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Bhopal Gas Disaster: A Case Study in the Failure of Environmental Regulation

Decades of Government Inaction and Corporate Negligence: Bhopal's Toxic Legacy Continues to Poison Land and Water, Threatening Lives and Undermining the Rule of Law

Bhopal, Jabalpur, New Delhi: The morning on a day in the year 1974 dawned clear and sunny as the cattle belonging to residents of Chola area strayed into the area of a pool fed by a rubber pipe issuing from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL, Bhopal was then under the control of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) – a US multinational company, which currently is owned the Dow Chemical Company (Dow), a subsidiary of Dow Inc), Bhopal.

“They drank the water and died soon after. Analysis of the soil showed contamination with heavy metals. In water from wells outside the plant area, toxic chemical substances were found. UCIL did not divulge these findings”, wrote Ingrid Eckerman, MD, in her book titled “The Bhopal Saga- Causes and consequences of the world’s largest industrial disaster”, published by Universities Press, Hyderabad, India.

It was normal. However, the incident turned out to be dangerous on multiple counts.

In the history of Bhopal, this was the first incident when living creatures died due to poisoned water. Fatefully, because of the UCIL pesticide plant. And the worse that the incident was largely ignored.

Precisely, a decade later, on the intervening night December 2-3, 1984 when poisonous gases from the UCIL plant which were heavier than air, spread across 40 sq kms of area, the City became a bearing witness to the moment when our beliefs about industrialisation and development changed.

The escaping of toxic gases covered about 36 of the 56 municipal wards, leaving in its wake more than 20,000 dead (over several years) and inflicting injuries in varying degrees on over 550,000 others.

The gas disaster brought the operations of UCIL, Bhopal to a sudden halt. This was again dangerous on multiple counts.

To begin with, the waste that was generated during UCIL’s operation from 1969 to 1984 dumped in and around the plant leading to severe soil and water pollution were left behind.

Not only this, nearly 345 tonnes of toxic waste stored at the plant site was left with the city’s then population of around 900,000 people of Bhopal to live with the consequences of Bhopal disaster.

On the basis testimonies of ex-UCIL workers and CSIR and IICT findings submitted in the USA and in the Supreme Court of India, Ingrid Eckerman in her book “The Bhopal Saga (2004)” presented a descriptive picture of chemical waste dumped by UCIL in and around the factory. She mentioned 22 different types of chemical, amount used in the factory and about the nature of chemical pollution caused by them to air, water and soil.

In a preliminary study titled “Assessment and Remediation of Hazardous Waste Contaminated Areas in and around M/s Union Carbide India Ltd., Bhopal” that was jointly carried out by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), Hyderabad, during 2009- 2010, it was estimated that “the total quantum of contaminated soil requiring remediation amounts to 11,00,000 MT [metric tons]”.

Another 345 tons of toxic waste is stored in a shed within the plant.

The state (Madhya Pradesh) government and the Bhopal Municipal Corporation never took any scientific study to monitor the situation. Nothing initiated to safely dispose of the toxic waste with the latest available remediation technology. However, no study to estimate the extent and gravity of the damage has been carried out by the centre or the state government to date. The groundwater in the areas that were completely devastated during the gas leak and reported maximum number of deaths is polluted. 

Activists working among the gas victims feel that UCC played rough with the local environment and treated them in a very careless manner.

The utter callousness with which UCC treated the environment is also alarming, says a paper titled “The path to sustainable development: Lessons from the Bhopal disaster”, presented at the Right to Development Anniversary Event organised by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Organisations, Geneva.

Quoting article 4.2 of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development ND Jayaprakash, joint secretary, Delhi Science Forum and co-convenor, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (Coalition for supporting the cause of gas victims) laid emphasis on the need for “effective international cooperation” for “promoting rapid development of developing countries”.

“Unfortunately, the requisite sustained action for promoting “international cooperation” is still missing. Instead, it is largely the colonial/imperialist mindset and exploitative attitude, which continue to dominate the North-South relationship”, says the paper presented by Jayaprakash in Geneva on December 2, 2014, the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.

“Much after the disaster, it became known that pre-disaster dumping of toxic waste in and around the Bhopal plant had resulted in contamination of soil and ground water over a large area”, he said.

Intake of contaminated groundwater has created new victims. According to a preliminary study in 2010, over 1,100,000 metric tonnes of contaminated soil alone require remediation, he added.

An action plan developed by stakeholders to decontaminate UCIL’s plant site is ready. It just needs to be implemented, says A Down to Earth report titled Action Plan on Environmental Remediation in and around UCIL, Bhopal published on AUGUST 29, 2013.

At the initiative of the Centre for Science & Environment, a voluntary scientific organization, a roundtable meeting was held in Delhi on 25-26 April 2013 in which organizations representing the gas victims along with representatives from the Central Pollution Control Board, CSIR institutions, IITs, and representatives from the chemical industry chalked out a tentative Action Plan to remediate the contaminated site at Bhopal.

Initial attempts to discuss the said Action Plan with the union and the state government did not bear fruit.

Eleven years ago, on August 9, 2012, the Honourable Supreme Court in para 35 (12) of the order dated 9 August, 2012 W.P. (C) no. 50 of 1998 directed as follows:

“… we direct the Union of India and the State of Madhya Pradesh to take immediate steps for disposal of this toxic waste lying in and around the Union Carbide factory, Bhopal, on the recommendations of the Empowered Monitoring Committee, Advisory Committee and the NIREH within six months from today…. We direct a collective meeting of these organizations to be held along with the Secretary to the Government of India and the Chief Secretary of the State of Madhya Pradesh within one month from today to finalize the entire scheme of disposal of the toxic wastes.”

The response from the governments (state and the centre) was tepid.

The truth is that eleven years have passed and the one-month time given by the Supreme Court till this date has not arrived.

There is nothing on record to show that the state government had actually ever pursued the matter with CPCB or with the concerned ministries at any time during the last ten years.

The contamination of soil and groundwater are indiscriminate and do not distinguish between a survivor/victim of Bhopal Disaster or a normal Bhopal resident; they (contamination of soil and groundwater) contaminate the environment for decades; and the effects are felt for generations.

Does it not sound weakening of the rule of law when there has been no resolution even knowing the fact that our country had passed new laws such as the Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986 and the Public Liability Insurance Act (PLIA), 1991 and amended existing ones, such as the Factories Act, 1948, to rein in the public costs of industries working with hazardous technologies and chemicals after the Bhopal Disaster that killed over 15,000 people and affecting over 600,000 after methyl isocyanate escaped from the now defunct Union Carbide Plant on the intervening night of 2-3 December 1984.

The long story hinting a trust deficit on the rule of law cannot be taken granted, at least not again for Bhopal, the city that became a witness to mass burial ground not so long ago.


Anup Dutta is a fellow of Vikas Samvad Constitution Fellowship 2022.

Anup Dutta

is a multimedia freelance journalist based in Bhopal. He reports on people, politics, policies, health, art and culture.

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