“The storerooms are full of hearts. This is the city of spare parts.”
– Sylvia Plath, Poem for a Birthday.
For the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, ‘justice’ and ‘jest’ are synonymous. Even after almost twenty six years, the government has not been able to clean up the epic mess that was created by the American Union Carbide factory in December, 1984. Recently, the Supreme Court delivered a shocking verdict on the case that not only belittles the world’s greatest industrial catastrophe, but also raises serious questions about the integrity of the judiciary.
About a quarter of a century ago, on a night like any other, deadly methyl isocyanate gas crept into the city of Bhopal and before the sun rose thousands of people dropped down to the ground and never got up. Since that night, several who had inhaled the harmful cocktail of gases have died; and the rest have suffered irreparable damage to their health. This has been a disaster like no other because, the city is still full of toxic gases and people still die every year. The groundwater in the city is still full of toxic gases, the children of the survivors suffer from genetic diseases induced by the gases and the compensation has been inconsequential. However, the approach of the government and judiciary towards this incident has been so appalling that the common man wonders if the world still has even an ounce of compassion left in it.
Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) Mohan P Tiwari convicted former Union Carbide India Chairman, Keshub Mahindra and seven others in the case and awarded them a maximum of two years imprisonment. They were held guilty under Sections 304-A (causing death by negligence), 304-II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 336, 337 and 338 (gross negligence) of the Indian Penal Code. The accused have been granted instant bail. However, there was not a word about Warren Anderson, former chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation, United States of America, in the judgment. He was only declared an absconder, and there has been no mention of extraditing him by the CJM.
India is stung by such a verdict that has converted the world’s worst industrial disaster into something so trivial, where the punishment is no greater than what is awarded for an ordinary road accident. Is there really no difference between a traffic accident and a fiasco such as the Bhopal incident where survivors still suffer life-threatening diseases? Is the judiciary devoid of conscience? Whatever happened to the protection of the civil liberties and the human rights of the citizens of the country – Are they only shallow promises? What is even more astonishing is that there was no action against Warren Anderson. He has escaped the responsibility of the incident, has repeatedly ignored the court summons since 1989 and has also not been considered for extradition in the present judgment. One can only ask if India is trying to kowtow to a world power and as a result, trivializing the agony of its own citizens.
While the rest of India can only be ashamed of such a verdict, the victims still talk of the ‘deadly toxic gas’ as an unknown organism that stifled the life of their city, and still lives inside them and gnaws away at their souls every moment. A cloud still hangs over the city of Bhopal. However, it is a cloud without a silver lining. It is a cloud of death, suffering and negligence.