 40 per cent of Carbide stock came forward.
May 12: Judge Keenan agreed to Carbide’s arguments and ordered the claims dismissed stating that India is a more appropriate forum for a trial.
December 20: Supreme Court of India delivered judgement in Sriram (Delhi Gas Leak of December, ’85) case, holding that industries engaged in hazardous activities strictly liable to their workers and to residents.
January 4: A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of the US cases.
December 1: CBI chargesheeted Anderson et al; summons served on Anderson and UCC for wrongful death charges.
December 17: Bhopal District Judge M.W. Deo ordered Union Carbide to pay the victims an estimated $270 million in pre-trial interim relief.
April 4: Interim Compensation was challenged before the High Court at Jabalpur. In a judgment delivered on April 4, 1988, the High Court reduced the interim compensation to Rs 250 crore. UCC challenged this further before the Supreme Court.
February: Bhopal Chief Judicial Magistrate issued warrant for arrest without the possibility of bail against Anderson for ignoring summons; India and Union Carbide settle out of court; an indemnity of $470 million was delivered.
The CJM of Bhopal issued warrant for arrest without the possibility of bail against Warren Anderson for repeatedly ignoring summonses.
The Government of India and Union Carbide settle out of court, and Union Carbide awarded $470 million in compensation.
February-March: Protests began against unfair settlements
December: The Supreme Court confirmed the validity of the Law of Claims applying the doctrine of parens patriae.
October 3: The Supreme Court refused to reopen the settlement, justifying it under Article 142 of the Constitution. The apex court expressed the hope that UCC would contribute Rs 50 crore to establish a hospital in Bhopal for the victims.
January: Part of $470 million was distributed to Bhopal gas victims.
February: Anderson was declared a fugitive for ignoring the citation.
January 7-25: The Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights, which held its session in Bhopal in October 1992, recommended the creation of an International Medical Commission in Bhopal (IMCB)
December 14: IMCB’s Interim Report was released in Bhopal.
September: The Supreme Court watered down charges against Indian officials of UCIL and majority owned by UCC, in part because the blame fell on UCC.
The former factory site was turned over to the Government of Madhya Pradesh.
August: Union Carbide announced merger with US-based Dow Chemicals.
November: Several individual victims of the Bhopal disaster and survivor organisations filed a class action lawsuit against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson, in the Southern District Court of New York (federal court), accusing Carbide of violating international human rights law, the environmental law and international law.
April: Shareholder class action lawsuit against Dow Chemical for failing to disclose Union Carbide’s Bhopal-related liabilities to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
August: Judge Keenan of the Southern District Court of New York (SDNY) summarily dismissed the class action lawsuit filed by the survivors. Attorneys representing the surviving plaintiffs are appealing the decision.
As the new decade began, more than 400 tonnes of industrial waste remained on the site. Despite protests and litigation, neither the Dow Chemical Company (which bought out Union Carbide Corporation in 2001) nor the Indian government had sanitised the site. Soil and water contamination in the area caused chronic health problems and high instances of birth defects in the area’s inhabitants.
February: Union Carbide refused to take responsibility for UCIL’s obligations in India.
January: A civic organisation study found lead and mercury in the breast milk of lactating mothers in communities near the plant.
June: Survivors protest in New Delhi after India reported dropping charges against Anderson.
August: In a repeat, a private study in India found lead and mercury in the milk of nursing mothers in communities near the plant.
August: Charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder against Anderson were pressed. The court sought his extradition; US officials said they were unable to trace him.
May: The Indian government sent a formal extradition request for Anderson to the US.
July: The CBI handed over the merger documents to the CJM and requested it to decide on involving Dow in the criminal case. The court directed the CBI to take prompt action on the extradition of Warren Anderson.
Supreme Court of India ordered the state to supply clean drinking water to the residents of Bhopal because of groundwater contamination.
March: A US court said that it could order Dow Chemicals to clean up soil and groundwater at the abandoned factory site if the Indian government provides a no-objection certificate. The Government of India sent the certificate to the US.
June: The US rejected Anderson’s extradition request from India saying that the request does not “meet the requirements of certain provisions” of the bilateral extradition treaty.
July: Supreme Court ordered the Central bank to pay out more than Rs 15 billion, part of the original $470 million received as compensation held in a dollar account since 1992.
October: Bhopal gas victims protest the government’s failure to pay compensation to victims. The Supreme Court of India sets November 15 as the deadline for paying compensation. Authorities begin distributing compensation to relatives of dead victims.
June 10: Several former executives of Union Carbide’s India subsidiary — all Indian citizens — were convicted by a Bhopal court for negligence.
September 29: Former UCC Chairperson Warren Anderson passed away in a nursing home in Florida. His death was met with protests in Bhopal as many view him as going unpunished.
October: The district magistrate’s court ruled that then Bhopal collector Moti Singh and superintendent of police in 1984, Swaraj Puri, should be questioned for letting Anderson leave India.
Amnesty International lobbies the US on human rights issues in India.
The four-member expert group, which met on April 4, 2018, “strongly recommended that this data, due to its inherent flaws, should not be put in the public domain and shared at any platform.”
A report released by the ILO in April 2019 termed the 1984 tragedy as one of the world’s “major industrial accidents” of the 20th century.
In the hearing held on March 25, 2022, the District Judge of Bhopal gave one more date for hearing to Union Carbide and its erring officials from April 25-29, 2022 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to present their final arguments.
A Constitution Bench gave Solicitor General Tushar Mehta time till October 11 to seek direction from the Centre whether it wants to “press” its curative petition seeking enhancement of compensation to the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy which was already paid out was over $470 million by Union Carbide.
“The government will have to take a stand whether it will pressurise the curative petition or not,” said Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, who is presiding over the five-judge bench.