Bhopal Digital Archive

Drawing by a child survivor

On the night of 3 December 1984, some 32 tons of toxic methyl isocynate (used in pesticide) leaked at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. Estimates of the total death toll run from 15,000 to 25,000 people. Thousands more were blinded.  Bhopal is generally acknowledged to be the world’s worst industrial disaster. The leak was the result of a period of reduced maintenance and neglect of safety systems at the plant.

The plant was owned by Connecticut-based Union Carbide, and there was civil litigation in India and the US. There were also criminal proceedings in India, although no US-based executive (including CEO Warren Anderson) was ever found guilty.

Here is one detailed chronology of events, and here is another.

My colleague Prof. Marc Galanter was involved in the US-India civil litigation.Since the 1980s, he has been collecting legal documents, newspaper clippings, related case judgments, and academic writings about the disaster.

For the past 1.5 years, a group of us at the University of Wisconsin Law School have been working on turning Marc Galanter’s collection of documents from the Bhopal disaster into an online archive.We launched “Bhopal: Law, Accidents, and Disasters in India” on October 19, 2016. The program included a tribute to Prof. Galanter’s Law-and-Society work on India by Jayanth Krishnan (Indiana University Maurer School of Law) and a panel discussion on “Law and Accidents in South Asia” featuring Maryam Khan, Chaumtoli Huq, and Kim Fortun. Gary Wilson of Robins Kaplan (Minneapolis) also spoke. While a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Wilson was Marc Galanter’s research assistant and helped Galanter prepare his testimony in the Bhopal case.

The digital archive was made possible by generous funding from lawyers Michael Ciresi and Bruce Finzen (who represented the government of India in the Bhopal matter), Gary Wilson, and Robins Kaplan LLP.

We are very excited about the archive. It is open-access. It contains over 3,700 documents. We hope it will allow people around the world get a sense of the issues and tragedy involved.

A sample from the US litigation:

  • Exhibit 116: factory inspection book including reports of failure to provide workers with protective clothing (p.3)
  • transcript from oral argument before the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (1986): on the question of whether the case should be heard in the US or in India (forum non conveniens)
  • Amicus Curiae brief from the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA: criticizing the New York district court’s decision that the US courts were not the appropriate forum for the civil suit against Union Carbide

And from the litigation once it moved to India:

  • Brief from Union of India v. Union Carbide in the Supreme Court of India (1989): argues that the Supreme Court of India should rehear and revoke its earlier order denying the Bhopal victims “a fair trial in which their claims may be heard.” These victims “have survived an unprecedented peacetime chemical holocaust only to experience the inadequately explained failure of the judiciary in the US, and now India, to dispense simple justice.”

There is much more to explore here. We hope that the archive will be a valuable resource for undergraduate and graduate research projects, and for others wanting to learn more about what happened in Bhopal in 1984.

These photos by Raghu Rai will also give you a sense of the tragedy.