Bhopal Gas Tragedy Who was Responsible?

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Hello, friends!

In December 1984,

at an insecticide manufacturing factory in Bhopal,

some workers were at work.

It was nearly midnight,

suddenly, some workers complained that their eyes were burning.

They assumed that it was a gas leak.

Of course, the workers then started investigating,

to look for the source of the gas leak.

Then, a worker came across a dripping liquid.

Along with it, a yellowish coloured gas was leaking.

The worker told his supervisor what he saw.

But the supervisor thought that it was water.

Some minor leaks were common at a plant of that scale,

it wasn't unusual.

The supervisor decided to check it out after their tea break.

So like every night, the workers went for their tea break,

at about 12 o'clock in the night.

But by 12:45 AM,

the smell had become pungent.

The workers realised that not only was there a strong smell,

but their eyes were burning badly too.

And they had a bad bout of coughing too.

Over the next 2 hours, this gas spread all over Bhopal carried by air.

It got inside homes.

And over the next 2 days, thousands of people lose their lives.

In this Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

It is believed to be the most dangerous industrial disaster in the world.

Worst Industrial Disaster in the World.

But the biggest question to arise here

who was responsible for this accident?

Were the workers at fault?

Was it the company that owned this factory?

Or was the government responsible for it?

Come, in today's post, let's understand this incident in depth.

"The entire city was coughing.

The city wanted to cry out in pain."

"About 40 tonnes of a gas leak from the Union Carbide factory..."

"The consequences were catastrophic.

Official estimates suggest that some 5,000 people died."

"As the gas cloud condenses,

it sticks to ground level."

"Looking at these faces, now 30 years later,

one gets angered on behalf of Bhopal."

The factory where this disaster took place,

was a factory of the Union Carbide Company.

This company is older than 100 years,

and even if you don't recognise the name of the company,

you'll know its products.

Eveready batteries.

Bakelite.

Not only batteries and pesticides,

this company manufactures rocket fuel as well.

It has factories all over the world,

and its factories often produce chemicals.

To manufacture these products.

In 1994, this company was renamed Eveready Industry.

That's the name you'd be more familiar with perhaps.

But talking about the olden days,

in 1962,

Union Carbide had launched a poster advertisement for India.

These ads were quite metaphorical.

It depicted some labourers walking down an unpaved road with their cows,

And a giant hand comes down and pours a chemical liquid on the road.

Seeing this ad now brings a very negative image to mind.

Because of this Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

But at the time, this ad had a positive meaning.

How the pesticides and new technologies of Union Carbide,

help in the agriculture development of the country.

Union Carbide was a very successful company.

In India, it was known as Union Carbide India Limited or UCIL.

And 49% of the stakes in it was owned by Indian investors.

Even our government had ownership in it.

In 1969, the company started a factory in Bhopal.

To produce a special insecticide.

It was called Sevin.

To manufacture Sevin, a chemical was needed.

Methyl Isocyanate or MIC.

It is a very dangerous and deadly chemical.

MIC was imported into India to manufacture Sevin.

Friends, in our story, the year 1980 plays a crucial role.

This was the year when things began to change, one at a time.

Union Carbide suffered losses.

The company started losing money.

Because of the shortage of funds, the company decided

that they would start manufacturing MIC in India rather than import it.

This is the first red flag.

Because manufacturing chemicals and mixing them together

is not safe at all.

But UCIL was granted permission by the government,

and so they started to do so at their manufacturing plant.

Around this time,

the company was directed to form a proper evacuation plan

in case of a dangerous gas leak,

so that the residents of Bhopal would know how to react,

and how to evacuate.

Because everyone knew that a dangerous chemical would be produced at the plant.

But the company failed to form any such plans.

In fact, in 1981,

a worker died from accidental exposure to MIC.

But the company took no action despite that.

The plant continued in the same way.

During this time, another thing happened.

The insecticide that the company was producing, Sevin,

its sales started falling in India.

Many competitors of the company cropped up,

that had cheaper products,

thus, Union Carbide was pressured.

Union Carbide had to cut down the cost of their product Sevin,

had to reduce the prices.

And to do so, they had to cut costs at many places.

The workforce was reduced.

The new workers that were hired by the company,

were often under-qualified.

