Bhopal at 25: Thoughts?

Sandhya wrote a post last year related to Bhopal last year, so perhaps it isn’t necessary to go through the particulars of a case that most people know about. Still, it seems important to acknowledge that today is 25 years to the day since the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal broke down, resulting in the release of massive amounts of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas, which killed about 30,000 people and injured thousands more (more than 500,000 people claimed damages). For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a detailed chronology of events.

As many people are aware, the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) was an American company. The plant was technically operated by its subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), which was 51% owned by UCC at the time of the disaster.

In one of the strangest, and most fateful, twists in the legal history of the Bhopal disaster, a U.S. District Court decided in May, 1986 that UCIL was an Indian company (“a separate entity, owned, managed and operated exclusively by Indian citizens in India”), and therefore any litigation regarding the Bhopal disaster should be done in India. The decision by the District Court was upheld on Appeal.

The transfer of legal authority — in effect, the U.S. justice system saying, “hey, this is not an American company, so it’s not our problem” — significantly weakened the damages that were likely to be rewarded. Indeed, the final damages, reached in an out of court settlement, was only $470 million. When all was said and done, that came out to $2,200 for each person killed, and about $500 for each person injured. Neither UCIL nor UCC ever had to acknowledge culpability, or take responsibility for cleaning up the still polluted site of the Union Carbide Plant. A Dow Chemicals executive later stated that the amount “is plenty good for an Indian.” Even with the conversion to Rupees, I can’t see how $500 is a significant help for a person who may be living with a debilitating injury, with children who are born, even years later, with serious congenital birth defects associated with (still) poisoned groundwater. It’s not “plenty good”; it’s laughable.

A commenter on Sandhya’s earlier thread mentioned the Sambhavna Clinic, which was built specifically to care for victims of the disaster. There is a “donate here” button; if you have a couple of bucks to spare, you might use it.

Finally, Suketu Mehta has a column up in the New York Times today. He does lament that Dow Chemicals hasn’t done anything to help clean up the site. But what he doesn’t mention is that the reason for that is that the U.S. justice system washed its hands of the mess in 1986, and the Indian Government, which is the only entity that today has any legal responsibility to do anything for anyone in Bhopal, meekly accepted it.

What are your thoughts today? Have you read anything insightful or enlightening with regards to the Bhopal disaster in recent days?

30 thoughts on “Bhopal at 25: Thoughts?

  1. of some relevance – autorickshaw is playing at lula lounge in hogtown tonight with proceeds to go to bhopal relief.

  2. I’ve spent much time today reviewing the story after seeing some unforgettable and horrific images of the tragedy. Wikipedia lists so many safety errors on Union Carbide’s part that it’s disturbing how this US company clearly treated the environment and Indian workers as having no value. ( Union Carbide’s official response is expectedly bereft of compassion and acceptance of fault:

  3. Thanks! for this post Amadreep.

    I remember this day very well. My wife remembers this day even better. What we are most thankful for is her good fortune – and also that she did not have to despair for the $500 compensation – which in many cases was distributed decades after the incident.

    One thing that I remember was stories that people were dying even after they are moved to a safer area. One student from the local engineering college (my school) who was volunteering to cremate bodies, died after breathing the gases emanating from the dead bodies.

    What most people do not know about is the astonishing number of fraudulent claims that were filed for compensation. One of the most popular scam was to secure a “ration card” with a Bhopal City (downtown) address, and with the effective date prior to December 3rd 1984. Then go stand in line to file a claim – most of the perpetrators of this fraud were people from the esteemed middle classes.

    One positive –

    The website, which was set up by Union Carbide, does not have the “employee sabotage caused the MIC leak” story on the front page. I do not know know when the site changed but thankfully they removed the “study” by some random desi professor (American Univ.) who opined that perpetrator of this leak was a disgruntled employee. The site still has a lot of crap but at least they are not attributing the cause of this to a single disgruntled employee. Does anyone know how this domain could be taken away from Dow/UC people ?

