Photo stories by Rohit Jain
Text by Jitendra Bisht
More than 36 years ago, in the early hours of 03 December 1984, around 35-40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) factory in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The leaked gas from the factory, a subsidiary of the US chemicals manufacturer Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), gradually covered an area of around 40 square km, killing more than 3700 people (15,000-20,000 as per individual claims) and affecting around 6,00,000 in total  . Pregnant women miscarried as they ran, children died in their parents’ arms, and hospitals were overwhelmed.
Widely known as the “world’s worst industrial disaster”, the Bhopal gas leak was a dreadful wake-up call for India’s policymakers. Before the tragedy, practically no industrial disaster safeguard policies or sui generis laws were in place in the country. The accused were tried under the Indian Penal Code sections pertaining to homicide and death due to negligence.
In the years following the tragedy, though, several acts and rules were passed to deal with such contingencies effectively. The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1985 (Act, hereafter) was passed in the immediate aftermath of the incident. The Act conferred the power to legally represent the victims on the central government, intending to ensure speedy, effective, and equitable settlement of claims . Contrary to the Act’s mandate, however, the compensation and individual claim settlement process have been endless, holding vital lessons on how not to handle such a tragedy.
Initially, there was a tussle between the UCC ($5 million) and the Indian government ($3.3 billion) over the compensation amount . Eventually, as part of an out-of-court settlement in 1989 — four years after the tragedy — both parties agreed on $470 million as compensation [ibid]. However, this settlement was reached without involving victims and their families . As part of its order, the Supreme Court of India (SCI) quashed all criminal cases borne out of the disaster and transferred all civil lawsuits to its jurisdiction, concluding all settlements [ibid].
Thus, not only did the government settle for approximately 14% of its initial estimate of losses, SCI endorsed the settlement without consulting the victims, leaving no room for victims filing criminal lawsuits against UCC in future. The SCI order endorsing the amount was based on its then estimate of 2,05,000 victims (including casualties) [ibid]. However, as per official data, by October 2014, compensation had been awarded by the government to 5,74,386 victims and dependents  – far above the initial estimate that was used to justify the amount paid by UCC. Government agencies started disbursing the compensation amount only in 1991-92, seven years after the tragedy. The process went on till 2014, with some receiving as low as INR 26,000 .
The gas leak was just the beginning. Since the early 1990s, studies have been conducted on soil and water samples from the areas in the factory’s vicinity that show high levels of toxic chemicals in the environment. One study from 1990 showed high levels of Dichlorobenzenes — a chemical that damages the liver, kidneys, respiratory, and nervous system — in drinking water samples . Another study from 2009 showed the presence of pesticides 40 times above the permissible limit in groundwater samples from areas over 3 km away from the factory site . In Bhopal, the chromosomal abnormalities and carcinogenic effects caused by MIC exposure have lingered on . Cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Down’s syndrome, cancer, blindness, hypertension, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and learning difficulties are some common ailments found in the population, particularly the survivors.
While the physical and psychological impact of the disaster compounded, the compensation, monetary or otherwise, did not. That also holds true for the disaster’s impact on the area’s living environment, as those in power never accounted for the losses to soil health, aquifers, surface water bodies, flora, and fauna, etc.
Since the Bhopal disaster, there have been more than two dozen major and minor industrial accidents in India even as new hazardous waste management rules have been brought in, and its disaster management infrastructure has evolved considerably. Whether enough lessons have been learnt in handling the aftermath of an industrial disaster is still up for debate.
This photo project was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Rohit Jain is an independent social documentary photographer and short story writer based in New Delhi, India. His works focus on human and life development photo stories.