A Westminster Hall debate on Sri Lankan Tamils and human rights is scheduled for Tuesday 5 December 2023, from 2.30-4.00pm. The debate will be led by Martyn Day MP.
The disaster and its aftermath
In the early hours of 2 December 1984 an accident at the Union Carbide chemicals factory in Bhopal, India, caused approximately 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate, a toxic gas, to be released into the air, alongside other poisonous gases. It is estimated that 3,800 people were killed instantly, mostly from the population of poorer, informal settlements that surrounded the factory.
Estimates vary as to the final death toll. There is “still no consensus on the number of people who perished due to the gas leak on the night of Dec 2–3, 1984, or those who have died since”. Some of the difficulty comes from estimating how many premature deaths in the vicinity are directly attributable to the disaster.
Greenpeace in a 2002 report (PDF) state that “More than 8,000 people died in the first three days. 520,000 people were exposed to poisonous gases. 150,000 victims are still chronically ill, with even now one person dying every two days”. A 2005 academic review of literature on the disaster states that “Estimates of the number of people killed in the first few days by the plume from the UCC plant run as high as 10,000, with 15,000 to 20,000 premature deaths reportedly occurring in the subsequent two decades”.
Court cases and compensation
Four months after the disaster according to Reuters, “Union Carbide offered $7m as relief after the government of India filed a lawsuit in a US court seeking $3bn in damages. The company raised the offer to $350m in 1986”.
The Indian Government also passed legislation in 1985 “that enabled the government to act as legal representatives of the victims”.
In 1989 Union Carbide paid $470 million in a final settlement of claims, which the Indian Supreme Court ruled would end all civil and criminal proceedings, and it upheld the legality of the 1985 law.
However, various appeals were heard by the Indian Supreme court. In October 1991 it upheld the settlement, dismissed all other outstanding petitions and ordered the Indian government to purchase out of the settlement fund a group medical insurance policy to cover 100,000 people who might later develop symptoms.
In 2004 the Indian Supreme Court ordered the Indian government to release any remaining settlement funds to victims.
In 2006 the Welfare Commission for Bhopal Gas Victims, responsible for distributing compensation, announced that all original compensation claims, and revised petitions had been paid.
In June, 2010 seven Indian former Union Carbide officials were found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
In December 2010, India’s attorney general filed a petition in the Supreme Court to increase the settlement to $1.1bn (£700m) – arguing the original settlement was “based on incorrect figures and didn’t include costs to clean environmental pollution”. The petition put the casualty figures at 5,295 dead, 4,902 cases of permanent disability, 35,455 cases of temporary disability and 42 cases of severe injury.
From 2012 the government started distributing additional compensation to “severely affected” survivors, giving some 33,000 people 100,000 rupees each. But activists said “the government petition still underestimates the number of victims and the compensation did not go to many who needed it”.
The current Indian Government in October 2022, is still considering pursuing further action in the Supreme Court, based on the 2010 petition.
Union Carbide ownership
In 2001, nearly 17 years after the disaster, Dow Chemical purchased the parent company of Union Carbide (UC).
Dow says it did not inherit any legal or financial liability when it bought UC, and that UC “has operated as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dow, with its own assets and liabilities distinct and separate from Dow”. “Most important[ly]”, the company states that UC and UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited the local entity which operated the plant at Bhopal) “settled all liability claims related to the gas release under a legally-binding settlement with the Union of India approved by the Supreme Court of India in 1989”.
Dow’s relationship with UC became a matter of news interest in 2012, as Dow was a major sponsor of the London 2012 Olympic Games and paid for a fabric wrap to go around the main stadium. This led to renewed questions as to the company’s relationship with UC and its association with the Bhopal disaster.
George Hamilton, then Dow’s vice president of Olympic operations, suggested that people should be questioning the Indian Government as to what they were planning to do with the site, and the issue of compensation for the victims:
- If there is any questioning it has to be to the Indian government and why have they sat on their hands for 13 years?
- They [the government] took back the land from Macleod Russel India specifically to remediate the land and it has done nothing.
- Now the government is seeking to attach Dow to financial liabilities and responsibilities, when to date every court has said you can’t attach liability to a company that had no association, and this is the same government that has an obligation for additional claims.
 Daily Telegraph, London 2012 Olympics: Dow Chemical puts blame for ongoing crisis in Bhopal at Indian government’s door [via Nexis News], 8 March 2012.
Press and media articles
The following is a selection of press and media articles relevant to this debate.
Please note: the Library is not responsible for either the views or accuracy of external content.
Ground Report, 10 October 2022
Bhopal Medical Appeal, 29 June 2022
Bhopal Medical Appeal, 17 January 2022
Shilpa Jamkhandikar, Reuters, 3 December 2020
N D Jayaprakash, NewsClick, 13 September 2020
N D Jayaprakash, NewsClick, 11 September 2020
How Union Carbide Exploited a Government Loophole, K Subramanian, Economic & Political Weekly Vol 50 No 3, 17 January 2015 (updated 7 May 2020)
Hannah Ellis-Petersen, Guardian, 8 December 2019
Owen Gibson, Guardian, 12 March 2012
NDTV, 7 June 2010
Rajesh Chhabara, Reuters Events, 3 June 2010
BBC News, 3 December 2009
Amnesty International, 25 November 2004
Barbara Dinham and Satinath Sarangi, Environment & Urbanization Vol 14 No 1, April 2002
ICJB [International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal], 1 November 2022
8 Nov 2022 | 74959
Asked by: Navendu Mishra
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, pursuant to the Answer on 28 October 2022 to Question 62153 on India: Accidents, whether any specific support has been provided to the (a) state government and (b) civil society partners to help improve (i) health, (ii) nutrition, (iii) basic urban services and (iv) rural livelihoods for victims of the Bhopal disaster.
Answered by: Anne-Marie Trevelyan | Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
Union Carbide provided a settlement of $470 million to the Indian Government following the Bhopal disaster to fund a clean up operation, compensation to the injured and the families of the deceased, and provide ongoing welfare support to those affected. The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) did not provide any additional funding or direct support. DfID has supported development in Madhya Pradesh since 1999. We worked with the State Government to assist 11,000 slum dwellers with access to clean water and 66,400 households in rural areas to increase their income across the state covering eight affected slums in Bhopal by the tragedy. The health support doubled the number of births in hospitals and clinics, increasing the chances of newborn survival across the state. Union Carbide and DfID programmes ended in 2013 and 2015, respectively. The FCDO has had no direct engagement with the State Government on the gas tragedy since 2015.
28 Oct 2022 | 62153
Asked by: Navendu Mishra
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if he will make an assessment of the implications for his policies of the means of redress for survivors of the Bhopal gas explosion.
Answered by: Leo Docherty | Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The loss of life resulting from the chemical leak in Bhopal in 1984 was a terrible tragedy, one which continues to affect the citizens of Bhopal to this day. The FCDO does not run specific programmes for those affected by the Bhopal disaster given that responsibility for remediation rests with the Indian authorities. However, we work closely with the State Government and other civil society partners to improve health, nutrition, basic urban services, and rural livelihoods for the poorest and most socially excluded communities.
Early Day Motions
EDM 1163 (session 2019-21), 18 November 2020
EDM 278 (session 2010-12), 21 June 2010
EDM 234 (session 2004-05), 30 November 2004
Union Carbide Statement, Union Carbide Corporation
Bhopal Medical Appeal
Bhopal Medical Appeal
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