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



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


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


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