STORY OF DASHED HOPES, LIVES LOST AND JUSTICE DENIED

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On the night of December 21984, something went wrong at the pesticide plant: Union Carbide (India) limited, a loud explosion was heard in the silent streets of Bhopal, while people lay cradling in the arms of dreams, unaware of the nightmarish horrors outside. Until the dark morning descended, veiling the usually clear skies of the land with a blanket of deadly toxic gases, stench of death and unendurable misery for years to come.

Whether it was a faulty pipe or a faulty heart that did it, no one knows, as after 26 years of investigation, pressing charges and holding trials, justice was blasted to pieces on 7 June 2010, when in an exhibition of mockery of law and weak governance; the culprits were acquitted of all the serious charges and given micro sentences in return, bringing forth the heinous reality of big ticket politicos and legal luminaries of the country who proved more lethal than any toxic gas ever unleashed.

Background of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

The Bhopal gas tragedy is described as the world’s worst industrial disaster. On 2 December 1984, in the dead of the night, in a pesticide plant of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), large amount of water crept into a tank containing about 42 tons of Methyl Isocyanate (a highly toxic killer gas), resulting in an exothermic reaction causing the temperature to rise to over 200 degree Celsius, creating high pressure and thus, leading to an outburst of toxic gases into the atmosphere, choking the air.

A government affidavit filed in the Supreme Court in 2006 reported a total of 5, 58,125 injuries, minor: 516406 (92.5%), temporary partial disablement: 38478(6.8%) and severely and permanently disabled about 3900 (0.7%).These statistics are however; believed to be largely understated, there is esp. a widespread discontentment regarding a large number of severe injuries that are described as minor. People of Bhopal are reeling under the after effects of the leak that continue to terrorize even after 26 years.

A Political Angle of What Took Place from December 1984 to June 2010A group of ministers, bureaucrats, corporate honchos and torchbearers of the Indian judiciary came together to guarantee  the people of Bhopal, the worst kind of justice ever delivered.

Warning, warning everywhere

1981- Gas leak in the pesticide plant killed one.

1982- 25 workers hospitalized after another leak (workers protested that there was a design defect making the plant unsafe, protests not heeded to).

Rajkumar Keswani started to print warnings in his articles, one of them titled, ‘Bhopal sitting on top of a volcano’. Greenpeace asserts that UCC was aware of the 30 major hazards that were pointed out by the experts at the safety audit in 1982; these were fixed at the company’s identical plant in the US, but not in the Indian subsidiary by the name of UCIL(Union Carbide India Limited).The scientists within the UCC warned of the possibility of an accident but the reports were ignored.

CBI officials claim to have enough evidence to prove that the  company deliberately put the safety of workers in jeopardy.

The Anderson Angle

CBI charged the CEO of the Union Carbide Corporation, Warren Anderson and other corporation executives with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

Warren Anderson flies to Bhopal on December 7, 1984 under the pretext of showing the company’s concern towards the people  affected; covertly addressing the then government of the company’s said concern and stating the company’s zero liability in the matter while vowing to provide immediate compensation and relief.

Anderson is placed under a house arrest and is granted bail six hours later. He is thereafter flown out of the place on the then chief minister Arjun Singh’s plane never to return again.

The infamous verdict of 7 June 2010 makes no single mention of his name. The 89 year old, presently living in the US has ignored multiple court summons, flouting the law. He was declared an absconder in 1991-92.

American newspapers revealed that the Indian government assured safe passage to Warren Anderson.

Indian Govt. versus UCC

The Indian Government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985, allowing the Government of India to act as the legal representative for victims of the disaster. As pointed out, by the EPW June 2010, the government proceeded to assume all power to conduct litigation; however, this power wasn’t matched with responsibility.

UCC was fearful of trying their case in the US courts which, they were afraid, would meet out severe punishment. Judge Keenan accepted the appeal of UCC despite the Indian Government declaring their inability to handle the case and moved the case to the Indian courts to yield the result 26 years later. This again points out at the inaptitude and negligence of the Indian Government.

1989 Settlement

On February 14, 1989 the Supreme Court oversaw the settlement under which UCC was to pay $470 million in full settlement of all claims, civil and criminal, 15% of the original $3 billion claimed in the law suit. Such a disastrous settlement was widely criticized and following public outcry, SC decided to reinstate criminal charges (the inadequacy of the settlement money wasn’t remedied).

1994, AM Ahmadi and ensuing troubles

AM Ahmadi rescued the Union Carbide in 1994 by reversing the decision to attach the UCIL’s property to the court allowing them to sell off their shares in the Indian subsidiary.UCC sold off its 50.9% shares in the UCIL under the agreement to use the proceeds to set up a trust and a 500 bed hospital for the victims.

In 1998, Ahmadi was appointed the chairman of the trust. The hospital is now a super specialty medical centre catering to the rich. The gas leak victims remain deprived of any financial help or medical care.

1996, from culpable homicide to death by negligence

The Supreme Court accepted the plea of Union Carbide India Limited, in 1996 to reduce the charges from ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’ carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years to ‘death caused by negligence’ carrying a maximum penalty of 2 years.

This judgement came as a blow to the victims of the gas leak who felt the punishment to be meager in comparison to their afflictions, the carelessness on behalf of the officials responsible for the leak and the deliberate non heeding to the warnings causing the death of thousands immediately and lakhs in the future to come definitely deserved more than just a charge of death by negligence. It is believed that the case was lost before the trial at this point. This belief was affirmed, 14 years later.

The Blame Game

Following the infamous verdict of the court, there came tumbling out skeletons from the past of many ministers and political parties. A blame game ensued with the major opposition party BJP tightening its noose around the congress, as at the time of the gas leak, Rajeev Gandhi government operated in the centre. While congress constantly denied the involvement of their party in any of the scandals relating to the unwarranted protection to Warren Anderson or the failure of the Indian government in protecting the legal interests of the people of Bhopal.

Gordon Streeb, a senior US diplomat in Delhi in 1984, claimed it was the ministry of external affairs that assured protection to UCC CEO,while India’s the then foreign secretary MK Rasgotra puts the onus on the PV Narsimha Rao headed home ministry.

When Arjun Singh visited the site four days later, he categorically stated, that there were no intentions of prosecuting or harassing anyone and that is why Anderson was granted bail.

26 years later, justice undelivered

On  7 June 2010, showcasing acute miscarriage of justice the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Mohan P Tiwari, convicted 8 persons including the then chairman of UCIL under section 304A of death caused by negligence of the Indian Penal Code, sentencing them to 2 years in prison, This way, the court brought an end to the long drawn battle for justice, passing out a verdict that can most easily be described as a slap on the faces of victims of gas leak, who waited for two decades in hopes of redemption, for themselves and their future generations, maimed from genetic curse.

Kanika Aggarwal

Image Source: [http://buzzytimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Bhopal-Gas-Tragedy.jpg]

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