Revisiting the Bhopal tragedy

The worst industrial disaster in the region

The Bhopal tragedy, also known as the Bhopal disaster, was one of the worst industrial disasters in history. It occurred on the night of December 2-3, 1984, in Bhopal, a city in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India.

The disaster was the result of Methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic gas used in the production of pesticides, which leaked from the pesticide plant of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL).

The lack of proper warning systems and emergency response measures exacerbated the impact of the incident.

Various studies pointed out that the initial effects of exposure were coughing, severe eye irritation, a feeling of suffocation, burning in the respiratory tract, blepharospasm, breathlessness, stomach pains, and vomiting. People alerted by these symptoms fled from the plant. Those who ran inhaled more than those in vehicles. Owing to their height, children and other residents of shorter stature inhaled higher concentrations, as methyl isocyanate gas is approximately twice as dense as air and in an open environment has a tendency to fall toward the ground.

According to another study, “Thousands of people had died by the following morning. Primary causes of deaths were choking, reflexogenic circulatory collapse, and pulmonary oedema. Findings during autopsies revealed changes not only in the lungs but also cerebral oedema, tubular necrosis of the kidneys, fatty degeneration of the liver, and necrotising enteritis. The individuals who did not die suffered from cancer, blindness, loss of livelihood, and financial strain…the number of children exposed to the gases was at least 200,000”.

Heath researchers opine that some data about the health effects are still not available because the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was forbidden to publish health effect data until 1994.

In this regard, contradictions have been recorded in the statements of Indian officials. A total of 36 wards were marked by the authorities as being “gas affected”, affecting a population of 520,000. Of these, 200,000 were below 15 years of age, and 3,000 were pregnant women. The official immediate death toll was 2,259, and in 1991, 3,928 deaths had been officially certified. The Sambhavna clinic “estimates 8,000 deaths during the first weeks, and another 8,000 since then”. The government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release.

Later, the affected area was expanded to include 700,000 citizens. A government affidavit in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial injuries and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries.

Meanwhile, a number of clinical studies were performed. The quality varies, but the different reports which support each other also reported long-term health effects indicated: “Eyes: Chronic conjunctivitis, scars on cornea, corneal opacities,  Obstructive and/or restrictive disease—pulmonary fibrosis, aggravation of tuberculosis and chronic bronchitis—Neurological system: Impairment of memory, finer motor skills, numbness…Psychological problems: Post traumatic stress disorder—Children’s health: Peri-and neonatal death rates increased—Failure to grow, intellectual impairment etc.”

These studies pointed out that missing or insufficient fields for research are female reproduction, chromosomal aberrations, cancer, immune deficiency, neurological sequelae, post-traumatic stress disorder and children born after the disaster etc. —Bhopal now has high rates of birth defects and records a miscarriage rate seven times higher than the national average.

A 2014 report in Mother Jones quotes a “spokesperson for the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which runs free health clinics for survivors” as saying “An estimated 120,000 to 150,000 survivors still struggle with serious medical conditions including nerve damage, growth problems and gynaecological disorders”.

Focusing on the Bhopal tragedy, the incident also raised questions about the regulation of multinational corporations, operating in developing countries and highlighted the importance of proper industrial safety standards.

In this respect, Rhitu Chatterjee and Editor’s note wrote on November 22, 2023:  “The world’s worst industrial disaster harmed people even before they were born…A new Netflix series tells the story of the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India…the disaster, and of the courageous railway men who risked everything to save others. Earlier this year, a large study concluded that the disaster’s toxic legacy spans at least a generation, and continues to impact the survivors. This story was originally published on 17 June 2023.”

Earlier, civil and criminal cases filed in the USA against UCC and Warren Anderson, chief executive officer of the UCC at the time of the disaster, were dismissed and redirected to Indian courts on multiple occasions between 1986 and 2012, as the US courts focused on UCIL being a standalone entity of India.

Civil and criminal cases were also filed in the District Court of Bhopal, involving UCC, UCIL, and Anderson. In June 2010, seven Indian nationals who were UCIL employees in 1984 as well as the former UCIL chairman Keshub Mahindra, were convicted of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of about $2,000 each. But, all were released on bail shortly after the verdict.

It is notable that in 1976, two local trade unions complained of pollution within the plant. In 1981, a worker was accidentally splashed with phosgene, as he was carrying out a maintenance job of the plant’s pipes. In a panic, he removed his gas mask and inhaled a large amount of toxic phosgene gas, leading to his death 72 hours later. Following these events, journalist Rajkumar Keswani began investigating and published his findings in Bhopal’s local paper Rapat, in which he urged “Wake up, people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano”.

But, in January 1982, a phosgene leak exposed 24 workers, all of whom were admitted to a hospital. None of the workers had been ordered to wear protective equipment. One month later, an MIC leak affected 18 workers. In August 1982, a chemical engineer came into contact with liquid MIC, resulting in burns over 30 percent of his body. In October 1982, there was another MIC leak. In attempting to stop the leak, the MIC supervisor suffered severe chemical burns and two other workers were severely exposed to the gases.  During 1983 and 1984, there were leaks of MIC, chlorine, monomethylamine, phosgene, and carbon tetrachloride, sometimes in combination.

By early December 1984, most of the plant’s MIC related safety systems were malfunctioning and many valves and lines were in poor condition. In addition, several vent gas scrubbers had been out of service, as well as the steam boiler intended to clean the pipes.

However, the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster led to widespread outrage, legal battles, and increased awareness about the need for industrial safety and corporate responsibility.

It is mentionable that the exact number of casualties is still a matter of debate, but it is estimated that thousands of people died as a direct result of the gas leak, and many more suffered long-term health consequences.

Focusing on the Bhopal tragedy, the incident also raised questions about the regulation of multinational corporations, operating in developing countries and highlighted the importance of proper industrial safety standards.

Sajjad Shaukat
Sajjad Shaukat
Sajjad Shaukat writes on international affairs and is author of the book: US vs Islamic Militants, Invisible Balance of Power: Dangerous Shift in International Relations and can be reached at [email protected]

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