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The Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Discuss about the Legal Aspect for Indian Private Law.

In the early hours of 4th December 1984, the Bhopal Case tragedy took place. In history, this is regarded as one of the most horrible industrious disaster. A highly infected chemical, methyl isocynate, leaked out of from the plant of the Union Carbide Limited that was located in Bhopal (Dhara and Acquilla 2013). People died a wretched death as a result of the leakage of methyl isocynate. People crippled to save their lives. Few survivors from the disaster are still suffering for their compensation, lives, dignity and rehabilitation. There was uncertainty about the outcome of the exposure of methyl isocynate on the sufferers. Other than loss of loss of lives and other outcomes of the tragedy, include loss of vegetation, cattle and human lives. The disaster undoubtedly caused disruption and impoverishment of lives (Singh and Bhadoria 2013). 

The disaster raised many doubts in the applicability of existing laws in Bhopal for organisations operating at a multinational level in India. The disaster also identified questions related to unauthorised industrialisation in India, wrong policy making and lack of sufficient policies in India (Mishra et al. 2015). Moreover, the disaster also raised questions relating to the authority of a parent company for the acts of its subsidiary company and the liabilities and compensation of the parent company for the acts of the supplementary company (Rao 2016).

The Bhopal Gas tragedy in India exposed the system of security. The feature of protection was overlooked in Bhopal while authorising licenses to the plant for its operation. This happened in the year 1969. While the license was granted to the company, dangers existed relating to the local residents of the area and shifting of the residents was advised. However, this advise was completely ignored. It is alleged that UCL preserved double standards regarding the safety of the Bhopal plant (Rajagopalan 2014). The sensing system of the temperature and computerised pressure were some of the safety measures that were ignored by the UCL. Normally, safety mechanisms and preventive measures are the first mechanisms to be used by the company for the protection of the people (Nair 2016). However, for the sake of making profit, the company ignored these risks. For the manufacturing of the highly toxic pesticides, the Government of India and the Government of Madhya Pradesh completely disregarded the preventive steps that they should have taken while granting license to the company. This incident was a tragic one and raised many questions relating to the negligence of the central and state government (Mishra et al. 2015).

Claims of Charan Lal Sahu

The legal issue in question after the disaster took place was to recover claims for the people who have suffered as an outcome of the disaster. It was difficult for the company to issue suits against the claims, as the incident happened in a company that was a subsidiary company of the United States of America (Oak 2014). Therefore, the President of India passed the “Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Ordinance”, on 20th February 1985 to give special rights to the people who have suffered out of the Bhopal disaster. The Ordinance was replaced on 29th March 1985 by the “Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act (Augenstein 2014). The Bhopal Gas Tragedy involved many disasters and therefore, it was not easy for the sufferers to to file individual claim of the tragedy. Thus, with the establishment of the Act, the central government was to presume the role of “parens patraie”. The aim of this Act was to ensure that the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy are dealt with equitably, profitably, effectively, promptly and to the best advantage of the plaintiffs (Dhara and Acquilla 2013). The Act also gave authority to the central government to represent and act in harmony with similar claims arising out of the disaster (Chopra 2014). According to section 4 of the Act, absolute authority is not given to the applicants so that the right to be characterised by a lawful advocate. Restrictions are imposed upon the government for demonstration of the people having same issues out of the Bhopal disaster. The practitioner challenged the validity of the Act, and the Supreme Court declared the Act as valid. The Supreme Court held that, if the Government of the disaster took claims of the sufferers it was not illegal. According to the Supreme Court, firstly, the standard of the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy is not comparable with the standard of the multinational companies. Secondly, the victims will also not be in a position to take care of their personal interest in an efficient manner (Dhara and Acquilla 2013). Additionally, the Supreme Court also opined that the shares that the central government held were only fictitious, as they did not really own any share in the UCL as the organisations were independent statutorily (Balganesh 2014).

Mr. Sahu presented the following claims before the Court:

  • Sahu particularly questioned about the validity of Article 14 of the Constitution of India and he mainly focused his attention to the validity of “Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act”, 1985 in concordance to the Article 14 of the constitution.
  • The applicability of “parens patraie” was also discussed as it gave no limitations on the power of the central government.
  • Moreover, it was also alleged that the central government itself held shares in UCL, therefore as per the petitioner, the central government does not hold authority to act as representatives against themselves as they were joint tort feasor in the tragedy.
  • As per the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, the power given to the central government for signifying victims having similar claims was inconsistent.
  • The Act was also held to be violative of the natural principles of justice of administrative law.
  • Thus, the petitioner made request to the Honourable Judge to remove the mischief of the Act by applying the statutory rule of interpretation on the Act.
  • The petitioner held that the suit be immediately dismissed by applying the doctrine of “non conveniens.” (Castleman 2016)


According to the Supreme Court, the Act satisfied the conditions that were stated as part of the Indian Constitution in Article 14. As per the court, the victims could be categorised as a separate class having the same issue and aiming for speedy settlement of their claims (Balganesh 2014). Additionally, the Court also held that the Act aimed to protect the victims to be heard on any matter in the future that was similar to the proposed claim. Thus, this was a fair and just method and such a method cannot be termed as unjustified by the petitioner. A more suitable term for this class representation is “mass tort action.” Hence, the verdict of the Court in relation to the Act cannot be termed as disadvantageous for the petitioner (Izarali 2013).

