26 years after leak at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal killed 15,000 people, the guilty sleep in peace.
On the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, deadly methyl isocyanate gas ‘leaked’ from a storage tank at the pesticides factory of Union Carbide India Ltd in Bhopal. Men, women and children sleeping in nearby slums and colonies died gasping for breath.
I was a sub-editor on the news desk of The Telegraph and have vivid memories of the tragic story unfolding through the day and late into the night of December 3. Those days there was no Internet and reports came via agency tickers. The enormity of the disaster emerged as PTI and UNI kept on updating the death toll. It was my third exposure to mass murder – the Nellie massacre was first; the anti-Sikh pogrom after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination was second.
The official death toll of what came to be known as ‘Bhopal Gas Disaster’ – how cleverly Union Carbide’s name was erased from the event! -- was “around 4,000”, which was a gross under-estimation; thousands more died over the next few days, taking the toll to at least 15,000 dead. Many more thousands were afflicted with blindness, respiratory problems and other illnesses. Unborn babies died in the wombs of their mothers; children were born with deformities; life became a living hell for many. (See the legacy of Union Carbide's crime.)
Arjun Singh was Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh those days, heading a Congress Government. Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, defending the butchery that had followed Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination and couldn’t care a toss about what turned out to be the world’s worst industrial disaster.
Warren Anderson, chairman of the US-based Union Carbide Corporation, parent company of Union Carbide India Ltd, flew to see for himself the devastation wrought by the American multinational firm. Probably he wanted to verify whether media stories were true or exaggerated. He did not show either remorse or sorrow but was high on bluster.
The police arrested Anderson; he was escorted to Union Carbide’s plush guest house where he relaxed while Arjun Singh arranged for his bail which was ‘granted’ within six hours. That evening a Government plane was placed at Anderson’s disposal: He flew out of Bhopal to Mumbai from where he boarded a flight to America. That was the last occasion he came anywhere near India.
The CBI was given the task of investigating the disaster. And it was instructed by the Congress Government at the Centre not to seek Anderson’s extradition.
Trial in the case against those accused of culpability (eight senior executives of Union Carbide India Ltd, including its chairman Keshub Mahindra) began 23 years ago in a Bhopal court. The accused were charged by the CBI under Section 304(II) of the Indian Penal Code which provides for a maximum of 10-year imprisonment.
The accused petitioned the Supreme Court. Interestingly, a bench headed by Justice A H Ahmadi, who later went on to become the Chief Justice of India, in 1996 converted the CBI charge under Section 304(II) of the IPC to Section 304A with a maximum of two years’ imprisonment.
Ahmadi now defends that decision by insisting that “There is no concept of vicarious liability. If my driver is driving and meets with a fatal accident, I don't become liable to be prosecuted under Section 304(II).” In other words, for Ahmadi the death of 15,000 people is no different from his driver hitting another car or a pedestrian.
On Monday, June 7, the Bhopal District Court gave its verdict: Two years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1 lakh for each of the accused and a fine of Rs 5 lakh for Union Carbide. Bail was granted to those held guilty.
This was no travesty of justice, it was perversion of justice.
The outrage following the verdict is justified, but nothing more by way of ‘punishment’ was expected. We should ask ourselves some searching questions:
. Union Carbide’s culpability apart, isn’t our Government, our system, to blame too?
. How is it that slums were allowed to proliferate in the immediate neighbourhood of a toxic industrial plant?
. Why were regular inspections not carried out at the plant? Who were the babus certifying the plant’s safety standards?
. Why did the State Government fail to even do a proper tally of the number of people killed? Why were numbers fixed to minimise casualties?
. How come we still do not have a law to deal with industrial disasters 26 years after the world’s worst industrial disaster occurred in our country?
. And, shouldn't we as a nation be ashamed, shouldn't we the people of India hang our heads in shame that our criminal justice system is so decrepit and callous that it took 23 years to deliver a bogus judgement in a case involving mass murder by another name?
2-3 December 1984
Poisonous gas leaks from Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal at night, killing ‘around 4,000 people’ within days and thousands more since then.
4 December 1984
Police file a case against UCIL and arrest nine.
Chairman and CEO of US-based Union Carbide Corp (UCC) Warren Anderson is released on bail and leaves India
6 December 1984
Case is transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)
India files a $3.3 billion claim against UCC in a US court
US district court transfers all litigation to India
1 December 1987
CBI files chargesheet against Anderson, UCIL chairman Keshub Mahindra and seven others. Charges include culpable homicide
UCC agrees to pay $470 million as compensation in an out-of-court deal with Indian government
Only a part of the compensation is disbursed among victims. Anderson is declared a fugitive after igonring court summons.
UCC sells stake in UCIL to McLeod Russell (India) Ltd. of Kolkata
13 September 1996
Supreme Court reduces the charge to death by negligence
UCC announces merger plans with US firm Dow Chemicals
UCC declines responsibility for UCIL’s liabilities in India
Court maintains charge of culpable homicide against Anderson and demands his extradition. UK newspaper reports he is in New York, after US authorities say they can’t locate him
India sends formal request for Anderson’s extradition
India issues ’No Objection’ certificate to allow Dow Chemicals to clean the soil and ground water at the tragedy site
US rejects India’s request for Anderson’s extradition
Supreme Court orders the government to disburse the rest of the compensation
25 October 2004
Protest against the government’s failure to pay the compensation
26 October 2004
Supreme court sets 15 November as deadline for payment of compensation. Authorities begin disbursal
22 July 2009
Bhopal court issues new arrest warrant against Anderson. His trial is separated from others
7 June 2010
Local court declares all the eight accused guilty. Sentences them to 2 years in jail; imposes a piddly fine.
They are freed on bail.