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Policy Response

Victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy during a 2005 protest in
New Delhi, India.
image source

The Blame Game

As a result of a certain chemical company's failure to take full responsibility has seriously affected the response to the disaster, a “blame him” atmosphere permeated the aftermath of the disaster and has limited the ability for victims to find closure.

It seems that every consistency is blaming someone different:

  • The plant was allowed to fall into disrepair..None of the six safety systems designed to contain a leak were operational. The Bhopal Medical Appeal (www.bhopal.org)
  • [India's] government first made the plant unsafe and then drew the people into the path of the coming gas cloud. “Bhopal: The Fruit of Industrial Policy,” Robert James Bidinotto, The Intellectual Activist, July 19, 1985

Some cynics have even charged that the Madya Pradesh state government sought to use the disaster to their advantage in elections held shortly thereafter. By thwarting efforts by Union Carbide to provide relief, some believe the government wanted to prevent the company from gaining any good will among the public.

Compensating Victims


1985 – 1988: Government provides relief & aid, pursues legal case

1989: Union Carbide agrees to $470 million compensation settlement

1991: Relief payments started, however only residents in specific “gas affected areas” of the city were eligible to receive compensation

Only parts of Bhopal were considered "affected" by the
gas leak (click to view larger)
image source

Gas Affected Areas: Compensating only specific “gas affected areas” politicized the process, with some advocates calling for more wards to be included.

A complication with ward-wide payments in Bhopal was that between the 1984 disaster and the beginning of payments in 1991, the city's population more than doubled. This meant that new residents who for some reason decided to move into a “gas affected area” were eligible for compensation.

  • This is both good and bad.
  • Because the gas exposure is presumed to have contaminated the soil and water, even new Bhopal residents are likely being exposed to contaminants and could benefit from sharing in the settlement.
  • However, payments to these new residents have the effect of shrinking an already small compensation pool,
    leaving some victims with unpaid medical bills or relatives of the dead undercompensated.

Union Carbide contributed about $100 million (90% of it in stock) to fund relief & prevention efforts. The major contribution was $90 million for hospital catering to heart, lung, and eye problems. Other contributions included $5 million to the Indian Red Cross, $4.6 million for interim aid, and $2 million for a vocational training center in Bhopal—which has since been closed.

Policy Outcomes

Judicial Precedent

  • Progress in reforming liability law: Soon after the disaster, Indian courts ruled that liability in the case of a disaster is commensurate with a company's assets and not merely with the amount of damage caused.
  • Use of interim damage awards: The disaster marked the first time that the Indian government had made interim damage awards. A positive development for sure, but given the problems associated with relief payments in this case, this was not exactly earth shattering.
  • Strengthened & expanded class action rights: For the first time in its history, the Indian government invoked Parens patriae, which meant that they acted on behalf of the citizens as a plaintiff for a class action lawsuit.


Legislation Passed

The disaster triggered a number of new, far-reaching programs aimed at creating a strong oversight structure for mitigating industrial risk in India.

  • Environment Protection Act (1986): The Act was an umbrella law aimed at enabling a more holistic approach to risk management and remedying shortcomings in current environmental standards. The Act strengthened inspections standards, controlled hazardous substances, encouraged reporting of violations, and required more personal responsibility from corporations. Created under the Act was the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which administers and enforces environmental laws.
  • Factories (Amendment) Act (1987): This Act amended and strengthened an existing law by providing additional safeguards in the use and storage of hazardous substances. It also mandated worker safety training. It represented a very positive step towards creating a safer working environment for India's working class.
  • Air (Amendment) Act (1987): Required every industry to get governmental consent to release pollutants.
  • Hazardous Waste Rules (1989): Basically allowed government to “authorize” companies as to what they could pollute with.
  • Public Liability Insurance Act (1991): Required every business owner to carry insurance to cover death, injury, or damage resulting from a disaster. The Act pertained less with the workers than with the neighbors, who had previously been unprotected. However, the extent of liability and how it was to be covered were unclear. It also failed address growth in settlements near a given plant or distinguish between highly- and less-hazardous materials.


Priorities Reordered

Protesters mark the 20-year
anniversary of the Bhopal Disaster
image source

Following the disaster, there was a shift—even if only temporary—from a singular focus on short-term economic gain at the expense of public health or long-term environmental health towards a more complete, balanced, and sustainable lifestyle.

For example, ICI, a British company whose Indian subsidiary manufactured pesticides, increased attention to health, safety and environmental issues following the events of December 1984. The subsidiary increased spending on environmental-related projects to 30–40% of capital expenditures. However, the subsidiary still does not adhere to standards as strict as their parent company in the UK.

In addition, chemical giant DuPont spent nearly ten years attempting to export a nylon plant from Richmond, Virginia to Goa, India. In its early negotiations with the Indian government, DuPont had sought and won a clause in its investment agreement that absolved it from all liabilities in case of an accident. But the people of Goa were not willing to allow an important ecological site to be cleared for another heavy polluting plant. After nearly a decade of protesting by Goa's residents, DuPont was forced to scuttle plans there. Chennai was the next proposed site for the plastics plant. The state government there made significantly greater demand on DuPont for concessions on public health and environmental protection. Eventually, these plans were also scuttled due to “financial concerns”


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