37 years of Bhopal Gas tragedy
- In the year 1984, India had witnessed the world’s worst chemical (industrial) disaster – the “Bhopal Gas Tragedy” (which happened on December 2nd, 1984).
- The Bhopal Gas tragedy was the most traumatic chemical accident in history.
- The tragedy led to the death of over 2500 people due to the accidental release of toxic gas Methyl IsoCyanate (MIC).
- The current generation continues to bear the ill-effects of the tragedy.
Cause of the Tregedy
- Methyl Isocyanate leaked from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals), in Madhya Pradesh capital Bhopal.
- due to substandard operating and safety procedures at the understaffed plant from the Union Carbide factory
- It was the result of corporate negligence as it underinvested in safety
Impact of methyl isocyanate leak
- Doctors were not aware of proper treatment methods the incident.
- 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.
- Survivors suffered respiratory problems, eye irritation or blindness, and other maladies resulting from exposure to the toxic gas.
- Children exposed to the leak suffered from stunted growth and intellectual impairments.
Methyl Isocyanate chemical reaction's impact on health
- Immediate health effects include ulcers, photophobia, respiratory issues, anorexia, persistent abdominal pain, genetic issue, neuroses, impaired audio and visual memory, impaired reasoning ability, and a lot more.
- Long-term health effects include chronic conjunctivitis, decreased lung function, increased pregnancy loss, increased infant mortality, increased chromosomal abnormalities, impaired associate learning and more.
Govt's response to Bhopal tragedy
- 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 catastrophe.
- The government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985, which allowed it to act as the legal representative for victims. While the UCC initially offered a $5 million relief fund to India, 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. However, they were later released on bail.
What is Methyl Isocyanate (MIC)?
- Methyl Isocyanate is a colourless liquid used for making pesticides. MIC is safe when maintained properly. The chemical is highly reactive to heat. When exposed to water, the compounds in MIC react with each other causing a heat reaction.
- Methyl Isocyanate is no longer in production, although it is still used in pesticides. The Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, West Virgina is currently the only storage location of MIC left across the globe.
- Chemical, being at the core of modern industrial systems, has attained a very serious concern for disaster management within government, private sector and community at large. Chemical disasters may be traumatic in their impacts on human beings and have resulted in the casualties and also damages nature and property. The elements which are at highest risks due to chemical disaster primarily include the industrial plant, its employees & workers, hazardous chemicals vehicles, the residents of nearby settlements, adjacent buildings, occupants and surrounding community. Chemical disasters may arise in number of ways, such as:-
- Increased Vulnerability: The Indian chemical industry's vulnerability increased due to ageing of process plants, design flaws, lack of technological advancement and used of organic solvents.
- Human error caused by non-compliance with SOPs.
- Ex - Piper Alpha tragedy
- Natural calamities - floods and earthquakes
- Lack of Maintenance -
- It is critical to perform scheduled maintenance at regular intervals in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions to ensure that the equipment functions smoothly and safely.
- Ex - The Flixborough disaster killed 28 people and injured many more
- Lack of emergency response
- Terrorist actions and sabotage
- Improper Disposal of Hazardous waste can result in fires, explosions, and harmful releases into the environment.
Status of Chemical Disaster Risk in India
- India has witnessed the world’s worst chemical (industrial) disaster “Bhopal Gas Tragedy” in the year 1984. The Bhopal Gas tragedy was most devastating chemical accident in history, where over 2500 people died due to accidental release of toxic gas Methyl Iso Cyanate (MIC).
- Such accidents are significant in terms of injuries, pain, suffering, loss of lives, damage to property and environment.
- India continued to witness a series of chemical accidents even after Bhopal had demonstrated the vulnerability of the country. Only in last decade, 130 significant chemical accidents reported in India, which resulted into 259 deaths and 563 number of major injured.
- There are about 1861 Major Accident Hazard (MAH) units, spread across 298 districts and 25 states & 3 Union Territories, in all zones of country. Besides, there are thousands of registered and hazardous factories (below MAH criteria) and un-organized sectors dealing with numerous range of hazardous material posing serious and complex levels of disaster risks.
Safety initiatives taken in India to address chemical risk
- The comprehensive legal/ institutional framework exists in our country. A number of regulations covering the safety in transportation, liability, insurance and compensations have been enacted.
- Following are the relevant provisions on chemical disaster management, prevailing in country:-
- In 1984, The Indian Penal Code was the only relevant law covering the liabilities for such industrial disasters. After the Bhopal gas tragedy, the government passed a series of laws to introduce safeguards and penalties.
- In 1985, the Bhopal Gas Leak (Processing of Claims) Act was passed. This enabled the centre to process claims related to the tragedy with greater speed and equity.
- The central government can establish standards and inspect industrial establishments under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
- The scope of risk from industries was expanded to the general public under the Factories Act from the earlier narrow scope of just the workers and the industrial premise.
- Insurance for persons affected by hazardous substance-related accidents was provided for under the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. This is an immediate option for providing relief to the victims.
- National Environment Appellate Authority was conferred the power by the National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997, to hear appeals regarding restriction of industrial activities in areas under the provisions of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
- The National Green Tribunal was established under the NGT Act of 2010 to expedite the disposal of such cases.
- In the aftermath of the Delhi oleum gas leak in 1985, the Supreme Court evolved the ‘Doctrine of Absolute Responsibility’. It gave the standard of responsibility in liability for such accidents.
- It provided that the enterprise must make sure that no harm (to people in the vicinity) comes from the hazardous materials used by the enterprise. Without an exception, the enterprise will be responsible if such harm occurs.
- This is a stricter version than the ‘strict liability’ principle used elsewhere in the world.
- Based on this principle, the affected people can file tort claims in civil courts i.e. the offending firm can be sued.