Safety precautions were ignored to save money.

For example, if the pipes were found to be damaged,

they'd be repaired by unsafe methods,

instead of replacing them.

Regular leaks started taking place.

The workers working at the factory were getting worried.

But despite that,

despite the fact that such a dangerous chemical was being manufactured at the factory,

neither were the residents of Bhopal informed about it,

nor were the workers working at the factory.

At this point in time, you'd think

had nobody noticed?

Many people did notice it.

First, the trade unions in the area started protesting.

But the union leaders were removed from their jobs,

and their demands weren't addressed.

But there was a man

he wanted to investigate this whole issue thoroughly. 

Because he had a personal stake in it.

I told you that a worker died in this plant in 1981.

That worker was Mohammed Ashraf.

Before his death, he had told his friend

that he was concerned about the plant.

That he was worried since the plant wasn't working properly.

He told this to his friend Rajkumar Keswani.

A journalist.

Rajkumar began investigating it.

He tried to get insider information,

accessed confidential reports,

and wrote a report on this plant.

On the horrible safety standards of the plant.

The headline of the report was:

Bachaiye Huzoor, Is Shahar Ko Bachaiye!

[Save This City]

In his report, he mentioned how a disaster can take place there.

About 20% of Bhopal's population resided near the plant of Union Carbide, 

and it was very dangerous.

Friends, it is very interesting to know,

how he got to know about the underlying dangers.

Because journalist Rajkumar did not have any scientific knowledge about the chemicals.

He read somewhere that Phosgene was used at the plant.

He recalled then that it was the same gas used in Germany

during World War II, in the gas chambers.

He then realised the severity of the danger in the situation.

The name of his report claimed that if anyone refused to understand it, it will be their end.

He wrote to the Chief Minister and even to the Supreme Court.

But there was no response.

Today, we can look back to say that

he had predicted the disaster.

But back then, when the disaster hadn't taken place,

neither the government believed him,

nor the company,

and even his friends thought that he was spouting nonsense.

Let's try to understand what was happening in that plant.

As I told you, MIC was being manufactured in that plant.

And the MIC was stored in liquid form in 3 huge tanks underground.

Tanks E610 and E611 were filled with MIC completely.

And E619 was supposed to remain empty for emergencies.

And for safety purposes,

the tanks were supposed to be filled with MIC for 60% of the volume of the tank only.

The tanks weren't supposed to be filled more than 60%.

Because you know what, friends?

MIC + Water (H2O)

has a very dangerous reaction.

If MIC gets into contact with water,

not even water, even if it gets into contact with air,

because air contains some amount of moisture.

Their reaction releases a poisonous gas.

To avoid this,

in each tank, the MIC was covered by Pressurised Nitrogen.

So that it remains safe in its place.

The pressure and temperature of the tanks were regularly checked.

So there were 3 tanks, side by side,

and there were 2 pipes connected to each tank.

One of the pipes for removing the toxic or poisonous gases from the tanks,

sending those gases to be burned off,

and the other pipe is for filling the tanks with nitrogen.

If the pressure in the tanks got reduced,

more nitrogen was put in to build up the pressure.

The routine duty of the workers working here

was to clean these pipes regularly.

And whenever MIC was taken out to manufacture Sevin,

it was safely taken out of these tanks.

It sounds like a very straightforward procedure.

It isn't that difficult to understand.

As I told you, there were 3 tanks,

and none of them was supposed to be filled up with MIC more than 60%.

But they were.

They were filled with MIC for more than 60% of the capacity.

And I told you that the third tank was supposed to be empty for emergencies.

But that night, the third tank was also filled.

It contained MIC.




More than the approved amount of MIC was stored to save money.

Secondly, the pressure of 2 out of the 3 tanks wasn't right.

Thirdly, the indicator showing the level of MIC,

wasn't working.

But apart from that,

they had an alarm that would go off when the temperature got too high.

But the fourth problem was that

this alarm was disconnected years ago,

so the alarm wasn't working either.

Do you remember the first pipe I told you about?

That helped to remove the poisonous gases from the tank.

And to burn them.

The gases from the pipe went into a vent gas scrubber,

But that scrubber was switched off.

The scrubber worked only when a worker would go switch it on.

