Gas Leaks, Industrial Disasters: Reflecting on India’s Historical Lack of Systemic Accountability

India’s handling of industrial disasters suffers from systemic apathy. To respond to the currently unfolding Visakhapatnam Gas Leak effectively and sensitively, it must reflect on and learn from its inadequate handling of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. 

Following the gas leak from an LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam during the early hours of 7 May 2020, the currently unfolding event and the mounting numbers of those who have departed and have been hospitalised has brought back to life the spectre of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Already, the Andhra Pradesh government has announced that the kin of those who have lost their lives as a result of the disaster will be provided a compensation of ₹1 crore each.

As visuals from Visakhapatnam (also referred to as Vizag) are being shared on social media, the unravelling of yet another industrial disaster is reminiscent of the all-too-familiar sequence of the 1984 incident, where not only were precious lives lost and disabilities sustained, its after-effects continue to persist. Therefore, at this time, we look back at the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which, along with the other industrial disasters in India, has brought to the surface the inability and inadequacy of the Indian state to effectively and sensitively respond in these situations. In particular, going beyond the question of industrial safety standards, it is the systemic apathy and lack of accountability in dealing with the survivors that has stood out the most. 

In this reading list, then, we explore the EPW archives to emphasise on the lessons we must take from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, so that they can be reflected on and appropriately executed in current times. 

Union of India and Its Failure in Representing Its Citizens

Documenting the Bhopal Gas Tragedy court case, Sriram Panchu observes that the judicial processing of the industrial disaster took approximately 26 years to yield a penalty that was not only disproportionate, but was in itself a result of great systemic disservice to those involved. In an effort to save itself from bearing the brunt of tort lawyers from the United States, the Union of India (UOI) took over the representation of all claimants in its case against the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), exercising the doctrine of parens patriae. This, however, hindered the ability of survivors to negotiate their own settlements on their own terms. For instance, on 14 February 1989, the Supreme Court oversaw a settlement under which the UCC was to pay $470 million in full settlement for all claims, civil and criminal, arising out of the Bhopal gas disaster. However, the affected persons, the injured and legal heirs of the dead were not given a notice before the settlement took place. Further, the UOI agreed to settle for just 15% of the original claim. The settlement reached with the UCC fell short of the suffering that had been caused—further exacerbated by the fact that not only was it based on a lower approximation of fatalities, but over the years, the number of deaths and disabilities cumulatively attributed to the gas leak has been much higher. Moreover, the disbursement of this compensation by the UOI has been anything but satisfactory. Panchu notes that the gas leak, which was a tragedy in itself, was further made disastrous by the systemic failures that occurred in each step of the way to justice. 

Th[e] [Bhopal Gas Tragedy] is the collective failure of all of us– the central and state government, the Bar, the Bench, commentators, media, and the public; if half the furore on display now had been there earlier, it is likely that corrective steps would have been taken to rectify matters. So much was lost at each stage, and each time a key player in the system failed. In retrospect, the Bhopal victims would have been better off in the hands of American tort lawyers and the US Courts.

The extent of the system’s callousness when representing those who were affected by the Bhopal Gas Leak is further probed into by Satinath Sarangi. Sarangi observes that, at the time of the settlement, the Supreme Court itself lacked data to judge the adequacy of the settlement amount. A mere total of 30,000 fatalities had been reached without any epidemiological evidence. Additionally, by the time the final judgement had been passed, most of the claimants had not been medically examined, and the deaths and disabilities caused by the disaster had not been assessed beyond surface-level reports. Moreover, claimants themselves had been excluded from registering with the logic that because they were underage and did not own property, they would not be entitled to compensation. 

The government's failure in protecting the legal rights of the gas victims is evident from the fact that close to 11 years after the disaster the registration of claimants is far from complete. According to official figures in all 5,97,306 claims have been registered with the directorate of claims, Madhya Pradesh government. Of these 4,06,095 claims have been filed by the residents of the 36 wards and this figure is 22 per cent less than the official resident population of these wards in 1984. The single largest omission is the non registration of claims of over 1,50,000 gas affected persons who were less than 18 years age at the time of registration of claims. Such a situation has been brought about primarily due to the arbitrary decision of the government officials in charge of claim registration to disallow persons under 18 to register their claims. This illegal practice was carried out under the erroneous notion that since minors cannot be owners of property, they cannot be entitled to compensation amounts.

