Bhopal Gas Disaster
• Bhopal-the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh
• Approx. 15,000 died over a period of time in the disaster. No precise figures.
• Hundreds of thousands affected by the gas leak
• Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) owned the plant which was used to manufacture
• Warren Anderson was the CEO of Union Carbide when the disaster occurred. Still
• Plant was set up during the late 1960s to help India’s Green Revolution
o PRODUCED PESTICIDES FOR AGRICULTURE
• Disaster unprecedented in terms of scope
o No exposure to chemical gases since World War 1
o Bhopal - First mass exposure
• Leak of Methyl Isocynate and other gases
• Lax safety practices and cost cutting were a major reason for the disaster
o Many warning signals
o A lot of lessons were learned by this disaster
• The 1984 disaster was preceded by the death of a worker in the Bhopal Plant in 1981
• People still are affected by this disaster today
How the government managed?
What did we learn from the documentary?
• Structural issues highlighted: issues of power and political economy. The sheer political
and economic power of a major US corporation.
• The failure of the Indian state to provide adequate rehabilitation and relief to the victims
• The disaster was very unique (trying to understand what to do and how to deal
with this sort of disaster – especially in a poor country)
• Failure at many levels: financial and health relief.
• Very little payments were given for relief
• The failure of the Indian and international legal system to provide redressal and relief to
• Even now nothing has been done to fix the disaster, future generations are being
• The continuing tragedy of Bhopal. Victims continue to be shunned by the Indian
government and are treated shabbily.
1980’s field research on failure of expertise in Bhopal
• Research by S. Ravi Rajan: Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Once an activist in Bhopal ( published in 2001)
• Chapter 11 “Missing Expertise, Categorical Politics and Chronic Disasters: The case of
Bhopal” in Susanna Hoffman (eds.) Catastrophe and Culture, 2001
• Three copies in the Weldon library on reserve
• Based on spending a lot of time in Bhopal, and how people are able to voice their
Why Expertise Important?
• Knowledge builds capacity to deal with disaster
• Knowledge wasn’t sufficient in dealing with the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster • Opportunities to build knowledge and an information data base to deal with a chronic
disaster like Bhopal were squandered.
• Suffering for people and communities continues to this day
Not every hazard eventually leads to disaster
• The conjunction of human population and a potentially destructive agent does not
inevitably produce a disaster-Susanna Hoffman, anthropologist
• However, a disaster does become unavoidable in the context of a historically produced
pattern of vulnerability
• Given that Bhopal didn’t have many regulations, and as it was a developing
country it affected them that much more severely
• Bhopal was an instance of such a pattern of vulnerability - wasn’t a developing country
Missing Expertise, Categorical Politics and Chronic Disasters
• The idea of missing expertise concerns civil administration and other institutions of the
state. It refers to the phenomenon wherein the production of the potential for risk is not
matched by a concomitant creation of expertise and institutions with the wherewithal to
help mitigate a crisis, should one ensue
• India welcomed this company to place it in their country, however they did not
exercise reducing the risks of putting the company there
• Called a chronic disaster – disaster that is still going on
• Bhopal and Chernobyl ( to be done on the 12 of October)are two examples of disasters
where research has identified some degree of what one could term as “missing
• The phrase “categorical politics” concerns the civil society and in particular civil society
organizations. It refers to forms of political intervention that are driven solely by framing
political problems via some over arching structural analysis, and that either ignore or
dismiss phenomena that are not visible through their theoretical lens.
• The social movement fighting for the rights of the gas victims adopted such an approach
Bhopal: Disaster response exacerbated pain and suffering
Missing Expertise can be classified under three categories:
• Contingent Expertise refers to an administration’s preparedness to respond
immediately and effectively to a potential hazard
• It is concerned with the conscious adaptive mechanisms and institutions built by
governments prior to cataclysmic events
• Such institutions include warning systems, evacuation procedures and other measures
that help mitigate the societal impact of the disaster in the immediate aftermath
Instances of the failure of contingent expertise
• The state government of Madhya Pradesh was unable to evacuate the population from
the scene of the gas leak despite a policy decision to do so after the accident had been
• They could have conveyed the message to the people of Bhopal for an evacuation on
• For example, a simple announcement suggesting that people cover their faces with wet
cloth could have prevented considerable injury. • It took forty hours for the Government to set up a meeting of civil servants and heads of
departments to set up the first coordination meeting of secretaries and heads of
• In the meantime, more than two thousand animal carcasses littered the streets and
houses and posed a severe public threat
• The Indian Army which was deployed by the state government to evacuate the stricken
area on the night of the disaster, made a heroic attempt, but was quickly overwhelmed
by the enormity of the task and the absence of a rehearsed method to cope with it.
• In the case of hurricanes, famines and floods, state governments have been able to
handle such disasters reasonably efficiently because there was a prior recognition of
potential threats and a concomitant setting up of reactive mechanisms in addition to
• Such recognition and institution building, in turn was a consequence of the politicization