S. Muralidhar

published in
544 Seminar
Elusive Justice:
A symposium on the
Bhopal Gas Disaster
After Twenty Years

December 2004


1969 Union Carbide India Limited’s (UCIL) plant at Bhopal designed by its holding company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), U.S.A (which held 50.9% of UCIL’s equity) was built in 1969 as a formulation factory for UCC’s SEVIN brand of pesticides, produced by reacting Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) and alpha naphthol. Sevin kills pests by paralysing their nervous systems. At this time MIC was imported from the US in steel containers. Plant set up on land taken on long-term lease from State of Madhya Pradesh.

1975 UCC decided to ‘integrate backwards” and manufacture ingredients of Sevin at the Bhopal of UCIL. Although the then zonal regulations prohibited locating polluting activity in the vicinity of 2 kms from the railway station, UCC was able to persuade the authorities to grant it the necessary clearances.

1978 The alpha naphtol manufacturing unit was set up and a year later the MIC unit was set up at UCIL’s plant in Bhopal

December 25, 1981 Leak of Phosgene gas at the UCIL plant killed one worker.

January 9, 1982 25 workers were hospitalised as a result of another leak at the UCIL plant. Workers’ protests went unheeded.

1982 Bhopal journalist Rajkumar Keswani wrote a series of articles in local press about the dangers posed by the UCIL plant

March 1982 Leak from one of the solar evaporation ponds took place in March 1982. In April 1982 a UCIL document addressed to UCC noted that the continued leakage was causing great concern.

May 1982 UCC sent its US experts to UCIL plant to conduct audit. The team noticed leaking valves and a total of 61 hazards, 30 of which were major and 11 of which were in the MIC/Phosgene units

September 1982 UCIL de-linked the alarm from the siren warning system so that only their employees would be alerted over minor leaks without “unnecessarily” causing “undue panic” among neighbourhood residents.

October 5, 1982 Another leak from the plant resulted in hospitalisation of hundreds of nearby residents.

March 4, 1983 Bhopal lawyer Shahnawaz Khan served a legal notice on UCIL stating that the plant posed a serious risk to health and safety of workers and residents nearby.

April 29, 1983 In a written reply, UCIL’s Works Manager denied the allegations as baseless.


Between 1983 & 1984 The safety manuals were re-written to permit switching off the refrigeration unit and shutting down the vent gas scrubber when the plant was not in operation.

The staffing at the MIC unit was reduced from 12 to 6

Thus at the time of the disaster on the night of December 2/3, 1984

  • The refrigeration unit installed to cool MIC and prevent chemical reactions had been shut for 3 months
  • The vent gas scrubber had been shut off for maintenance
  • The flare tower had been shut off
  • There were no effective alarm systems in place
  • The water sprayers were incapable of reaching the flare towers
  • The temperature and pressure gauges were malfunctioning
  • Tank number 610 for storing MIC was filled above recommended capacity
  • The stand by tank for use in case of excess was already having MIC


November 29, 1984 UCC had by this time decided to dismantle the plant and ship it to Indonesia or Brazil. The feasibility report for this was completed on November 29, three days before the Disaster

December 2, 1984 At 8.30 p.m. the workers under instructions from their supervisors began a water-washing exercise to clear the pipes choked with solid wastes. The water entered the MIC tank past leaking valves and set off an exothermic `runaway reaction’ causing the concrete casing of tank 610 to split and the contents leaking into the air.

December 3, 1984 Because of no warning given to residents or about precautions they should take, many of them ran on to the streets to meet a certain death. A suo-motu FIR was recorded by the SHO at P.S. Hanumanganj on 3.12.84 against UCC, UCIL and its executives and employees under s.304 A IPC. The record indicates the grim statistics:

  • 3828 died on the day of the disaster (the unofficial toll is feared to be much higher – by 2003 over 15,000 death claims have been processed)
  • Over 30,000 injured on the fateful day (a figure that now stands at 5.5 lakhs)
  • 2544 animals killed

December 3, 1984
5 junior employees of UCIL were arrested

December 6, 1984 Case was handed over to the CBI. The Government of Madhya Pradesh on December 6, 1984 set up a Commission of Inquiry called the Bhopal Poisonous Gas Leakage Inquiry Commission, presided over by N.K.Singh a sitting judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court.

December 7, 1984 Warren Anderson (A1), Keshub Mahindra (A2) and V.P.Gokhale (A3) were arrested and released on bail on the same day. A1 was escorted out to Delhi on Chief Minister’s special plane.

Nearly 145 claims were filed on behalf of victims in various US courts. These were consolidated and placed before the Southern District Court, New York presided over by Judge John Keenan.

March 29, 1985 Parliament enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1985 whereby Union of India would be the sole plaintiff in a suit against the UCC and other defendants for compensation arising out of the disaster.

April 8, 1985 Union of India filed a complaint on behalf of all victims in Keenan’s court.