Invisibilisation of Survivors’ Bodies and the Burden of “Operation Faith”

Among the several concerns that arose with the Bhopal Gas Leak court case, a pertinent one was that questioning the legality of the Bhopal Hospital Trust. An editorial in the EPW archives notes that survivors’ organisations at the time had pointed out that the sale of UCC shares worth $90 million in Union Carbide India to fund the Bhopal Hospital trust was indirectly a way for the company to buy itself out of its liability for damages. Terming it as “fraudulent conveyance,” the appellate court recognised UCC’s attempt to avoid prosecution. Given the self-serving intentions portrayed by multinational companies (MNCs) such as UCC, the Government of India has done little to inhibit MNCs from negating the liabilities in the future. Moreover, the Bhopal incident has become but a mere reference point in official documents. Public advertisements released on the occasion of the Chemical Disaster Prevention Day have done little to acknowledge the full extent of the Bhopal disaster, its survivors, or the role played by the government and MNCs in it. This invisibilisation of the survivors has become a strategy consistently employed by the state to sweep the enormity of the systemic failure that resulted in the Bhopal disaster, as well as that which succeeded it. That is, instead of working through the problem of providing medicare, both the state and city governments instead redirected their efforts towards literally wiping the problem away from the space in question itself. This meant that a significant proportion of the affected population was moved away from the city, making it difficult and almost impossible for following up on health repercussions of the disaster. Though industrial estates were set up as part of “grandiose” schemes to provide employment to survivors, these were closed down and the compensation paid by UCC, which in itself was dismal, given the effects of the disaster, disappeared and/or were lying unused with the government.

... most shamefully, the state government is doing its best to wipe out all signs of the disaster legally, politically and socially by not recognising the survivors as a specially vulnerable group. If they exist in people’s memory at all, it is due to their own efforts through the activities of survivors’ organisations.

As a result of the disorganised response on part of the state machinery, a mass evacuation programme, referred to as “Operation Faith,” was launched in Bhopal. Radhika Ramaseshan observes that though the operation was wrapped in the benevolent intentions of the government, the evacuation was used as a means to gain political brownie points with negligible regard to the lived realities of the survivors. For instance, during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Bhopal, a group of the gas poisoning survivors, who were in acute physical distress, were mobilised to shout slogans hailing the then Prime Minister. The situation was exacerbated by the discrepancy in announcements, where, on the one hand, the then chief minister emphasised that there was no need to panic, and on the other, areas within proximity of the plant were marked as “hazardous zones,” and residents were told that, if they so desired, they could vacate the area and that special transportation arrangements had been made for the same. However, ground realities were starkly different. While the better-off residents of Bhopal were able to immediately leave their places, it was the poor and incapacitated who faced the brunt of “Operation Faith.”

The people used every means available, hanging onto buses and autorickshaws and some using 'thelas' to carry their children and goats and calves to get out of the city. Many pawned their jewellery and utensils to get some money to see them through the period before they could return to Bhopal. Even very Sick patients left the hospitals without any medicines, as doctors said that by that time they had  run short of everything, including eyedrops. The mental and physical torture involved in leaving their homes, lack of medical treatment, lack of shelter in the cold winter were part of the price paid by the people of Bhopal for 'Operation Faith.’

Who, Then, Is To Be Held Responsible for Industrial Disasters?

The legal gains made during the Bhopal Gas Leak, and subsequently with the Delhi Oleum Leakage case, held the principle of absolute enterprise liability for hazardous substances. That is, any manufacturer of hazardous or inherently injurious substance was to be held liable. However, the Public Liability Insurance Bill (now Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991) took away these legal gains. Aimed at providing immediate relief to the survivors of industrial accidents and incidents, the bill not only provided an inadequate treatment of the scope and definition of “hazardous substance,” but it also allowed for the centre and state governments to excuse themselves from any liability arising out of industrial disasters. Moreover, despite the precedents before it, it took a narrow viewing of the injuries that manifest due to industrial disasters.

... The bill strangely gives power to exempt, by notification, enterprises of Central or State governments, ignoring the fact that the State itself is engaged in the most hazardous industries. The legislation also misunderstands the nature of injury caused by toxic hazards as it requires relief applications to be made within five years of the occurrence of the accident, whereas certain injuries may manifest themselves only after several years or decades. The complexities of classifying victims into categories of permanent total or partial disability, temporary total or partial disability and serious injury has also been left aside, whereas the question of compensation is based on the Workmen's Compensation Act, even though the Supreme Court had ordered a much higher amount of compensation payable to the victims in the Bhopal case.

Read More:

Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Medical Research in the Aftermath of the Industrial Disaster | EPW Engage

Reproductive Health Consequences of Bhopal Gas Leak: Fertility and Gynaecological Disorders | C Sathyamala, 1996

Bhopal Gas Disaster: Government Callousness | 1994

Health Damage due to Bhopal Gas Disaster: Review of Medical Research | Rajiv Lochan, 1991

The Bhopal Tragedy A Middle Word | Pushpa M Bhargava, 1985

Bhopal Gas Tragedy | Betwa Sharma, 2006

Bhopal Gas Disaster: Mockery of Relief and Rehabilitation | Sujit K Das, 1985

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