Bhopal Gas Tragedy – The Sad Verdict

At last, we witnessed the travesty of justice in Bhopal gas tragedy case this Monday, some one and a half decade after the Supreme Court had predestined it. The judgement, to my mind, is appalling not only because culprits were not fairly punished but that it’s a major jolt to all our hopes in other related issues such as seeking extradition of former chairman of Union Carbide Warren Anderson, properly rehabilitating gas victims and revisiting compensation issue, establishing required standards of corporate liabilities and so forth.  Of late, we’re hearing surprising things about Anderson’s release.

What message has the Bhopal gas verdict send, anyway? That two years in jail is what is enough for murdering nearly 15000 people, a penalty equal to as routine crime as rash driving, that MNCs are welcome in India with their cost-cutting procedures compromising security measures, and that Indian system is reluctant to punish Anderson and his ilk.

I don’t know of a legal case which simultaneously has these all three faces of injustices of our infirm justice system – that justice is delivered after decades, that punishment awarded is meagre and that the convicts instantly get out on bail. However, the case involving world’s worst industrial disaster has this all.

Tragically, the central and the state governments have not reacted to the decision in a truly positive manner even at this stage, following years of inertness and hesitancy.  They facilitated Anderson’s exist, they were inactive when Jurist Nani Palkhivala, counsel for the US company, filed an affidavit in a New York court certifying that the Indian judicial system could ‘fairly and satisfactorily’ handle the Bhopal litigation (which means gas victim lost right to sue Anderson in the US courts), and the Centre brought Bhopal Claims Processing Act 1985 and got it approved by the Supreme Court.

Ever since 1996 when Justice Ahmadi bench of the apex court diluted charges against Indian victims (from culpable homicide to deaths caused by negligence), both the outcome in the case and the way to prevent perversion of justice have been known. What governments are currently expected is to mend their past errors and do the needful.

Well, there’re ways. According to experts, either a curative petition can be filed in the Supreme Court challenging dilution of charges against the Indian culprits and seeking more punishment to them, or, government can take initiative to bring in an Act in the parliament to alter the apex court’s 1996 decision.

Both the central and the state governments have shown no such desire since Monday. While one has reconstituted Group of Ministers (GoM) for examining rehabilitation of victims, the other announced to appeal against the verdict, a legal course not available in this particular case. Our Law Minister Veerappa Moily cannot humour gas victims or countrymen by politically correct phrases as ‘justice-is-buried’-or-‘Anderson-is- proclaimed-offender’ until real action is taken.

In the past two days, startling revelations have emerged about Anderson’s release, bringing former Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi and ex Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Arjun Singh into focus, besides former bureaucrats like then chief secretary Brahma Swaroop, then Bhopal Collector Moti Singh, and then Bhopal SP Swaraj Puri. Some authors who researched Bhopal gas disaster and wrote about it have raised doubts about some of them. It’s high time that while on one hand, Congress party clarify why Anderson was allowed a safe exit during its regime and, on the other, present central and state governments immediately initiate steps for probe into the matter and arrange for punishment to those public servants and bureaucrats found involved in the process.

The Centre is more faulted in the case, as it is obligatory on it to revisit the issue of compensation to gas victims, secure cleaning of soil and water pollution in Bhopal, seek Anderson’s extradition and ensuring corporate liabilities towards public safety, everything which it seems to be evading at present.

Right, the US has double standards about losses incurred on it and on foreign countries; right, the US President Barack Obama is worried about punishing the man responsible for oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico to improve on his swiftly dropping popularity rankings in his country, but has Indian government ever aggressively pursued the issue of Warren Anderson’s extradition and fair compensation to gas victims?

As long as our own government is not committed to punish a mass murderer, how a country where the culprit wields a considerable clout can be expected to be genuinely concerned about it? American authorities had allowed India to conduct searches at the offices of Union Carbide in the US but latter didn’t show the will. No surprise, America has never been cooperative enough to hesitant Indian demand to hand over Anderson to it.

Speaking of compensation, both the US and Indian governments found it just to pay some 480 million dollar – that is, 500 dollar (nearly Rs 12,500) per life – for the death of 15000 people, while the US government fixed economic losses caused by Exxon Valdex’ oil spillage off the coast of Alaska at 1 billion dollar in 1989. It suggests that for the US, its economic losses are more precious than loss of lives elsewhere.

Local NGOs have been raising for a long time the issue of the disposal of waste lying on the Union Carbide plant site but to no avail. Toxins are continually seeping into the soil and, by extension, into water. Dow Chemicals which bought the Union Carbide after the disaster insists that it overtook company’s assets, not liability. Is paying damages to victims for the tragedy but not for the cleanup of disaster site ethical? Doesn’t a company taking over another inherits both its assets and liabilities? Governments have not been properly supportive to get this voice louder to ensure that Bhopal is cleaned up of carbide’s toxic left-overs.

The Bhopal gas tragedy has been a turning point in global attitudes to big businesses, with people world over expecting a ruling that serve as a precedent influencing outcomes in hundreds of other cases in which business negligence has caused public damage. There’s scarcely any such thing noticeable in Indian system, which thinks liabilities could repel entry of MNCs into the country.

Sourabh Dharmeshwari