The sixth thing and I'm starting to lose count of the mistakes here,

as I said, each tank had a pressure control valve,

but the pressure control valve on Tank E610,

wasn't working and no one had repaired it.

Apart from all these,

the Union Carbide plant,

had stopped manufacturing MIC in October 1984.

The company had almost closed off its operations.

And the remaining MIC in these tanks,

was supposed to be used as and when needed.

And the last and final problem;

in case of any mishap in the factory,

there were 2 huge alarms installed.

One of the alarms was for the workers at the factory,

And the second and louder alarm,

was for the residents of Bhopal residing around the factory.

But the other alarm was turned off.

So there were so many problems.

Safety measures that were being ignored,

and the mistakes that already existed,

on the night of this disaster.

As journalist Rajkumar Keswani had predicted,

it didn't take much for an accident to occur here.

If so many safety measures are ignored,

then it isn't surprising when an accident does occur.

2nd December 1984,

was a normal night for the residents of Bhopal.

The city of Bhopal is surrounded by hills,

so it was a cold night in the month of December.

At 9 o'clock in the night,

the workers had a shift change and new workers came into Union Carbide.

They started with their routine work.

Started washing the pipes attached to the MIC tanks.

They put water in the pipes,

but noticed something strange while pouring the water,

the water wasn't coming out from the other side of the pipes.

They started cleaning the filters,

assuming that the water was getting clogged.

And repeated the process again.

But despite that, the water didn't come out from the other side.

They weren't surprised to see this,

and they informed their supervisor

around 11 PM.

The supervisor told the operator to let the water flow.

And the workers of the next shift would switch off the water.

Normally, the pipes have something called the Slip Blind,

that stops the water from entering the tanks.

But there were no Slip Blinds on these pipes.

About 10 PM.

the water started to get into the tank E610.

It contained a large amount of MIC.

And as I have told you,

MIC and water have a deadly reaction.

This reaction started happening.

A cloud of gases started forming.

But the workers present in the factory,

didn't have much scientific knowledge of this.

About an hour later, the workers of the new shift arrived.

They realised that their eyes were burning.

They checked the pressure of the tanks,

The pressure was a bit over than normal,

but they deemed it to be safe.

But their eyes didn't stop burning.

They figured that there was a leak somewhere and started looking for it.

Around 11:45 PM,

the workers started looking for the leak.

One of those workers was Mr Suman Dey.

He saw liquid dripping at a place.

The exact events of the next hour are still debated,

but it is believed

that the team of workers ignored the leak,

and were at their tea break till 12:40 AM.

Some experts believed that

the panic had begun before that.

The blame is put on some supervisors and workers,

because they didn't take this gas leak seriously.

But one thing that we know for sure,

is that about 12:30 AM,

the workers realised that a major accident had occurred there.

The pressure readings were very high,

and the pressure kept building up in the tank.

Remember, this tank was underground.

The concrete above it started breaking apart.

Suman ran to the control room to sound the alarm.

The gas was leaking from tank E610.

And it was only after this point of time,

that the water that was turned on to wash the pipes,

was finally switched off.

But unfortunately, it was too late by then.

The events that followed were complete chaos.

I told you that the poisonous gases that are removed from the tanks,

were burned by using Vent Gas Scrubber.

But when this accident took place,

when MIC reacted with Water,

the poisonous gas that was removed then,

passed through the same vent gas scrubber and was released into the air.

The workers around tried to spray water on the releasing gas.

But the point from where the gas was escaping,

was at a height.

So the water couldn't reach it.

It was 1 AM at this point in time.

The people present there had realised that

the situation was out of the control of any person.

That's why all the workers and other people present there

started evacuating the factory.

Post 1 AM, the city of Bhopal was in the grips of terror.

The gas spread to most parts of the city.

Including the railway station.

People were coughing, there was so much uproar.

Many people came out of their houses, opened doors and windows,

causing more of the gas to enter their homes.

Most of these people lived in the slums surrounding the factory.

A woman recalls how a whitish cloud of the gas entered her home,

through the gaps in the windows.

Another person recalls the smell of the gas and compared it to

burning chillies.

Some people were killed in their sleep.

Others died by coughing and struggling and trying to run away from it.

