Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Is the verdict right?

On Dec 2-3 1984, people of Bhopal woke up in the middle of the night, dazed by a sudden burning sensation in their lungs. They didn’t realize that this was the result of the world’s worst industrial cataclysm which had taken place at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. This tragedy claimed more than 25,000 lives.

An accidental leakage of a poisonous gas, Methyl isocyanate (MIC) and other toxins from the UCIL plant in December 1984, exposed over 500,000 people to an atmosphere of lethal gases, immediately killing many. Records of death toll vary but according to estimates, 8,000 people died within the first week; and another 10,000 people lost their lives due to gas-related diseases over the next two decades. UCIL, presently under Dow Chemical Company, was then a subsidiary of the U.S Company, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC).

Though it’s difficult to pin-point the exact reason behind the catastrophe, several factors were responsible for it according to reports. The use of MIC instead of less dangerous chemicals; unsafe storage facilities; corrosion of pipelines; poor maintenance after 1980 in order to save money; failure of security systems; MIC tank refrigeration system being switched off; non-functional MIC tank alarms; ineffective quality control methods; under-trained workers for handling MIC to reduce expenses; communication problems due to cultural barriers and careless management together lead to the explosion of gases out of a faulty MIC tank which seeped into the homes of residents of Bhopal, killing them overnight. Lack of health care facilities in that densely populated area and insufficient socio-economic rehabilitation by the Government further raised up the death toll. By morning of 3rd December 1984, mass funerals and cremations were being carried out; people were disposing bodies in river Narmada; more than 2000 animals were buried and around 170,000 people were hospitalized. Within few days, trees turned yellow, food became scarce and daily life came to a halt. ‘Immediate’ relief measures didn’t reach people until two days after the disaster struck.

Even after 25 years, the repercussions of the tragedy can be seen. 390 tons of poisonous chemicals which were left at the UCIL plant continue to pollute the ground water, thus affecting thousands of locals. Until 1994, the UCC and the Government of India falsely asserted that MIC has no long-term effects on health and ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) was not allowed to publish its studies. But the truth eventually came out. People are still suffering from eye infections, respiratory problems, neurological disorders, lung injuries, cardiac failure, birth defects and reproductive problems due to gas exposure.

The then CEO of UCC, Warren Anderson, was arrested on 7th December 1984 but released six hours later on $2100 bail and flew out in a government plane. The Indian government summoned Anderson to appear in Indian court in 1987 with homicide charges, but UCC protected him saying that the company is not under Indian jurisdiction. The company paid $470 million as compensation when directed by the Indian Supreme Court to settle the issue. But very little amount of this money reached the survivors.

The Indian judiciary has come out with a decision after more than twenty-five years. On 7th June 2010, a District Magistrate’s Court in Bhopal convicted all eight accused for the incident under Section 304(a) on grounds of negligence. They were sentenced to two years of imprisonment. But seven of them have already been granted bail and released by the court on submission of a bond and a surety of Rs 25,000 each. The eighth one died during the trial. Anderson has still not responded to the arrest warrants from India and is absconding. This judgment has come against the background of ongoing discussions on the Civil Nuclear Liability bill, which entails to provide reimbursement to victims in case of a nuclear disaster.

But is the verdict satisfactory? Has justice been done? The Bhopal Gas Tragedy verdict has triggered anger and protests all over the country.

Initially, the accused were to be tried under Section 304 Part II (homicide) of the Indian Penal Code. But this was challenged by the accused in 1996 and thereby changed to section 304 A (death by negligence) by the Supreme Court, thereby reducing the maximum imprisonment from ten years to mere two years.

The final verdict has come too late and is not acceptable at all. A disaster which ruined thousands of lives due to sheer negligence of the authorities definitely needed immediate attention and more stringent punishment. The international media blames the Indian government for this delay and the correct dispensation of justice. But U.S is also to be blamed for blocking India’s request to send Anderson to India for trial.

Years ago, the British came to India, plundered it and left it in ruins without facing any bad consequences themselves. And now, Warren Anderson has escaped easily after killing thousands of people due to negligence. The Bhopal verdict shows that how the wealthy and powerful rule the world even when they are in the wrong. The Indian judiciary is in the hands of the powerful politicians as is clear from the fact that Arjun Singh, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh during 1984, helped Anderson to leave India; the charges against the accused were reduced; the guilty managers have been sentenced to a mere two year imprisonment and then those sentenced have already been released within hours after the verdict.

The verdict fails to meet severity of the damage done and the number of lives lost. The punishment as well as the fine is inadequate to compensate for the loss of the affected people. The pain that the victims and their families suffered and the consequences that the future generations are facing due to genetic mutation and persistent poisonous gases in the atmosphere, is beyond repair. But they deserve proper justice. The guilty should not be released but rather be punished severely. India has already lost an opportunity to send out a strong message that such industrial negligence won’t be tolerated. But now we must pressurize U.S to send Anderson to India. He should be severely punished according to Indian laws. UCC, the main culprit, should be brought to justice for their utter negligence and money-making techniques. Till when will the accused foreigners remain safe by staying abroad? The public should appeal in the court on grounds of inadequacy of sentence.

The families of the dead waited for so long to get justice. But at the end of it, all they get is a disappointing verdict. The main company which was accountable has escaped. The main accused is still absconding. The victims have been betrayed. Now is a high time to stand up for those who suffered and survived the most terrible industrial disaster, and get the guilty punished as severely as possible by the law.

Mahima Taneja