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Bhopal Gas Tragedy: The Unfolding of an Economic and Environmental Disaster

By Unnati Tolani, Edited by Amogh Sangewar

On the night of 2nd of December 1984, the geographical heart of India, Bhopal, the city well known for its rich culture, artificial lakes, and lush environment, fell prey to one of the most disastrous industrial mishaps in the world, globally known as "The Bhopal Gas Tragedy". December 2020 marked the thirty-sixth anniversary of the massive toxic gas leak from Union Carbide Corporation's chemical plant in Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, which killed over 3,800 people. The tragedy proved to be an industrial disaster having a long-term impact on the environment and health of people in Bhopal.


The Disaster in a Nutshell: Statistics and Empirical Evidence

Bhopal faced the wrath of two tragedies: a disaster that released immediate effects onto the public and another that lingers till the present. The industrial oversight in the pesticide plant of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) massacred almost 3000 people within 2 hours. As thousands of men, women, and children succumbed to their injuries in the succeeding years, the Indian Medical Research Council set the long-term death toll at 531,w. This is an appalling figure considering the population before the disaster was about 894,539. The residents who survived attained severe injuries; 95% of the distressed population was diagnosed with at least one physical or neurological illness. Around 100,000 suffered from chronic respiratory diseases due to exposure. The neonatal mortality rate rose to 200%, and the stillbirth rate increased to an alarming 300%.

Aftermath: Was the economy stalled by this mega tragedy?

The gas leak has had a significant negative impact on income, transportation, and other essentials. Seventy-five percent of Bhopalis are only capable of working for a few hours at a period. Economically, it is essential that the population ‘works’ or ‘earns’ for a livelihood. However, since people weren’t able to work due to adverse situations, the economy suffered. People who are unable to work do not have enough income to afford extravagance or even necessities. Banks frequently grant loans at exorbitant interest rates. Citizens are forced to accept the terms because they have no other option, perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.

Considering the extent of damage, the meagre compensation of Rs 2 and 3 lacs to the affected families, and the UCC paid about $470 million for the disaster. While the union carbide mill provided jobs to nearly a thousand people and supported the incomes of those who worked for it, the compensation money paid out to victims eventually made its way back into the economy. It was not enough for the local economy to grow. Before this catastrophe, the government of Madhya Pradesh had successfully mitigated floods and cyclones with the execution of comprehensive escape plans and diplomatic damage control. But that was not enough to alleviate the tensions brewing in the wake of the gas disaster, the remnants of which continue to the present date.

Environmental impact

The environmental effect of the gas leak can be broken down into the immediate effect that led to the poisoning of the air following the leak of the deadly gas that took a toll on thousands of lives and the effect on the groundwater, soil, and even breast milk. The tragedy led to the intoxication of the air in the city.

While the immediate impact was evident with the death of thousands as they choked on these poisonous gases, the leak had severe long-term effects. The toxic gases have affected the groundwater in the city as well as the soil. They have systematically entered the food chain leading to some harmful effects on the health of the individuals in the city. According to several reports, the groundwater levels are reported to have toxicity levels around 40% higher than the Indian safety standards and even higher than the standards specified by the World Health Organization. The pollutants are carcinogenic, which highlights the gravity of the situation that the government has largely ignored. And the fact that the people have no alternative source of drinking water makes the situation worse, leaving thousands of people vulnerable to extreme levels of polluted water sources that can cause deadly diseases. The clutter around the industrial plant is still home to chemical pollutants, including mercury and other heavy metals. This is the cause of the release of toxic fumes. Thousands of the people in the makeshift houses are exposed to such a toxic environment. Therefore, the immediate and long-term environmental impact is inseparable from the tragedy's legal, social, and economic impact.

Healthcare: Long term Impact

Following the gas leak, there has been an increase in the morbidity rate and mortality rate. There have been signs of reproductive disorders amongst the people who were exposed to the gas. Pregnant women with their unborn children were exposed to toxic fumes. There are signs of growth retardation amongst the children whose parents were exposed to the toxic gas. The inhaling of the poisonous gas leak has had a severe long-term effect on an individual's immune system, liver, and lungs. There is no count of the number of people who are now victims of innumerable respiratory diseases. Much developed cancer in later years. However, such long-term effects are hardly accounted for.

Disaster management: Is there a ‘solution’?

Awareness and activism about environment protection rapidly increased after the devastating Bhopal gas tragedy on the 3rd of December 1984. The government has laid quite a few laws to ensure that such an event doesn't occur again. One of the most prominent acts that the government passed was the " Environment Protection Act" in 1986. According to NDMA ( National Disaster Management Authority), around 130 chemical accidents that included around 259 deaths and 563 serious injuries were reported till 2013, which tells about the effectiveness and efficiency of the laws imposed after the Bhopal gas tragedy. In 1991, The " Public Liability Insurance Act" was also passed, which stated to provide insurance to immediately achieve relief for the people affected by any incidents involving the handling of hazardous substances. In 2008, the government passed The "National Green Tribunal Act," which provides immediate and instant compensation and relief for the damages done to the property and the people.

Economists commonly consider the Bhopal Gas Tragedy as a Market Failure, wherein the people of Bhopal bore the horrendous cost for something they did not intend. Due to the absence of stricter laws, The Union Carbide Corporation did not bear any costs and did not compensate for the environmental and health loss fully. The tragedy indeed proved to be an environmental disaster that currently has contaminated groundwater quality in Bhopal and is responsible for long-term health issues that continue generation after generation.

Further Readings

Bhopal Gas Tragedy – A Social, Economic, Legal and Environmental Analysis by Malini Nair :: SSRN

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