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Baba’s Explainer – Bhopal Gas Tragedy

  • IASbaba
  • January 19, 2023
  • 0
Governance
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Syllabus

  •    GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their         design and implementation.
  •    GS-3: Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization, of resources, growth, development.

Context: The Union of India calls the Bhopal gas leak tragedy the world’s largest industrial disaster.

What was Bhopal Gas Tragedy?
  • Post-midnight on December 3, 1984, Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) (Chemical formula- CH3NCO or C2H3NO) leaked from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals), an MNC, in Madhya Pradesh capital Bhopal.
    • Methyl isocyanate is a colourless highly flammable liquid that evaporates quickly when exposed to the air. It has a sharp, strong odour.
    • It is used in the production of pesticides, polyurethane foam, and plastics.
    • The chemical is highly reactive to heat. When exposed to water, the compounds in MIC react with each other causing a heat reaction.
    • 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.
  • It is estimated that about 40 tonnes of gas and other chemicals leaked from the Union Carbide factory.
  • The gas drifted over the densely populated neighbourhoods around the plant, killing thousands of people immediately and creating a panic as tens of thousands of others attempted to flee Bhopal.
  • The final death toll was estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.  Some half a million survivors suffered respiratory problems, eye irritation or blindness, muscular dystrophy and other maladies resulting from exposure to the toxic gas.
  • Some half a million survivors suffered respiratory problems, eye irritation or blindness, muscular dystrophy and other maladies resulting from exposure to the toxic gas.
  • The study found out that babies born to women exposed to gas were significantly more likely to have “congenital malformations” than those born to women unexposed to gas.
    • Congenital malformations can be defined as structural or functional anomalies that occur during intrauterine (within the uterus) life and can be identified prenatally, at birth, or sometimes may only be detected later in infancy.
  • The stillbirth rate went up by 300% and the neonatal mortality rate shot up by 200%.
  • There were mass burials and cremations in Bhopal.
  • Flora and fauna were also severely affected evident by a large number of animal carcasses being seen in the vicinity. Trees became barren within a few days. Supply of food became scarce due to fear of contamination. Fishing was also prohibited.
What actions were taken in the aftermath of tragedy?
  • Inquiries showed that safety mechanisms that should have been rigorously tested were overlooked and additional safety mechanisms that should have been in place were not there primarily due to lax oversight
  • The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act was passed in 1985, giving certain powers to the Indian government for settling claims. It said the Central Government would have the “exclusive right” to represent, and act in place of every person connected with the claims.
  • Indian Supreme Court in 1989 ordered the Union Carbide Corporation to pay $470 million in damages for the toxic gas leak at Bhopal.
  • Activists in Bhopal denounced the settlement as a betrayal of the 20,000 victims who still suffer from exposure to the deadly gas
  • After the tragedy, the government of India enacted a Public Liability Insurance Act (1991), making it mandatory for industries to get insurance the premium for this insurance would contribute to an Environment Relief Fund to provide compensation to victims of a Bhopal-like disaster.
  • In 1991, Bhopal authorities charged Warren Anderson, the CEO and Chairman of UCC at the time of the tragedy with manslaughter. He had come to Bhopal immediately after the disaster and was ordered by the Indian government to leave. After being charged, he failed to turn up in court and was declared a fugitive from justice by the Bhopal court in February 1992. Even though the central government pressed the US for extraditing Anderson, nothing came of it. Anderson died in 2014 never having faced trial.
  • In 2010, Centre filed a review petition seeking for Rs. 5,786 crore for Bhopal gas victims.
  • A 2014 report said that survivors still suffer from serious medical conditions including birth defects for subsequent generations and heightened rates of cancer and tuberculosis.
  • The disposal of toxic waste lying inside and in the vicinity of the factory is still a problem. The groundwater and the soil have also been severely polluted.
  • The fight for justice by the victims of this man-made disaster is still going on.
  • UCIL is now owned by Dow Chemical Company. UCC still maintains that the accident was a result of sabotage by disgruntled employees.
  • It was reported in June 2020, that in the wake of the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic, survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and their children accounted for 80% of the Covid-19 deaths in the city of Bhopal. As the virus targets those with weakened immune systems, the fatalities would increase in the coming days.
What is the basis for the plea for more compensation?
  • The basis of the $470 million settlement reached on May 4, 1989 was that there were only around 3,000 death cases in the gas leak incident.
  • The government’s curative petition in 2010 said the actual figure is 5,295 deaths.
  • However, a fortnightly report submitted by the Welfare Commissioner, Bhopal Gas Victims, and which is a part of the case records in the Supreme Court, shows the number of deaths have increased to 5,479 as on December 15, 2022.
  • The Commissioner’s report further said the number of cases of cancer and renal failure were 16,739 and 6,711, respectively.
  • Likewise, the curative petition said the estimated numbers for temporary disability and minor injury cases were 20,000 and 50,000, respectively, in 1989. But they are actually 35,455 and 5,27,894.
What are the safeguards against chemical disasters in India ?

The law in India provides protection to victims of chemical disasters

  • The Environment Protection Act, 1986: Gives powers to the central government to undertake measures for improving the environment and set standards and inspect industrial units.
  • The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991: It is an insurance meant to provide relief to persons affected by accidents that occur while handling hazardous substances.
  • National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997: Under this act, the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) can hear appeals regarding the restriction of areas in which any industries shall not be carried out or shall be carried out subject to certain safeguards under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
  • National Green Tribunal Act, 2010: Provides for the establishment of a Tribunal for disposal of cases related to environmental protection and conservation of forests.
What are other prominent industrial disasters of our times?

Gulf of Mexico oil spill, 2010

  • It started following an explosion at the British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon rigging well.
  • Although it claimed only 11 lives, its damage to the environment has been described as “catastrophic” as it has been spewing over 5,000 barrels a day from the seafloor.
  • Experts say the spill is now posing a serious threat to a range of marine animals from floating plankton to marine plants and animals living at the bottom of the sea.

1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant mishap

  • It took place during a safety test in the plant in Ukraine (then in the Soviet Union).
  • An explosion at the core of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station at Prypriat on April 26, 1986 released more than 50 tonnes of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
  • About 59 people died at the accident site while more than 4,000 people died of cancer and thousands rendered disabled over the years due to of radiation exposure.
  • Following the blast, about 350,000 people were evacuated from the area

1921, Oppau Explosion

  • It was an explosion at a fertiliser plant in Oppau, Germany
  • The incident occurred when a tower silo storing 4,500 tonnes of a mixture of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded.

Minamata Disaster, 1950s

  • In mid-1950s, the world came to know about an industrial pollution known as ‘the Minamata disaster’, effects of which came to light more than three decades after the incident.
  • The disturbing story began in the 1930s when a Japanese company started dumping of mercury compounds in the bay off Minamata, a western Japan town.
  • But only after three decades, locals began to notice something wrong. They found themselves being affected by a strange illness which came to be known as Minamata disease.
  • It is estimated that over 3,000 people suffered various deformities, showed severe mercury poisoning symptoms or died from the mysterious disease.

Main Practice Question: What are the lessons from Bhopal Gas Tragedy?

Note: Write answer his question in the comment section.


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