    Kudos to Suketu Mehta – I never imagined that I would ever read “Jahangirabad” and “Hamidia Road” in NYT, :).

  4. The site still has a lot of crap but at least they are not attributing the cause of this to a single disgruntled employee.

    I stand corrected. They still have this nonsense.

  5. Transfer of legal authority is one thing – and it was probably a legal loophole used, but legal nevertheless. But fact is, people were probably paid what an Indian’s life was worth. If an Indian Govt. owned factory had caused it, what would the Indian Govt. have paid victims back in 1984? Rs.20,000 for the dead, and Rs.5000 to the injured, maybe? How much of red tape would you a victim have to cross to claim that money before he died? Most people would not have even seen the money. That’s the status of the country, and hence that’s what the people can possibly get, be it an Indian or an American company. If Indians are cheap when they’re alive (hence outsourcing and offshoring to India), then why should Indians expect American compensation at death? It’s unfortunate, no doubt. But that’s reality of an Indian life – it’s not very valuable.

  6. It’s unfortunate, no doubt. But that’s reality of an Indian life – it’s not very valuable.

    Maybe so, but it’s not a reality we have to accept as inevitable.

  7. What is the obsession with punishing an American? And more importantly, this line

    “significantly weakened the damages that were likely to be rewarded.”

    While we have been so busy finding the “legalities” to blame someone. In the end, we have all forgotten the people who were affected. What about the Indian Government?

    Can’t we spend money to help those affected? Have they been helped to the best of our abilities? Have we increased medical research spending to find cures?

  8. Agree w/ Pratap. If UCC owed 51% of UCIL, where is the similar in scope attention on the other 49% owners? Also, it’s India that set up the “L” in UCIL (for “Limited liability”)–if they’re willing to take the hit in investment, they should abolish the legality of “L” or else require more insurance to be carried by firms like UCIL. Chasing UCC is like the obsession w/ Moby Dick.

  9. what a very sad statement – that any life would be less valued then the next. i feel depressed just thinking about it.

  10. Why do you think the Indian government has the legal responsibility, did the courts find against the Indian government?

  11. Why do you think the Indian government has the legal responsibility, did the courts find against the Indian government?

    Where is this focus/obsession on “legal” “responsibility” and “courts” coming from? It’s simply a public policy issue–India promised Union Carbide they could set up a subsidiary with “limited liability”–this means UCC can walk away . . . . maybe this was a bad policy decision by Indian gov’t, especially if they didn’t require enough insurance/regulate safety. If UCC isn’t “legally” “responsible” then it’s up to the Indian gov’t to step up and provide additional compensation (beyond what was available from UCIL) if it’s warranted.

  12. While we have been so busy finding the “legalities” to blame someone.

    When the legalities involved a patent misrepresentation (“entirely owned… by Indians”) that made it much easier for Union Carbide to evade responsibility. I’m not normally one to suspect collusion between corporate entities and the government, but here it seems like the courts were basically doing UCC’s bidding.

    Why do you think the Indian government has the legal responsibility, did the courts find against the Indian government?

    What I meant was, when they settled out of court they let UCC off the hook for any further damages. After that, they are responsible the way any government has a responsibility to its citizens. People sometimes make the emotional case against Dow Chemicals (which bought out UCC in 2001), but there is no longer anything there in the legal sense. There’s no point saying “Dow should clean up the mess, it’s been 25 years.” They will never do it.

    Agree w/ Pratap. If UCC owed 51% of UCIL, where is the similar in scope attention on the other 49% owners?

    I believe much of the other 49% was the GOI.

  13. It is 1934 you are talking about, Indian government didn’t promise UCC that they could set up a limited liability company, the Bhopal plan was set in the 70s. It was the legal structure that the company chose when it set up shop in India.

  14. It is 1934 you are talking about, Indian government didn’t promise UCC that they could set up a limited liability company, the Bhopal plan was set in the 70s. It was the legal structure that the company chose when it set up shop in India.

