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Environmental Considerations of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy




The nation, observed one of its worst horrors come true which still haunts us to this very day. This horror story, is none other than what is popularly known as the Bhopal Gas Leak Tragedy, marked by several workers, as well as innocent people losing their lives overnight. The tragedy is said to have taken place about 22 years ago, yet the ramifications of the horrific incident till date is visible, as the acute environmental contamination still affects generations, of the individuals, who were the victims of the horrific incident on that particular night of 3rd December, 1984. Several reports as well as studies have been done, by the government of Madhya Pradesh, and the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEEI) to only conclude that the ramifications of the gas leak are still prevalent till date, since the elements of the environment such as water, as well as the soil, has undergone massive contamination, as the several generations of the victims are affected by it till date. The chemicals had an extremely adverse effect on their bloodstream, as well as the respiratory systems, while also genetically impairing their constituents.[1]



Facts:


The license was granted to the factory, in the year 1969. Once the license was procured, the company, decided to set up a plant for the manufacturing of the methyl isocyanate, which was then used to manufacturing of the pesticide Sevin, rather than importing it from the US, where the parent firm resided. The two raw materials, used for the manufacturing of the Union Carbide, are monomethyl amine (MMA[2]) and phosgene. MMA, is then used to produce MIC[3]. Other chemicals that are used, are chloroform, and carbon monoxide.

Even after knowing the constituents and the hazardous chemicals, while the factory was situated amidst the bastis and a well populated area, the license was granted by the Government. Also, the factory lacked the computerized security systems which the US as well as the Canadian companies had.


In the wee hours of 3rd December, 1984, the terrible accident which shook the world, took place in the Union Carbide pesticide plant, in Bhopal. By accident, the highly poisonous chemical MIC, was released into the open air, and very swiftly spread throughout the 40kms radius of the plant. The people in the radius of 5-6kms of the plant, have had adverse effects on the people residing around the plant, and has successfully killed several thousand people, and affected various people in just a mere span of a few hours. Some of the symptoms displayed by the people, were ‘coughing, breathlessness, vomiting of the blood, corneal opacity of the eyes, as well as digestive problems.’[4]


That night, it is recalled that certain valves were loose and faulty, and some workers were cleaning out water pipes. Hence, water entered into tank 610, which contained about 42 tonnes of MIC. Owing to the water in the tank, an exothermic reaction which lead to an increase in the temperatures, which then released the gas into the air.



Environmental repercussions


It was the government that was held responsible for the gas tragedy, for even granting the license for an immensely hazardous project in the first place. Union Carbide’s plant of MIC, already had a poor record in terms of safety. They’ve already had a record of six mishaps with regard to security[5]


The reports of the research done by the following authorities, as well as the several surveys that were carried out established the fact that the groundwater, as well as the soil contaminated due to the harmful chemicals, were found to be above the average normal level.


In the year of 2004, the Supreme Court further established that the Court Monitoring Committee, which was set up in order to evaluate Waste Management, due to the observed dumping of the hazardous waste, as well as the negligent practices, amalgamated with the lack of authorities that fail to regulate as well as enforce the legislations in relation to the certain environmental guidelines, it was concluded that the environment, especially the groundwater, is heavily contaminated.


The drinking water has indeed been contaminated, also the chemicals have spread in the soil and water due to the continuous discharge of Sevin, which has affected the irrigation system to its core.


Moreover, people suffered from disability, and have been suffering from so through the generations, and the chemicals have also had adverse effects upon the reproductive system of the women, and have adversely affected the other generations as well. [6]

The UCIL plant contains several solar evaporation ponds, which contains the waste which stored. The chemicals in the waste, have seeped into the ground level water, contaminating the groundwater, which is used as drinking water, through the hand pumps. The hand pumps that containing the affected water, was colored as red.

Many villagers residing around the factory, living in bastis, were and by far, the most affected, since the access to clean and healthy resources. These people living in bastis, consumed the water from the red hand pumps, or the zahreela paani, just because there was a lot of distance to travel in order to access clean water. The water, very lucidly cane be figured that is extremely contaminated due to the odor, and the murky hue.[7]

In the case of Research Foundation for Science v. Union of India[8] the Supreme Court had instructed, that the State Government of MP has to supply clean drinking water, in the tanks as well as the pipes religiously to about 14 bastis.


