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Background and Causes of the Disaster

1960's Union Carbide ad:
"Science helps build a new India"
image source

During the 1960's there was a push for farmlands to produce higher yields so communities and whole countries could become food self-sufficient. The movement, called the Green Revolution, was initially endorsed by the Rockefeller Foundation and spread widely throughout the world.

In India, this meant expanding farmland beyond the few states that currently were used in this capacity, procuring and using hybrid seeds, and widespread use of herbicides and pesticides.

Previously, in 1934, the United States' monster chemical company, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), had invested in India forming Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). The American UCC held 51% share of UCIL with the remainder of the company owned by private Indian companies and the Indian government.

UCIL was uniquely poised to respond to the increased demand for pesticides in India and moved their offices to Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, where efforts to expand agricultural capacity were currently being targeted. Less than two years later, in 1970, a pesticide plant was built and ready for production.

The building was built near an old fertilizer plant, however this happened to be within 1 kilometer of the railway into town and within 3 kilometers of two of the major hospitals. By 1977, the Bhopal plant was licensed to use methyl-isocyante (MIC) for the production of pesticide carbaryl (also known as Sevin).

Unfortunately, the prosperity UCIL envisioned was slowly being whittled away by drought and the realization that Sevin was less effective than previously thought. In 1983 sales of Sevin by UCIL dropped 23% and the plant was downsized dramatically. UCIL decided to ignore several needed mechanical upgrades and cut safety measures. Personnel were also downsized by nearly half and all night maintenance supervisors' shifts were cut.


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