Massive fire at Union Carbide compound, gas victims panic due to toxic air

Union Carbide factory in Bhopal is where gas leaked in 1984, killing thousands of people and disabling millions  

By Rakesh Kumar Malviya
Published: Tuesday 07 May 2024
Black smoke billows from the Union Carbide Factory building in Bhopal. Photo: Rakesh Kumar Malviya

A massive fire broke out at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal on the afternoon of May 6, 2024, triggering panic among locals. The factory is where methyl isocyanate gas leaked in 1984, killing thousands of people and disabling millions.

The fire was brought under control after about an hour. Its cause is yet to be ascertained.

Nasreen, a resident of JP Nagar, said she was in Nariyalakhera when she got a call that the factory was on fire. She immediately reached the spot and saw smoke all around.

“People living around the factory gathered at the spot. The fire brigade reached after what seemed an eternity and put out the flames. All the while, we were very afraid as to what the toxic smoke would do if it entered our bodies,” she told Down To Earth (DTE).

The factory was shut down after the 1984 gas tragedy. The administration has deployed police at the spot to prevent anyone from entering it. No person can enter the factory premises without permission. But that is only on paper.

In reality, people have made big holes in the walls. “One can enter it from anywhere and the security system is just in name. The guards just doing their jobs for the heck of it,” said Nasreen.

2024 marks 40 years since the tragedy. The plot is now overgrown with bushes. Feral animals enter the area to feed on them. One theory doing the rounds is that the dry bushes could have played a role in making the fire stronger on May 6.

Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), which raises a voice for the Bhopal gas victims, told DTE that there are orders to have 24-hour security arrangements at the Union Carbide factory.


“But there is a nexus between those who look after the security here and those who steal goods from here. There are toxic chemicals inside this factory and this arson should be investigated. How this fire started, what are the toxic chemicals released due to it and what is their effect on the health of the local gas victims,” said Dhingra.

She demanded that the incident should be investigated immediately. When she asked the pollution control board to investigate the matter, she was told that the entire staff was busy in election duty. Significantly, voting for the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat is to be held on May 7.

Earlier, on May 2, a hearing was held in the Madhya Pradesh High Court regarding the cleaning of Union Carbide’s toxic waste and the accountability of Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide.

The Centre told the court during the hearing that an amount of Rs 126 crore has been given to the Gas Relief Department for burning 347 MT of toxic waste in the town of Pithampur in Dhar district.

A decision was taken during a meeting of the Oversight Committee in July last year that this work will be done between 185 and 377 days by the Pithampur Industrial Waste Management Pvt Ltd located in the town.

The BGIA pointed out to the court that apart from 347 MT, thousands of tonnes of toxic waste are buried inside and outside the factory. The groundwater of thousands of people has been polluted due to the waste. It should be cleaned and the accountability of the companies which have caused the pollution should also be fixed.

The high court asked the BGIA to confirm to it during the next hearing on May 27 that the matter of soil and ground water pollution caused by Union Carbide’s toxic waste is not pending in any other court.

According to activists, the toxic waste lying in the factory should be disposed of as soon as possible so that the gas victims of Bhopal get relief.

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