“Inoffensive as a chocolate factory?”: The lethal story of Bhopal Gas Leak

Author: Riteeka Labh, a Student of Bharati Vidyapeeth New Law College, Pune.


In 1934, Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) was established in India with the aim of manufacturing batteries, chemicals, pesticides, and various industrial products. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), an American enterprise, held a controlling interest in UCIL. In 1970, UCIL constructed a pesticide plant in a densely populated locality of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. On the night of December 2-3, toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked into the atmosphere, resulting in the enduringly lethal ‘Bhopal Gas Leak’ incident.


In the early stages, an Argentine agronomic engineer at UCC raised safety concerns about the plant, only to be dismissed by superiors who assured its harmlessness, stating it “as Inoffensive as a chocolate factory”. With approval from the Indian government, UCIL began producing pesticides Sevin and Temik at its Bhopal facility. However, on the fateful night of December 2-3, 1984, tragedy struck as water entered a tank containing over forty tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC), resulting in a catastrophic gas leak. The toxic fumes engulfed the densely populated areas of Bhopal, transforming the city into a ‘gas chamber,’ claiming an immediate death toll of around 2600, which skyrocketed to 8000 within two weeks, with hundreds of thousands suffering the consequences.

The repercussions of the disaster haunted Bhopal for generations. Unofficial estimates suggest that over 20,000 lost their lives, while around 600,000 endured lasting physical harm. Even unborn children at the time of the tragedy were not spared from its devastating effects. Today, residents still suffer from genetic defects such as reproductive system damage, respiratory issues, and vision impairments due to the gas leak nearly three decades ago.

The Bhopal gas tragedy stands as an unparalleled industrial disaster in global history. However, the aftermath was equally tragic. The response from India’s political, judicial, legal, and media spheres failed to deliver justice or act as a deterrent against future negligence. Victims were further victimized in their pursuit of justice, with debates and decisions on compensation, corporate negligence, and legal responsibility yielding little relief for those affected.

Doctrine of Parens Patriae:

The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act of 1985, enacted shortly after the tragedy, granted the Central government exclusive authority to represent and act on behalf of those affected by the gas leak. Under this act, the government invoked the legal principle of parens patriae, which originated in the UK and evolved in the US, allowing the state to protect citizens’ well-being in a representative capacity.

However, this move faced severe backlash. UCIL, the responsible entity, was partly owned by state corporations, raising questions about potential government liability. Critics argued that by invoking parens patriae, the government shielded itself from accountability rather than prioritizing victim protection. The act’s constitutionality was challenged in the Supreme Court, which acknowledged the potential effectiveness of parens patriae if pursued diligently. However, it criticized the government’s lack of commitment and responsibility in executing this principle. As a result, victims received inadequate compensation and were deprived of their right to individual action, highlighting the failure of the state to fulfil its obligations towards the affected populace.

Proceedings before the Keenan Court:

In April 1985, utilizing the authority vested by the Bhopal Act, the Central government initiated legal proceedings against UCC in the Southern District Court of New York, USA. Concurrently, numerous cases related to the Bhopal gas leak were already underway in US federal courts, totalling 144. These cases were consolidated and assigned to Judge John Keenan’s court.

The situation presented a paradox: while India contended that its legal system was inadequate to handle the complexity of the case, the US corporation claimed the opposite. India essentially scrutinized its own legal system while the American corporation celebrated it.

However, Judge Keenan deemed these arguments untenable and dismissed the claim based on forum non conveniens, a doctrine allowing a court to reject jurisdiction in favour of a more suitable forum. He noted that most evidence and witnesses were in India, and emphasized India’s vested interest in enforcing safety standards. Judge Keenan made notable remarks, suggesting that retaining the litigation in the US would perpetuate imperialism, asserting India’s capability for fair justice delivery.

The Meagre Indian Settlement:

Upon returning to India, the settlement reached was meagre. In September 1986, the Union of India initiated proceedings against UCC in a district court in Bhopal, which ordered UCC to deposit an interim compensation of 350 crore (3.5 billion) rupees. Upon appeal, the Madhya Pradesh High Court reduced this figure to 250 crore (2.5 billion) rupees. Despite Indian law requiring the contested amount to be deposited before moving to an appellate court, UCC failed to comply.

