Bhopal Gas Tragedy or Bhopal Gas Disaster, as it is commonly known, occurred due to gas leakage in Bhopal, a city in Madhya Pradesh on 2nd December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant. Over 500,000 people were exposed to highly toxic Methyl Isocyanate Gas (MIC). This incident is considered as one of the worst industrial disasters in the world.
What exactly happened?
The plant was established in 1969, of which 51% was owned by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and 49% by the Government. The plant had huge tanks to store large volumes of MIC. As a part of routine maintenance, the pipelines are washed daily around 9:30 p.m. But on that fateful night, workers sensed a leak around 10:30 p.m. But considering it to be a normal leak, they began looking out for the leak point, but no avail. Around 12:15 a.m., MIC tank pressure rocketed from 0 to 55 lb/sq.in, and water began leaking into tank E-610 which contained 42 tonnes of MIC. The resultant exothermic reaction shot up the temperature in the tank to above 200⁰C and the operator observed the concrete above the wall cracking. Finally, around 12:30 a.m. the relief valve gave away and this toxic gas leaked into the atmosphere. Seeing this, the experts tried to activate three available safety systems, of which two had been detached for maintenance purpose and one had a faulty pressure gauge. The personnel then decided to use the final resort, a water jet system that failed to reach the height of the released gas. Finally, around 1 a.m., they realized that nothing could be done and a major disaster had already been caused.
Impacts of the disaster:
· Immediate effect:
The public siren was activated only around 2:30 a.m. and hence, no prior warnings were made. The people had already started waking up to the extreme suffocation caused due to the gas release. Around 3000 people had lost their lives that week and the death rate had reached around 8000 by the end of the following week and around 15,000-20,000 people breathed their last over time. The disaster had adverse effects on more than half a million people, directly or indirectly. UCIL decided to give a compensation of US$ 470 million but the time taken for body identification by the victim’s relatives eventually resulted in a pinch out.
· Environmental Impact:
As per the investigation, the MIC Unit was shut down for six weeks after the incident and E610 which released the gas was an isolated tank. But this disaster resulted in the city containing huge traces of tonic waste (up to 100 tonnes), thus affecting the soil and groundwater. Some areas in and around the factory are affected to the extent that the entry of a person can cause him/ her to fall unconscious within 10 minutes of arrival.
On investigation, it was concluded that UCIL did not have much information about the safe storage of gas. There was a lack of coordination between the factory and energy services. The personnel working for the organization lacked professional training. Cost-cutting was the need of the hour for UCIL then. This affected the lives of the employees and the surrounding habitats, as well as safety quality. The disaster was majorly caused due to a fault in the plant design and cutback due to economic pressure.
Life- 33 years later:
The victims who survived were detected with problems like cancer, respiratory issues, blindness, etc. To add to this, the coming generations were also adversely affected. Children were born with congenital birth defects, genetic disorders, mutations, and mental retardation. This disaster has had a long term impact on the reproduction cycle and quality of breast milk for generations. The relatives of the affected are still waiting for justice. No rehabilitation was provided for the victims and as per social activists, consumption of drugs is adding up to the effects of the already affected. The only memorial in Bhopal which was privately funded is the dollar of holocaust victims, bearing an inscription that reads: “No Hiroshima, No Bhopal. We want to live”. Such are the people; fighting for justice with a ray of hope, yet want to live serenely and eventually bring back peace to their homes and their lives.