    Yes, yes, but we are really saying the same thing. GOI can’t offer limited liability to foreign investors to induce them to invest, then try to collect unlimited amount after accident. GOI has to make the encourage investment versus provide compensation tradeoff one time–not opportunistically post hoc. Limited liability is bad after big accidents, but good in terms of getting investment into country. GOI made its bed, now sleep in it. GOI owes additional compensation, not UCC.

  15. I am sorry to go on about this irrelevant point, what legal structure with unlimited liability (proprietorship, partnership), should the government had allowed?

  16. Yes, if GOI doesn’t want responsibility, it has to make foreign investor have unlimited liability, (like partnership or (sole) proprietorship, as you mention nicely), or a corporation without limited liability, or if it’s a corporation with limited liability, then make it carry sufficient insurance. This is not “irrelevant” this is corporate law 101 plus foreign investment 101. I studied law in India–it is very basic stuff, believe me.

  17. Irrelevant as it adding nothing to the discussion, I have no idea how what you propose can ever work in reality. Moderators can feel free to delete my comments as they are not relevant to the post and Amardeep answered my question above.

  18. I have no idea how what you propose can ever work in reality

    It works with cars here in USA–since people have limited liability, due to bankruptcy laws, we make drivers carry minimum amounts of insurance. Often too little, but if GOI is giving UCIL limited liability, they need to be requiring enough insurance coverage by them, like car drivers.

  19. Here’s my two cents:

    The fact that Union Carbide and Dow have absolutely refused to do anything to clean up the mess is awful, terrible, horrific.

    But it seems to me that we all have spent too much time dwelling on ‘compensation’ and ‘responsibility’– let’s face it, Union Carbide/Dow got away with it, and it’s not as if they are going to do anything now. There is no way they are going to do anything without a significant push by the Indian government, and that is just not going to happen…

    My suggestions? Remember what happened, remember the mistakes that were made, learn from it (companies working in India(well the world, really) should not pose threats to people or the environment, and should be required to uphold international safety standards). I think this is the best way to go ahead, and as human beings, we should band together and try to find ways to help those affected by it, and help clean up the drinking water,etc. Because, let’s face it, they’re never going to do it, and if we all sit around complaining about their lack of responsibility, then people in Bhopal are going to continue to suffer. I think we should end the ever-lasting tragedy that exists in Bhopal since the tragedy, by finding ways to move forward.

  20. Interesting comments here. After 25 years we at Bhopal are looking for ways to move forward.When our government failed to provide required hospitals, The Sambhavna Clinic ( was initiated by the people of Bhopal. The effected areas around the factory (still standing) are very thickly populated, and the chemicals lying in the ‘sealed’ factory (officially. Actually the boundary walls are broken, any body can get in) are going into the ground water for 25 years every monsoon. We cannot go and remove them, the police would take care of that. The Gas Rehabilitation Minister of the State Government promised piped safe drinking water for the victims in 2004. It has not materialsed. We cannot get the piped water without the gevernment. Now the same minister is asking the central government for Rs 116 Crore for a memorial at the defunct factory site ( This persons daughter-in-law is the main candidate for the forthcoming Bhopal Municiplaity Elections (scheduled for 11th December 2009), so we can look forward to protest rally on the 35th anniversary of Bhopal day for lack of proper drinking water. Dr N. Ganesh’s (Head,Research Department,Jawaharlal Nehru Cancer Hospital and Research Centre,Bhopal) exhaustive researches on chromosomal translocations have confirmed an acrocentric association among gas-affected men and women. The condition, causes the merger of two chromosomes, leaving the victim with 45 chromosomes. The common form is Robertsonian translocation which ‘merges’ the five acrocentric chromosome pairs in the human body—chromosomes 13, 14, 15, 21 and 22. While a balanced Robertsonian translocation can leave a victim normal, an unbalanced form could cause acute or chronic leukemia, infertility, abortions in the first trimester and conditions like Down syndrome.(Details: Any suggestions, what else can be done by us, the people of Bhopal, inspite of the Government? Change government?In this part of India, a lamp post with lotus symbol (BJP) will win any election, hands down. Not that Congress is far better, but?

