Bhopal Gas tragedy and the growth of Environmental Law in India

Bhopal Gas Tragedy was a deadly disaster which took place in Bhopal, India leaving behind thousands dead and thousands other maimed for life. This is considered as one of the most horrific and lethal industrial disasters.

On a 1984 winter night, the lethal Methyl isocyanate Gas (MIC) which leaked from the Union Carbide factory making it the worst industrial disaster which the world has ever seen. In the 1970s, the Indian government was encouraging foreign investment in local industries and for the same Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) was asked to build a plant in Bhopal for the manufacture of Sevin, which is a pesticide used commonly throughout Asia. The Government of India itself had a 22% stake in the company’s subsidiary Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL).

Due to its central location and transport infrastructure Bhopal was chosen for the establishment of the plant. Bhopal was the area zoned for light industrial use and not the heavy and hazardous ones. This plant was initially approved for just formulation of pesticides but due to the increasing competition, it started manufacturing other products under the same facility which involved more hazardous processes.

On Dec 2, 1984, a small leak of MIC gas was noticed. On the morning of 3rd Dec 1984, a plume of MIC gas was there in the air leading to deaths of thousands of people. According to an estimate, 3,800 people died immediately, out of which most were in poor slums adjacent to the plant. Estimated number of deaths in the first few days was more than 10,000 and reported 15,000 – 20,000 premature deaths in the next 2 decades. After the incident, UCC tried to deny being responsible for the incident by shifting the matter towards UCIL (Union Carbide India Ltd) by trying to make the point that the plant was fully built and operated by the Indian subsidiary that is UCIL.

In March 1985, the government enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act to ensure the dealing of claims arising after the incident speedily and equitably. This made the government as the only representative of the victims in the legal processes in and outside the country.

The settlement was made by Supreme Court of India with UCC in which UCC agreed to take the moral responsibility and paid a claim of $470 million to the government which was negligible compared to a multi-billion dollar lawsuit which was filed by an American lawyer in a U.S court. This amount of $470 million was based on the disputed claim that only 3,000 people died and 1,02,000 suffered permanent disabilities. According to Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, by the end of October 2003, compensation was awarded to 5,54,895 people for injuries received and 15,310 survivors of those killed.

After this settlement, the matter was placed entirely under Indian jurisdiction. The government was blamed for not having appropriate laws for environmental safety and for settlement of claims through the establishment of liability. If this kind of proper laws would have prevailed then the victims of the incident would have got better compensation and it would have been difficult for UCC to get off the matter.

As after the breathtaking tragedy, the Indian government passed and implemented The Environment Protection Act (E.P.A) of 1986 under Article 253 of the Indian constitution. Its purpose was to implement the decisions of the UN Conference on the Human Environment of 1972 to provide protection to an improvement of environment and prevention of hazards for humans, plants, other living creatures. This act strengthens the regulations on pollution control and environment protection by hazardous industries.

The act provides the Centre with a lot of power to take all necessary actions required for the protection of the environment. It enables the executive wing to issue notifications and orders which becomes guidelines for the administrative agencies. Basically, it provides the Centre with the power to make rules for environment protection. The act has 7 schedules specifically laying down the rules for emission or discharge of pollutants from industries, prescribing emission of smoke, etc. from vehicles, provides a list of authorities to be approached in case of any discharge outside the prescribed levels and standards.

Under the provision of Section 25 of EPA, 1986 another set of rules was passed “Hazardous Waste(Management and Handling) Rules, 1989”. It includes the management of 18 categories of waste basically all toxic chemicals which could be stored in industries and used for different purposes. Some categories of waste which are included in this are-metal finishing waste, waste containing water-soluble compounds of lead, copper, zinc, etc. It issues the notification that the one generating this type of wastes or the one operating the facility which generates this type of wastes is responsible for the proper management and handling of the waste.

The Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 1994 includes almost all kinds of activities which could harm the environment in any way. Through this notification, an impact assessment of any project became mandatory. The Central Government is required to carry out an environmental impact assessment on a large scale before passing any project listed under the notification. It also established a “Right to Know”, that is, public hearing through which the common man who would get affected by the project is given the chance to speak out and is made aware of the project. Basically, a lot of transparency was included in the system for the validation of any developmental project
The journey begins of legal principle cannot be easily understood through a case study of a very landmark case M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India. The principle of “Absolute Liability” was established by Supreme Court after one more gas leak (though not a major one like Bhopal Gas Tragedy) in Shriram Fertilizer Factory in New Delhi on 4th Dec 1985, where the oleum gas was leaked from the bursting of the tank containing oleum gas which was caused by human and mechanical errors and not by any third party. This concept is of utmost importance today.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy was an incident which opened the eyes of the legislature and made their attention available to the environment and its protection. Even before this tragedy, laws such as Water Act of 1974 and Air Act of 1981 existed but EPA provides an umbrella to the Central Government for the coordination of various state and central authorities established under these previous laws. Therefore it would not be wrong to state that had the proper legislative framework would have existed then either this tragedy would not have occurred or the sufferings of the people could have been made less. The CEO of the accused UCC has died and the lawsuit against him has been shut down forever. Lack of proper and sufficient laws resulted in the loss of life of thousands of people and leaving behind many to suffer and live in pain of the after-effects of the tragedy.

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