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Bhopal – The Hiroshima of Chemical Industry.

In this era of rat race, we humans are proving to be a problem for one another. We are harming each other through our actions and deeds, knowingly or unknowingly. One of the examples is of the “Bhopal gas tragedy”. We can still witness its disastrous effects.

Introduction

Huge destruction, worst of all the industrial disasters, took place as the gas methyl isocyanate (MIC) and other toxic gases leaked from a plant Union Carbide India Ltd. which produced pesticides and other chemicals, in Bhopal. UCIL is a branch of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), a multinational company, registered in the United States. This plant was mainly responsible for the production of pesticides. The shocking part was that most of the safety systems were not functioning and many of the safety instruments were in bad condition when the incident took place.

On 2nd and 3rd December 1984, water, in large quantity, seeped into a tank containing 42 tonnes of methyl isocyanate. Workers, while cleaning the pipes, even mentioned the bad condition and leakage of the valves. As the pressure inside the tank increased, a large volume of MIC gas leaked into the atmosphere. The whole city was flooded with the poisonous gas. And it started affecting people as they woke up with some kind of sensation in their lungs. Some were coughing, vomiting, feeling suffocated and this is how thousands of people died immediately and lakhs of people sustained permanent injury.

Casualties

There were several reasons for the leakage. Initially, proper precaution was not practised for storing the chemicals, there was poor maintenance as the pipes and other material were corroded. The plant was badly designed without much investment and the biggest mistake was the bad location of the plant which was near a densely populated area, where there was no healthcare or social-economic rehabilitation in case of emergency.

The analysis shows that the Union Carbide Corporation and Government of India and Government of Madhya Pradesh to some extent are solely responsible for the tragedy. As a result, 3,500 to 25,000 people died and up to 5,00,000 people were injured and many of the injuries were permanent. Even pregnant women were affected which led to birth defects. A huge number of people were affected. There is no exact figure as to how many people lived in the neighbourhood of the plant. According to the sources, about 1,00,000 people were living within a radius of 1 km of the plant where this tragedy took place.

Legal Battle

Many cases were filed in Bhopal and U.S.A. against the UCC on behalf of the victims but failed. The Government of India passed “The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act, 1985”.According to section 3 of this act, Government of India acts as a representative on behalf of all those who have filed a case against UCC, then Union of India filed a suit in the United States District Court of New York, but the UCC pleaded for the dismissal on the ground of forum non-convenience, that is, the suit can be more conveniently tried in India, as it was the place of catastrophe, the plant, victims, witnesses and all related evidence were there. After the dismissal of the suit in the States, in the year 1987, Union of India filed a case in district court of Bhopal which ordered Union Carbide Corporation to pay Rs.350 crores to gas leak victims. A revision civil petition filed by UCC in Madhya Pradesh High Court against the order of District Court. Later on in the High Court, this interim compensation amount was reduced to 250 crores. But both Union of India and UCC preferred appeals by special leave against High Court’s order.

This photograph from December 4, 1984, shows victims who lost their sight in the Bhopal poison gas tragedy as they sit outside the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

There were even reports that the UCC was trying for out of court settlement. The legal position of the case is concerned with M.C. Mehta v. Union of India. The Supreme Court laid the rule of “Absolute liability”. The UCC could not escape the liability on the ground of sabotage, which it used as a defence, as it was permitted under the rule of Rylands V. Fletcher. The principle laid down in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India is; when an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident which results in, for example, escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident.

In the view of the above-stated decision of the Supreme Court, the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy were entitled to avail a relief without any delay. Here, the principle of “Absolute liability” was applied and proved that the Indian judiciary is mature and capable enough to meet out fair and equal justice.

Settlement of the Case

The Supreme Court in Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India, passed the order on February 14th or 15th, 1989, directing the payment of a sum of 470 million U.S. Dollars or equivalent nearly Rs.750 crores. This was indeed a bad move as the settlement limited liabilities under future claims as well. Moreover, $470 million was not sufficient enough to compensate for all the victims. In fact, it was only 15% of the original claim that was made at the U.S. Supreme court. Even though after settlement, the victims have not been able to get any substantial relief, rehabilitation, proper medical facility. After analysing the terrible condition, on April 30th, 1993, the Supreme Court said that the settlement amount of $470 million should only be used for the payment of compensation to about 6 lakh victims, and under no circumstances, the same should be used for payment of interim relief to the Gas victims.

Conclusion

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is also, in a way, responsible for the passing of The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, which aims at providing immediate relief to the people affected by the accident occurring while handling something dangerous. The government should take more initiatives and work for the welfare of those who suffer from such accidents and never get justice. The government should learn a lesson from this tragedy and make sure nothing of this sort happens in the future and should become more responsible. Because of negligence, people have suffered through a large amount of destruction, both physical and mental. Some of the have not received justice even today.

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