  21. Have you read anything insightful or enlightening with regards to the Bhopal disaster in recent days?

    This op-ed in the Hindu is very well-written and informative. It also throws some light on the ‘legality’ and culpability aspects that have been discussed in previous comments.

    Thanks, Amardeep for writing about Bhopal.

  22. Would be good (and more constructive as a practical matter) to see more criticism of the GOI in the press as well. None of the reemployment schemes have done anything. The relocation plans have been totally botched. People are still drinking water known to be contaminated. The private NGOs are the only ones providing any meaningful healthcare. All of this is stuff that funding was allocated for independent of UC/Dow.

  23. Related. I do not know whether this report is correct:\11\21\story_21-11-2009_pg7_9 The Indian government has absolved American nuclear companies of liability in case of a possible accident during the building and installation of nuclear reactors and facilities in India. A Civil Nuclear Liability bill cleared by the Union Cabinet late on Thursday presents India’s desire to work with the American firms. Washington has been asking New Delhi that the nuclear deal the two countries signed last year would be futile as the American companies, and most Western firms, would not do business with India unless the liability law was promulgated. Most American companies see huge investment potential in India and only want it to have a law to limit the claims for damages in the wake of an accident that may occur before they hand over a nuclear plant to the country. In the bill, the Indian government is seeking to bear the entire compensation for any nuclear accident. iftikhar gilani

  24. The Bhopal Tragedy was perpetrated by sons of Satan named Union Carbide. These Dracula blood suckers murdered many Indians of all different faiths and political beliefs to maximize shareholder value of their death cult called capitalism. I hope that the Indian victims are renumerated, that these acts dint occur again anywhere; and these dollar-sucking vampires are punished by a Loya Jirga.

  25. Whether it was an “American” corporation or an “Indian” corporation, the fact that a corporation got blamed means none of the individual people who made the bad decisions that killed and hurt so many went to jail for it!

  26. To add a legal perspective here: American courts will defer to the courts of a foreign nation in many situations. The idea of “forum non conveniens” means that where all or most of the witnesses and evidence are in another country, particularly a country that has a functioning civil legal system, it is right to defer to the jurisdiction of that other country. With a few exceptions, American corporate parents of Indian companies can be sued in India. Would justice be swifter in the United States? Most probably. But generally, that’s not a good enough reason in the American legal system to allow cases to be brought here that should really be within the jurisdiction of a foreign nation.

  27. I definitely recommend reading:

    Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster

    In addition to the amazing story of what happened that night, the writers detail the daily operations of the plant–and later–absolute neglect of the operation. (I think it had simply stopped making money and was allowed to rot.)

    Anyway, read the book years ago and it was far from “an accident”, murderous neglect?

    Given the amount of daily maintenance needed for the plant (which was performed regularly for years) over a long period of time, it’s astounding that it held up so long.

  28. Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre

    In 2005, I spent five days in Bhopal visiting cousins who are doctors working full-time at the Bhopal Memorial Hospital. It is a huge facility on a sprawling campus, replete with guest house and staff housing, built to provide free follow up care for victims of the UC disaster. It attracts both bona-fide victims and numerous others with dubious claims. When I visited, there were no throngs of patients in distress, nor signs of overworked staff. So I don’t see what special claim the Sambhavna Clinic can make of providing similar care. Please investigate before donating!
    While I am no expert on the Bhopal disaster and its extended aftermath, the issue seems to get a lot of coverage based on limited, casual, or armchair-bound research into the current state of affairs. Suketu Mehta’s column is an op-ed piece that just doesn’t say anything new. In his column, “I have traveled to Bhopal …” sounds to me like a cop-out for not having done any serious investigative update in 25 years. I too can honestly say that “I have traveled to Bhopal …”, and fill in the rest of the column with details gleaned from published sources.

  29. So nice of Mr. Singh to take note of Bhopal. Something else happened 25 years ago in India. Can you help me?