BHOPAL GAS TRAGEDY: THE CATASTROPHE, FLAWED INVESTIGATION AND THE LEGAL TANGLES

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The definition of the word disaster has drastically changed in the present times. Now it not only includes the trauma and suffering as a direct consequence of the disaster but also the ensuing chain of events that includes distorted rehabilitation of victims, shoddy investigations and much delayed deliverance of inadequate justice. The tragedy that occurred on the night of December 2-3, 1984 at the Union Carbide (a US based corporation) factory in Bhopal is a perfect exemplification. The factory manufactured a pesticide named Sevin and used Methy Isocynate(MIC) as a raw material. Liquefied MIC was stored in two containers (610,611) of 42 tons capacity each. Due to reasons still obscure, water entered the tank 610 initiating a self-sustaining exothermic reaction and thus releasing volumes of highly poisonous MIC gas in the atmosphere. The leak has resulted in the death of over 20,000 people over the last 25 years while more the 5.5 lacs have been permanently deformed for life. But, the trauma doesn’t end there.

An optimist once said “Only after a disaster can we be resurrected”. But sadly the state machinery in our country fails to share that optimism. For a disaster like this to eventuate in itself is a grave failure on the part of the governing authorities but even then there is always room for restitution. The suffering could have been substantially curtailed with efficient rehabilitation measures and speedy deliverance of justice. But the blunders committed on both the fronts are too grave to be overlooked.

The Government of India (GoI) took over the victims right to litigate by exercising the power of parens patriae (where the government represents the victims in a court of law) and thus prevented the victims from filing suits through their lawyers. It filed a suit in the US court and initially claimed $3 billion as compensation. Now the case of the World’s Worst Industrial Disaster being tried in a US court meant facing the most aggressive breed of legal professionals, the American tort lawyers and was certainly a setback for the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). But absence of required will on part of GoI ensured the transfer of the case to Indian courts. After more than 4 years of legal battling in Indian courts, the Supreme Court (SC) finally gave its judgment which called for the payment of $470 million by the UCC, just 15% of the original claim. Another major setback came in the 1996 SC judgment that diluted the charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder (max punishment 10 years) to death due to rash & negligent act (max punishment 2 years). The fate of the victims was finally sealed with June, 2010 SC judgment which convicted the 7 accused for 2 years imprisonment. Warren Anderson, the then chairman of UCC has obviously been out picture since he was escorted out of the country in a state owned plane the very day after the tragedy.

It has been more than 25 years and the opaque aspects of Bhopal are still not resolved. What exactly does our Law Minister want to conveys when he says that the Bhopal trial is still on and the case against Warren Anderson is not closed yet? Were the dead, deformed and the still born fetuses not reminders grim enough that justice has not been delivered? Do we still need more time to comprehend American double standards when Obama ensures $20 billion compensation for the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill while UCC goes scot free with $470 million after murdering 20,000 innocents. But what else can a common man do. His rights to litigate have been taken. More importantly he is too poor, too old and too tired to protest. The best that the GoI can do now to gain some credibility is to arrange for a better calculated compensation and ensure its speedy disbursement. Removal of still lying toxic waste in the UCC compound is highly necessary. And finally, justice must be delivered. Both the legal and the moral side demand it.

Vishal Tripathi

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