October 29,1985 UCIL which was still in control of the plant (except the MIC unit which was sealed by CBI) wrote to UCC that clean up was going on but "some material remains in the tank bottom".

December 15, 1985 The N.K.Singh Commission of Inquiry wound up on December 15, 1985 with the Government of Madhya Pradesh not extending its term of one year. A week thereafter, the Council for Secientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) submitted a detailed report squarely implicating the UCC for faulty design of the plant as well as its reckless disregard of operational safety.

May 12, 1986 Accepting the forum non conveniens defence, Judge Keenan dismissed the claim conditional upon UCC submitting to the jurisdiction of Indian courts.

Meanwhile, in 1986, two writ petitions were filed in Supreme Court of India challenging the validity of the Claims Act.

September 5, 1986 Union of India filed a suit against UCC in the Bhopal District Court.

January 4, 1987 Against the order dated May 12, 1986 of Judge Keenan, appeals were filed by the 145 individual plaintiffs and the UCC. By order dated January 4, 1987, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit disposed of the appeals by modifying the conditions subject to which the suit by Union of India had been dismissed.

October 5, 1987 Union of India’s further petition for a writ of certiorari against the order of the Court of Appeals was declined by the U.S. Supreme Court on October 5, 1987.

December 1, 1987 CBI filed a charge sheet in the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal charging accused for offences under s. 304 Part II IPC and other offences.

December 17, 1987 An interim compensation of Rs. 350 crores was ordered by Judge Deo, District Judge, Bhopal .

April 4, 1988 This was challenged before the High Court at Jabalpur. By judgment dated April 4, 1988 the High Court reduced the interim compensation to Rs.250 crores. UCC challenged this further before the Supreme Court.

February 14/ 15 1989 Supreme Court approved a Settlement arrived at in the appeal by UCC whereby 470 million $ was to be paid by it and UCIL to the Union of India in full and final settlement of all claims and criminal proceedings would stand quashed.

May 4, 1989 Following widespread protests over the manner of arriving at the settlement and quashing criminal proceedings, Supreme Court agreed to review the settlement.

June 1989 Meanwhile UCC in June 1989 finalised a `Site Rehabilitation Project – Bhopal Plant” for decontamination of the plant site which contained huge quantities of Sevin and Napthol tarry residues and solid wastes dumped in the solar evaporation ponds. Since no Indian organisation had the expertise, it was decided to get NEERI to undertake the task under the supervision of Arthur D little &Co. appointed by UCC.

December 22, 1989 Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Claims Act applying the doctrine of parens patriae [Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India (1990) 1 SCC 613].

1990 NEERI submitted its first report in 1990 stating that there was no contamination of the groundwater in and around the plant site. Subsequent documentation reveals that UCC itself doubted NEERI’s conclusions since their internal notes revealed that majority of liquid samples collected from the area “contained napthol or sevin in quantities far more than permitted by ISI for inland disposal”

October 3, 1991 Supreme Court declined to reopen the settlement justifying it under Article 142 of the Constitution. However, the criminal proceedings were directed to be revived. The court expressed a hope that UCC will contribute Rs.50 crore to setting up of a hospital at Bhopal for the victims.

February 1, 1992 The CJM Bhopal declared A1 Warren Anderson A10 UCC and A11 UCC (Eastern, Hongkong) as proclaimed offenders. The CJM directed that if parties do not appear on March 27, 1992 he will order attachment of UCC’s shares in UCIL under s.82 Cr.PC.

March 27, 1992 A1, A10 and A11 fail to appear before the CJM but attachment of shares was put off at UCIL’s request.

April 15, 1992 UCC announced creation of the Bhopal Hospital Trust in London with Sir Ian Percival as Sole Trustee and endowed its entire shareholding in UCIL to the Trust clearly to defeat the attachment.

April 30, 1992 CJM Bhopal refused to recognise the creation of the Trust and endowment of UCIL shares and proceeded to attach those shares.

June 22, 1992 Trial of the Indian accused was separated and committed to Sessions Court.

August 19, 1992 The Central Government announced a scheme of interim relief to the gas victims at Rs.200/- per month subject to a maximum of 5 lakh victims for a period of three years beginning April 1, 1990. The Supreme Court, in a writ petition by the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan, directed by its orders dated August 19 and November 4, 1992 interim relief to be paid to all victims, including those left out from the scheme as announced.

October 16, 1992 By an order dated February 24, 1989 the Settlement Fund of 420 million US $ had been directed to be kept in a separate dollar account with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in the name of the Registrar of the Supreme Court. On an application by the Union of India, the court on October 16, 1992 permitted the account to be now held in the name of the Welfare Commissioner, subject to the condition that RBI would not release any part of the amount except on a certificate by the Welfare Commissioner that the amount withdrawn was for payment of compensation to the claimants.

April 8, 1993 Charges framed by the Sessions Court, Bhopal against Indian accused for offences under s.304 Part II IPC

May 28, 1993 The Supreme Court directed continuation of interim relief to the victims from June 1, 1993 and permitted Union of India to withdraw Rs.120 crores from the Settlement Fund for this purpose.

