December 3, 1984
40 tons of toxic gas is released from a pesticide plant, killing an estimated 3,800 immediately and affecting hundreds of thousands in the decades after
Warning: This article contains images which may be considered graphic. Discretion is advised.
Shortly after midnight on December 3, 40 tons (36 metric tons) of methyl isocyanate gas was released from the U.S.-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant after a storage tank ruptured. The gas seeped into the homes surrounding the plant and immediately began to cause damage of the 600,000 residents. Victims reportedly scratched at their throats or clutched their bleeding eyes as they attempted to flee the area. “We all started running toward the train station,” Susan Kushawa, who was 8 at the time of the disaster, told reporters. She and her family — her parents and three brothers — were separated in the chaos. “They all died on the way,” Kushawa explained. The leak has been called the world’s worst industrial disaster.
An estimated 3,800 people died, though some accounts believe the figure to be as high as 25,000. Officially, the Indian government recognizes 3,500 deaths immediately after the disaster and around 15,000 killed from complications of the gas after the fact.
Union Carbide insisted the disaster was the result of a sabotage committed by a disgruntled employee rather than improper safety standards or poor construction and design of their facilities. The company paid $470 million to the Indian government in restitution.
The gas continued to affect the area decades after the initial release. The water supply has been contaminated and has poisoned the residents, leading to congenital birth defects, such as fused bones or holes in the heart, and other medical conditions, such as blindness, cancer, kidney failure, and liver disease. Most recently, a study has shown the death rate from COVID-19 is 6.5 times higher among those affected by the gas disaster than COVID patients from other regions.
Twelve people were charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder in 1987. If convicted, the defendants could have received a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. In 1996, however, India’s Supreme Court reduced the charges to death by negligence. Eight people who had held high positions within Union Carbide were convicted of this reduced charge in 2010, each receiving the maximum sentence allowable for that charge: 2 years imprisonment. A further seven former employees were ordered to pay fines of ₹100,000 (about $1,300).
The court’s rulings have been criticized for being “too little and too late.” “It sets a very sad precedence,” activist Satinath Sarangi stated. “The disaster has been treated like a traffic accident. It is a judicial disaster, and it is a betrayal [of Indian people] by the government.”
“Bhopal gas tragedy: 36 years on, survivors still await justice.” Hindustan Times. December 3, 2020. Accessed: December 3, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/36th-bhopal-gas-tragedy-anniversary-mere-lip-service-ritual-says-survivor/story-xZh0CUOb5181D0V9jOm1aK.html
Mandavilli, Apoorva. “The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster Is Still Unfolding.” The Atlantic. July 10, 2018. Accessed: December 3, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/the-worlds-worst-industrial-disaster-is-still-unfolding/560726/
Taylor, Alan. “Bhopal: The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster, 30 Years Later.” The Atlantic. December 2, 2014. Accessed: December 3, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/12/bhopal-the-worlds-worst-industrial-disaster-30-years-later/100864/
“Bhopal trial: Eight convicted over India gas disaster.” BBC. June 7, 2010. Accessed: December 3, 2020. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8725140.stm
Duff-Brown, Beth. “Bhopal, 20 years later.” Santa Cruz Sentinel. November 28, 2004
Wingerson, Lois. “Effects of Bhopal gas will linger for years.” Times-Colonist [Victoria, British Columbia]. December 16, 1984