The sick were taken to the hospitals nearby.

But the doctors weren't aware of how the symptoms were supposed to be treated.

Or what the problem was.

Because the doctors didn't know which gases were leaking there.

Some doctors gave oxygen to the patients.

Because they were having trouble breathing.

But actually, a large amount of oxygen reacts badly with this gas.

Due to this, many patients died in the hospital.

By the next morning, thousands of people have died.

Dead bodies of animals were all over the roads.

And it becomes the worst industrial disaster in India.



And now let's return to the topic.

When the news of this disaster spreads the next day,

what were the actions taken by Government and the Union Carbide?

The very first thing to happen was that Union Carbide sent their technical team to India.

And the team converts the remaining MIC into a less dangerous gas.

This operation was named

Operation Faith.

Secondly, obviously, Union Carbide was questioned.

And the Union Carbide Company sent money as a relief.

They gave millions to the Government, the Red Cross and other relief organisations. 

They hold press conferences,

and Warren Anderson, the Chairperson of Union Carbide at the time,

takes the responsibility into his own hands.

In fact, he was arrested the next day.

But behind the scenes, the legal team of the company

did their best to overcome this.

The next year, in 1985, an Act was passed in Parliament.

It empowers the Government of India 

to represent the people of Bhopal in the courts.

And thus ensues a legal fight.

A legal battle, which is still going on.

To fight the case in the courts, an investigation was required.

Why did such a deadly accident occur?

Whose fault was it?

The Government of India and Union Carbide began their investigations.

Both investigations agree that the actual cause behind the accident

was the reaction of water and MIC.

But the Indian Government claims that Union Carbide was at fault there.

That they didn't train their staff properly.

They didn't maintain the safety standards properly,

because of which the water leaked into the tank.

But what is Union Carbide's stand?

Union Carbide Company claims that the Indian Government was at fault there.

That the government didn't allow them to make changes in the safety design.

And that the staff working at the plant rather than the Company itself 

the workers, were at fault.

They even claim that the staff had sabotaged the plant

and intentionally introduced water into the tank.

In 2003, Ingrid Eckerman,

a doctor who was studying the Bhopal Case in detail,

wrote in her book that eventually,

the courts found no evidence of any sabotage, 

as Union Carbide claimed.

Some other theories were also floated here.

The involvement of Anti-Soviet Forces

sent from America,

but the court case comes to an end in 1989,

when Union Carbide decided

to pay a compensation of $470 million to the Indian Government.

At the time, it was about ₹8 billion.

But our story doesn't end there.

Because the people of Madhya Pradesh weren't happy.

Paying compensation to the government wasn't justice to the people.

They protested.

In February 1989, Satish Dhawan, once a Chairperson of ISRO, 

filed a petition to protest against it.

And the case reopens in the Supreme Court as a criminal case.

Over the next few years,

Warren Anderson and the Indian workers present at the plant that night,

were accused by the court to be the offenders.

Over the next years, a lot of things happen.

Court cases after court cases,

but if I'll tell you the overall situation,

Union Carbide and Warren Anderson were declared to be criminals by the court,

the accused Indians pay a fine,

but Warren Anderson doesn't appear in the court himself.

Warren Anderson died of natural causes in 2014.

But the criminal case against Union Carbide

is still open.

The victims of the accident who are still suffering,

filed many petitions in the court,

demanding compensation.

Many of these cases are open to date.

With time, the government realised that

they didn't have the right laws to hold people accountable,

in case of such accidents.

That's the reason that the first law to be brought in after the accident,

was the Environment Protection Act.

This Act ensures that the industries take steps to protect the environment.

In the same year,

a new clause was inserted in the Factories Act,

to clearly state who shall be deemed to be the occupier of the factory.

A company or a person,

to be responsible for the safety of the factory.

It wasn't clearly defined before this.

Over the next years, more such laws were introduced.

To support the victims of industrial disasters.

Laws on the amount of hazardous material that can be stored in a factory.

A restriction was put on that amount.

Many gaps in our laws,

have been filled in by the present laws.

But the victims of this disaster are awaiting justice even today.

I hope that you found this post informative.

If you liked it, check out our other posts,

for more such educational posts on historical topics.

Thank you very much!

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