December 10, 1993 Ian Percival approached the Union of India with an ‘offer’ to sell the attached shares of UCIL to raise money for the Bhopal Hospital to be built by UCC. Union of India filed an application in the Supreme Court for enforcement of UCC’s obligation to build the expert medical facility. At the first hearing of the application, Ian Percival was present and heard. The Supreme Court asked Union of India to consider the Sole Trustee’s suggestion which was "eminently reasonable, worthy of consideration".

February 14, 1994 Supreme Court modified the CJM’s attachment order and permitted the attached shares to be sold.

September 1994 UCC’s shares in UCIL sold to McLeod Russel Ltd. for Rs.170 crores. UCIL renamed as Eveready Industries India Limited (EIIL). After release of around Rs. 125 crores (inclusive of dividends) to the BHT, the balance sale proceeds to the tune of about Rs.183 crores remained under attachment.

September 19, 1995 Krishna Mohan Shukla, a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court filed a PIL drawing its attention to numerous illegalities in the matter of categorisation, processing and adjudication of claims by the Deputy Welfare Commissioners under the Scheme. It was stated that at lok adalats held under the Scheme, many claimants were being compelled to accept a low compensation of Rs.25,000/- in full and final settlement of the claim and further such order could not be appealed. A three-member Committee was appointed by the Supreme Court by its order dated September 19, 1985 to examine the factual position. In its report dated November 14, 1995, the Committee confirmed many of the petitioner’s contentions and concluded “all is not well in the matter of disbursement of claims”.

April 3, 1996 Supreme Court directed a sum of Rs.187 crores from the attached monies to be further released to BHT for the construction of the hospital.

May 1, 1996 In the petition by Krishna Mohan Shukla, the Supreme Court by order dated May 1, 1996 struck down certain circulars issued by the Welfare Commissioner under which a Deputy Welfare commissioner could not revise the category under which the claimant was classified unless the Welfare Commissioner approved it. It called for details of the cases settled in lok adalats.

September 13, 1996 Meanwhile Indian accused failed in their challenge to the order framing charges before the High Court at Jabalpur. They then approached the Supreme Court by way of Special Leave Petitions. By judgment dated September 13, 1996, the Supreme Court diluted the charges against the Indian accused from s.304 Part II IPC to s.304A IPC. The trial still pending before the CJM, Bhopal.

October 1997 EIIL retained NEERI and Arthur D Little to conduct further decontamination studies. NEERI submitted its second report again maintaining that there was no contamination of groundwater and soil around plant site. But Arthur D little did not rule them out.

November 7, 1997 In the Krishna Mohan Shukla petition, the Supreme Court made an order permitting a claimant who was aggrieved by an order made in the lok adalat to challenge it by way of an appeal.

September 1998 State of M.P took control of the land. Put up notices in nearby residential areas warning against drinking water.

November 1999 Greenpeace, an international environmental NGO, came out with an independent report of test of soil and water samples collected in areas around the plant site and confirms extensive contamination. Sevin was seen to have leaked from the ruptured tank and water supplies were found contaminated with `heavy metals and persistent organic contaminants’.

November 15, 1999 Fresh class action litigation filed in the court of the Southern District New York by Sajida Bano, Haseena Bi and five other victims directly affected by the contamination and five Bhopal victims groups claiming damages under 15 counts. Counts 9 to 15 related to common law environmental claims.

August 28, 2000 Judge Keenan dismissed the class action claim on the ground that the 1989 settlement covers all future claims.

February 5, 2001 The US Federal Trade Commission approved the merger of UCC with Dow Chemical Company (Dow).

November 15, 2001 The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirms in part but remanded claims on counts 9 to 15 to Judge Keenan.

April 2002 In discovery proceedings before Judge Keenan UCC submitted over 4000 documents.

March 2003 Judge Keenan dismissed the suit of Hasina Bi again – this time on grounds of limitation.

March 2004 The Court of Appeal affirmed in part but asks Judge Keenan on remand to consider claims of Bi arising out of damage to property and the issue of decontamination by UCC of the site if the Union of India and State of M.P. had no objection.

June 30, 2004 After victims went on a hunger strike in Delhi, the Union of India submitted a memo before Judge Keenan stating it has no objection to decontamination being undertaken by UCC at UCC’s cost.

July 19, 2004 In a representative application by 36 victims, Abdul Samad Khan and others, Supreme Court directed disbursement of balance compensation.

September 17, 2004 In another writ petition by the Bhopal groups for medical relief and rehabilitation, Supreme Court finalised the terms of reference of two committees – an Advisory Committee and a Monitoring Committee - appointed by it.

October 26, 2004 In the Abdul Samad Khan application, the Supreme Court directed the disbursement of balance compensation to commence from November 15, 2004 and conclude by April 1, 2005. The court accepted the Action Plan prepared by the Welfare Commissioner.