After the announced judgement, the response by the government was tardy, and only 10 percent of the required water was supplied, through the means of tankers. Filling the overhead tanks of every basti. There too, were several ups and downs in the procedure. The life of the people in the basti, has always remained in vain and layered with struggle.


A survey, which was conducted by the community health workers, of the Sambhavna Clinic in Annu Nagar, with a population of 1,528, concluded that 91 percent of the residents were making use of the handpumps that were contaminated.


Also, in a report which was conducted on the extent of the chemical contamination around the residential areas, found the out of the eleven samples, seven to eight samples of breast milk contained the presence of lead. This has also effected the menstrual cycle of the girls. The ailments that were recorded in people can also be compared to the degree of exposure to the chemicals such methyl isocyanate.[9]



Legal Battle of UCC


The Union Carbide Corporation, faced severe legal consequences in the US Courts, and all the cases were transferred to Indian Courts. While in India, several suits were filed, demanding compensation. A PIL, was filed in the Supreme Court, (Charanlal Sahu v Union of India)[10] demanding remuneration for the victims in the case.


Meanwhile, in the M.C Mehta v Union of India[11] , the judiciary has interpreted the Bhopal Gas Leak, and therefore formulated the concept of “Absolute Liability


Criminal Proceedings were initiated too, before the magistrate of Bhopal. The proceedings were initiated on the grounds of causing death by negligence, offences endangering lives of others, read along with the aspect of common intention.


The tragedy, is also responsible for the passing of the Public Liability Insurance Act, which ensures that that the company provides for a compulsory insurance policy for all the employees, also paving way for the new Nuclear Liability Bill, which aims at dealing with such nuclear accidents.[12]



Conclusion


The Bhopal gas leak, has left what is called an ugly scar, in the Indian History, and has also lead the Indian judiciary in bringing about major concepts for the welfare of the workers employed in such industries. Such leaks, have also adversely affected the environment as a whole, contaminating the groundwater, soil, and also altering the genetic constitutions of the survivors of the tragedy. The hazardous gas so leaked and inhaled by individuals had shown horrendous results, since many died and others were injured, their respiratory systems completely given up. There was a scarcity of hospital beds, medical aid, and the compensation granted to the families were menial, many of the victims not even counted.

In totality, all the issues, are to be effectively dealt with, as of now. The legislations so enacted in the wake of the leak, should be implemented and enforced by the law enforcement agencies. Many NGO’s, are still working for this cause, fighting for issues and the repercussions of this very leak. The industries, now are better are environmental compliance policies, and the environmental laws have become more stringent, the only loophole being, lack of proper implementation.


[1] Renu Kapoor, The Psychosocial Consequences of an Environmental Disaster: Selected Case Studies of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Vol. 13 No. 3, , Pg. 209, Population and Environment pg. cited;,210 (1992). (https://www.jstor.org/stable/27503245)

[2] Methyl Methacrylate – MMA

[3] Methyl Isocyanate- MIC

[4] Ibid.

[5] S. Sriramchari, The Bhopal Gas Tragedy: An Environmental Disaster, Vol. 86, No.7, Pg. 905, Current Science Association, Pg 905 ,(2004) (https://www.jstor.org/stable/24109273)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Betwa Sharma, Bhopal Gas tragedy: ’New’ Victims, Vol. 41 No. 17, pg. 1613, Economic and Political Daily, pg.: 1613, (2006) (https://www.jstor.org/stable/4418132)

[8] (2005) 3 Comp LJ 193 SC Research Foundation for Science v. Union of India

[9] Supra note 4

[10] 1990 AIR 1480 Charanlal Sahu v. Union of India

[11] 1987 SCR (1) 819 M.C Mehta v Union of India

[12] Deepika Kumar, Legal Aspects of Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Legal Services India, (18th April, 2020)


Author Details: Manasi Singh (Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad)

The views of the author are personal only. (if any)


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