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On midnight December 3, 1984, a tragedy hit Bhopal, India when methyl isocyanate gas started leaking out of a Union Carbide plant located in the area. Overnight, thousands of people were injured and killed by the spread of the toxic gas. This case study looks at the root of the tragedy, the participants, their roles, and the effect of the tragedy.
Suzanne Hull and Julia Kou
Harvard Business Review (795070-PDF-ENG)
June 28, 1995
Case questions answered:
- What were the reasons behind Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant tragedy?
- Who were the characters responsible for the tragedy and what did they lack?
- How did the tragedy affected the country (India) as a whole?
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Case answers for Union Carbide's Bhopal Plant (A)
Summary – Union Carbide’s Bhopal Plant (A) Case Study
Methyl isocyanate gas started leaking out of a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, on midnight December 3, 1984. Methyl isocyanate (MIC) is a chemical used in pesticide making. Ten thousand gallons of highly poisonous gas created a lethal cloud surrounding 25 square miles and killing and injuring more than 100,000 people. Still, experts were unsure about what caused the massive gas leak. But the real issue came when the gas started to escape into the air, affecting the community.
About the Company
Union Carbide (India) Limited (UCIL) existed in India even before independence, mainly as a producer and seller of dry-cell batteries under the trademark “Eveready,” also used by Union Carbide in the USA.
In the 1960s, UCIL expanded to produce fertilizers and pesticides. The government promoted local development to provide farmers with the chemicals needed to grow the new hybrid rice, wheat, and cotton crops.
India experienced severe food shortages in the early-mid-1960s due to drought. The increased drought resistance of the new hybrids made them very attractive to a government concerned with feeding a rising population and the supply of local cotton to the textile sector.
When Union Carbide (India) Limited founded its Agricultural Products Division in the mid-1960s, residents located the largest concentration of Indian chemical plants in Chembur near Bombay [Mumbai], a region known as the “gas chamber” because of the extensive air pollution. There was relatively little industry in Bhopal but both the central government of the two Case Review and the Madhya Pradesh state government, of which Bhopal is the capital, were anxious to introduce the industry to the city.
Thus, UCIL’s proposals for a chemical plant and an R&D center for agricultural products met with a favorable reception. The state government also supplied the land on a favorable 99-year lease for the proposed chemical plant. The UCIL plant brought good paid employment with it, not just for members of the rising technical stratum but also for the lower-level employees. Executives of UCIL have maintained good relations with the local leaders.
What was the tragedy?
Around 1 A.M. December 3, 1984, Methyl Isocyanate, a deadly gas, leaked from the Union Carbide (India) Limited plant in Bhopal. Ten thousand gallons of the same gas formed a deadly cloud in the air spreading around 25 square miles of area. Because of the spread of the toxic gas, over 100,000 people were either killed or injured.
The impact of the tragedy was not only limited to human beings. Other living creatures also suffered. In an overnight, the city was converted into a “City of Corpses.”
What were the reasons behind the Union Carbide’s Bhopal Plant tragedy?
The reasons for the tragedy are summarized as follows…
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