In an effort to expedite justice for the victims, the court ordered UCC to pay 470 million dollars (approximately 750 crore [7.5 billion] rupees at that time) as a full settlement of all claims related to the Bhopal gas disaster. This amount was a compromise between UCC’s offer of 426 million dollars and the Union of India’s demand for 500 million dollars. The settlement concluded all civil proceedings and quashed criminal proceedings related to the gas leak. However, the victims and several NGOs expressed dissatisfaction, as the Central government had initially promised compensation amounting to 3 billion dollars.

Months later, the Supreme Court issued a reasoned decision for its compensation order. Unfortunately, the settlement did not address critical issues raised by the Bhopal incident. The court acknowledged the need to protect national interests from exploitation by foreign corporations and to develop criteria for managing hazardous technology. Despite the court’s assertion that the compensation was adequate and exceeded personal injury claims at the time, it failed to grasp the full extent of the damage caused by the gas leak and its enduring long-term effects. To illustrate, if we conservatively estimate that 170,000 people were killed or injured, each victim or their kin would receive less than 50,000 rupees as compensation.

This led to reflections on Indian law’s valuation of life compared to other nations like the United States. The question arose: is it because India has a large population that each life is not valued as much?

Criminal Charges Revived:

Following the widely condemned settlement sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 1989, several petitions challenging its basis prompted the formation of a five-judge Constitution Bench to review the settlement. However, before the judgement could be delivered, the Chief Justice of India at the time, Justice Sabyasachi Mukherjee, passed away, leading to a delay for a rehearing. Eventually, in a judgement dated 3 October 1991, the court affirmed the legal validity of the settlement between UCC and the Union of India. However, it missed the opportunity to revise the compensation amount of 470 million dollars, which was deemed unrealistic. Additionally, the court stressed the urgency of delivering justice to the victims, estimating that the full adjudication of suits related to the Bhopal disaster would extend until 2010.

Despite these shortcomings, the judgement had two positive outcomes. Firstly, it spurred the revival of criminal proceedings against UCC officers, reversing the earlier decision to quash them. Secondly, it established that if the settlement amount fell short, the Union of India would be obligated to cover the shortfall. Notably, Justice Aziz Mushabber Ahmadi dissented on this point, questioning why Indian taxpayers should bear the burden when the Union of India was not found liable in tort for the disaster and had not been shown to have acted negligently in reaching the settlement.

Criminal Proceedings against UCC/UCIL Officials: 

The criminal proceedings against the directors and officers of UCC and UCIL saw numerous cases filed in courts across India. Initially, charges were framed under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, which carried a maximum imprisonment term of ten years. However, responding to an appeal, the Supreme Court reduced the charge to ‘causing death by negligence’ under Section 304A of the IPC, punishable by imprisonment of up to two years. The trial proceeded in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court, and on 7 June 2010, seven individuals were convicted for two years each in connection with the Bhopal gas leak. Warren Anderson, the Chairman of UCC at the time of the leak, did not appear in court and was declared an absconder. Despite the court imposing the maximum punishment available, it faced sharp criticism for treating the disaster as if it were a minor traffic accident.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q . How did ‘Bhopal gas leak’ happen?

Ans. The Bhopal gas leak occurred on the night of 2–3 December 1984 when water seeped into a tank containing over forty tonnes of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC), causing an exothermic reaction that led to the escape of MIC into the atmosphere. This gas spread over the densely populated parts of Bhopal, transforming the city into a ‘gas chamber’.

Q. How much compensation did the Supreme court order UCC to pay the victims in 1989?

Ans. In 1989, the Supreme Court ordered UCC to pay 470 million dollars (approximately 750 crore [7.5 billion] rupees then) in full settlement of all claims related to the Bhopal gas disaster.

Q. What was the criminal liability of the wrongdoers as declared in 2010?

Ans. Regarding criminal liability, in 2010, the Supreme Court held the wrongdoers liable for causing ‘death by negligence’ under Section 304A of the IPC. Seven individuals were convicted for two years each in connection with the Bhopal gas leak.


The Bhopal gas leak exemplified how influential multinationals exploit developing countries, importing hazardous technology without adequate legal infrastructure to handle potential disasters. It prompted India to enact the Environment Protection Act (1986) and other environment-friendly laws, signalling a shift towards addressing sustainable development concerns. However, it also highlighted the shortcomings in India’s policy framework.

“Inoffensive as a chocolate factory?”: The lethal story of Bhopal Gas Leak

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *