17 March, 2023: Do you know about the Bhopal Gas tragedy ? 39 years later, why are legal battles still being fought ? Read to know more.
The Supreme Court rejected the Centre's proposal, which sought additional compensation from Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) by restarting the resolution in the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, which claimed over 3,000 lives.
What was the Bhopal Gas tragedy ?
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy was one of the worst industrial disasters in history, which occurred on the night of December 2-3, 1984, in Bhopal, India.
On the night of December 2, 1984, 40 tonnes of a chemical called methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from Union Carbide India Ltd's (UCIL) pesticide factory, transforming Bhopal into a massive gas chamber. It was India's first significant industrial disaster. More than 15,000 people were killed and 600,000 workers were affected by at least 30 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas. The Bhopal gas tragedy is regarded as one of the world's worst industrial disasters.
Warning before the tragedy
The UCIL factory was built in 1969 to produce Sevin (a pesticide) using methyl isocyanate. Trade unions in Bhopal voiced concerns about pollution inside the factory in 1976. A few years later, a worker inadvertently inhaled a large amount of toxic phosgene gas, which resulted in his death a few hours later. Examining these incidents, a journalist started to investigate the plant and also released his conclusions in Bhopal's local paper, asserting - 'Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano'.
The immediate aftermath of the tragedy was devastating. The gas spread rapidly through the city, affecting around 500,000 people, many of whom were sleeping at the time. Estimates of the death toll vary, but it is believed that between 3,000 and 16,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Many more suffered from serious health problems, including respiratory problems, blindness, and neurological damage.
In picture: Memorial to those killed and disabled at Bhopal by Waterman-Kupferschmidt
Picture source: wikipedia
What is Methyl Isocyanate ?
Methyl Isocyanate is a colorless liquid that is used in the production of pesticides. When correctly kept, MIC is safe. The chemical is extremely heat reactive. When MIC is exposed to water, the compounds react with each other, resulting in a dangerous heat reaction.
Methyl Isocyanate is no longer manufactured, but it is still used in pesticides. The Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, West Virginia, is currently the only MIC storage facility left in the world.
Government’s reaction to the tragedy
The Indian government had never before faced such a catastrophe. Immediately following the disaster, legal processes between India, UCC, and the US were initiated. In order to advocate victims' interests in court, the government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985. The UCC initially offered India a $5 million [₹ 413,113,500] assistance fund, but the government rejected it and requested $3.3 [₹2,72,65,49,10,000] billion instead. In the end, a settlement outside of court was struck in February 1989, and Union Carbide agreed to pay $470[ ₹ 38,83,26,69,000] million in losses. The Supreme Court of India also established rules for the money, mandating that the deceased's relatives get between ₹ 100,000 and ₹ 300,000.
Background of the current legal battle
A number of petitions, including those from survivors' and victims' organizations, called for more compensation for the 1984 tragedy's fatalities and injuries. A prior Supreme Court ruling concerning the settlement sum paid by Union Carbide Corporation [now Dow Chemicals] to the relatives of the tragically deceased and survivors was contested.
The administration was asked by the Supreme Court on September 20, 2022, if it wished to proceed with its corrective plea.
On October 11, 2022, the Centre informed the Supreme Court that "it is keen" to pursue its 12-year-old curative case, which asks Union Carbide, and others for an additional Rs 7,500 crore to compensate for deaths and injuries brought on by the 1984 Bhopal gas catastrophe.
What is going on now ?
In January, the government's attorney general, R. Venkataramani, said that the petition was being pursued because it was an "exceptional case," leading the arguments before the bench in favor of the government.
The 1989 payment, according to him, was based on "incorrect and inaccurate assumption of facts and data" involving fatalities and other injury cases. So, according to Mr. Venkataramani, the government is pushing for greater remuneration. Organizations and a number of victims backed his submissions.
A Constitution Bench consisting of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Sanjiv Khanna, Abhay S Oka, Vikram Nath, and JK Maheshwari ruled that any initiative to raise compensation should have occurred soon after the tragedy, rather than thirty years later.
The Supreme Court also chastised the Centre for failing to draw up an insurance policy for the victims in accordance with its earlier venture to the court.
It was referred to as "gross negligence" by the bench. It also stated that it is the responsibility of the government to address any economic insufficiencies.
The bench stated that although the court has great sympathy for the victims, it cannot ignore the fact that the government was involved during the settlement negotiations in 1989. “Did it take 25 years for the government to realize that the compensation was very less? Can you say reopen the whole thing after 100 years? You walked away after a settlement in the court and on terms that you are trying to reopen now,” the bench stated.
The Bhopal disaster also had a profound impact on industrial safety regulations and corporate responsibility. It raised awareness about the dangers of hazardous chemicals and the importance of industrial safety. It also led to the development of new laws and regulations, both in India and internationally, to prevent similar disasters from happening in the future.
More than three decades later, the legacy of the Bhopal disaster continues to be felt. The site of the UCC plant has still not been fully cleaned up, and toxic chemicals continue to leach into the soil and groundwater. The victims and their families continue to suffer from health problems, and many are still fighting for justice and compensation. The Bhopal disaster remains a tragic reminder of the devastating consequences of corporate negligence and the importance of holding companies accountable for their actions.