Arguments of Union of India

As per the Act of Bhopal Gas Disaster, 1985, the union of India filed a suit against UCL in the United States in the district Court. The Union of India made a claim for compensation of three billion dollars (Jos 2016). The government of India was in favour of the representation of the case in the District Court of the United States, as it would lead to speedy and fair trial. This representation was opposed by applying the principle of forum non-conveniens. The UCC was in the opinion that the case to be heard in India as the district Court in the United States is not a satisfactory and a convenient forum for trial. The plea of the petitioner was that the issue to be decided on the grounds of public interest for example, the people of India to be able to view the trial. Moreover, the courts in India will be able to apply Indian laws better than the court of the United States. One of the main arguments of the UCC in this case was the trail, if held in the United States, would cause damage to the interests of the people in the United States (Mac Sheoin 2015).

As against the motion of the UCL, the Union of India submitted many points in argument to dismiss the case on the fact that the Act was invalid and violated the rules of constitution:

  • As per the arguments of the Union of India, it was opined that the Indian forum of justice does not provide sufficient ways in which the issue may be solved effectively. It was argued that there was lack of procedural activity in the system of India as far as courts are concerned. Therefore, the Union of India wanted the issue to be decided in the United States district forum with compensation of three million dollars (Mac Sheoin 2015).
  • The Union of India also argued that UCL was an organisation that operated completely from the United States and the plant was also located in the United States for the purpose of storage and production. Thus, the most relevant evidence shall be available against the UCL, in the United States as the company mostly operated and controlled its operations from the United States (Balganesh 2014).
  • However, the Court concerning the application of forum non-coneviens dismissed this argument. In the opinion of the Court, India has adequate and sufficient forum leading to the decision be taken in India. The Court took help of the case of Gulf Oil Corp v. Gilbert, for disposing the arguments of the Union of India (Dhara and Acquilla 2013).
  • Moreover, the decision of M.C Mehta v. Union of India was also applied to the case of Bhopal Gas tragedy. This decision became active in the present case to decide the tortuous liability that arose out of the case. The decision was however challenged by the UCL, however, the plea was not dismissed. The Court reduced the amount of compensation from 350 crore to 250 crore. Moreover, the Union of India also demanded for lifting the corporate veil of UCL as it had control over the activities of the organisation (Oak 2014).
  • The Union of Indi also held that the Bhopal Gas Leak Act was not invalid, as it will enable in speedy disposal of similar matters in the near future. The main aim behind the formulation of the Act was to make sure that the central government takes the onus of representing the public suffered in the disaster. The Act allowed the Central Government to take “locus standi” for filing suits in behalf of the victims. The Union of India argued that the victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy were not capable enough to have the power of suing the defendants. Therefore, the power that is given by the Act to the central government allows the government to demand for compensation in behalf of the public (Chopra 2014).
  • The establishment of the Act shall facilitate the central government to differentiate the suits that have already been issued and the suits that are pending for decision. The central government will be able to proceed with the issues that have not yet been proceeded.
  • In the opinion of the Union of India, the Act does not contain rules that are violative of Article 21 of the Constitution, as the Act does not infringe the individual advantages of people. Thus, the liberty of the person was not infringed as the Act was for the betterment of the public by selecting a representative on their behalf.
  • The power that was given to the Central Government for filing suits by way of representation of the general people was only for monetary compensation and no powers was endowed in relation to criminal liability of the organisation. Thus, the Union of India held that the monetary compensation should be punitive and strict in nature. This means that the central government had restrained powers with the formation of the Act.

References: 

Augenstein, D., 2014. The crisis of international human rights law in the global market economy. In Netherlands Yearbook of International Law 2013(pp. 41-64). TMC Asser Press.

Balganesh, S. (2014). The Constitutionalization of Indian Private Law.

Bourdieu, P. (2014). Bhopal and the US Courts. Victims of Apathy, 23.

Castleman, B. (2016). The export of hazardous industries in 2015.Environmental Health, 15(1), 1.

Chopra, R., 2014. Sustainable Development and Human Rights: An Evolving Framework. Journal of the National Human Rights Commission India.

Dhara, V. R., & Acquilla, S. (2013). Regarding distance of residence in 1984 may be used as exposure surrogate for the Bhopal disaster-further observations on post-disaster epidemiology. The Indian journal of medical research, 138(2), 270.

Dhara, V.R. and Acquilla, S., 2013. Regarding distance of residence in 1984 may be used as exposure surrogate for the Bhopal disaster-further observations on post-disaster epidemiology. The Indian journal of medical research, 138(2), p.270.

Izarali, M. R. (2013). Globalization and the Bhopal disaster. A criminogenic inquiry. International Journal of Social Inquiry, 6(1), 91-112.

Jos, J. (2016). Voice of Bhopal: Different Dimensions of the Barriers to Justice in Bhopal Gas Tragedy Case. Available at SSRN 2803271.

Mac Sheoin, T. (2015). Justice for Bhopal! And No More Bhopals! Three decades of national and international campaigning. Process Safety and Environmental Protection, 97, 3-12.

Mishra, P.K., Raghuram, G.V., Bunkar, N., Bhargava, A. and Khare, N.K., 2015. Molecular bio-dosimetry for carcinogenic risk assessment in survivors of Bhopal gas tragedy. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health, 28(6), pp.921-939.

Mittal, A. (2015). Retrospection of Bhopal gas tragedy. Toxicological & Environmental Chemistry, 1-5.

Nair, J.S., 2016. 31_Law of Tort (2006).

Oak, V.C., 2012. Assertion of Right to Clean Environment in India. Available at SSRN 1995536.

Oak, V.C., 2014. Sustainable Development and the Role of Indian Supreme Court in It’s Realization. Available at SSRN 2374661.

Rajagopalan, S., 2014. Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Paternalism and Filicide.Available at SSRN 2532789.

Rao, P.P., 2016. Legal Regime for Internally Displaced Persons.

Singh, S. and Bhadoria, S., 2013. Bhopal gas tragedy: a revisit to pick out some lessons we have forgotten in 28 years. Int. J. ChemTech Res., 5(2), pp.815-819.

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