Bhopal Tragedy & Civil Liability

After a trial lasting quarter of a century, the judgement on Bhopal Gas tragedy, the world’s worst industrial disaster which killed and maimed thousands of people, has been pronounced today and it makes me wonder if greatest industrial catastrophe has been lost in the collective consciousness of the world.

 The travesty of the whole the pronouncement of judgement by the Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohan P Tiwari after a 26-year-long trial in the toxic leak case from the now defunct Union Carbide factory on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, is the intend of the justice delivery system to ‘delay’ in order to ‘deny‘ justice to the suffering people of Bhopal.  

Early morning hours of December 3, 1984, a pesticide plant owned and operated by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in capital city of Madhya Pradesh released methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other toxins, resulting in the exposure of over 500,000 people. Given our corrupt officialdom estimates vary on the death toll. The Indian Government immediately put the death toll at 2,259 and the government of Madhya Pradesh has confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release within first 3 days. The Indian Council of Medical Research put the estimate to 8,000-10,000 deaths. In another study commissioned by ICMR in 1994, the estimates were revised to 25,000 deaths, from gas-related diseases.

But the victims of the biggest industrial accident have not received any succour even after 26 years. After the initial human catastrophe in a continuing health hazard, some 390 tons of toxic chemicals abandoned at the UCIL plant continue to leak and pollute the groundwater in the region and affect thousands of Bhopal residents who depend on it.

During the trial, a total of 178 prosecution witnesses were examined and 3008 documents were produced while eight defence witnesses deposed in the Indian Court. The Chairman of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) of USA Warren Anderson was declared absconder, so doesn’t even face trial. But on hearing about the gas leak, the US-based Anderson had flown down on December 4 and was arrested in Bhopal. He was, however, soon granted bail and flew back on December 7, never to be seen in India again!

The other two accused Union Carbide Corporation, USA and Union Carbide Eastern, Hong Kong – escaped the trial with no officials appearing in Indian Courts for some weird reason known only to the CBI and the CJM.

Only Indians officials of UCIL were found culpable. Out of the eight accused tried for the offences, R B Roy Choudhary, the then former Assistant Works Manager UCIL, Mumbai, died during the trial. The remaining seven accused in the case are Keshub Mahendra, the then UCIL Chairman, Vijay Gokhle, the then Managing Director, Kishore Kamdar, the then Vice President, J Mukund, the then Works Manager, S P Choudhary, the then Production Manager, K V Shetty, the then Plant Superintendent, S I Quershi and the then Production Assistant has been found guilty.  But all of them were relaesed on bail after paying a fine of Rs. 25,000 each.

The First Information Report in the tragedy was filed on December 3, 1984 and the case was transferred to CBI on December 6, 1984. The CBI filed the charge sheet after investigation on December 1, 1987. Subsequently, the CJM framed charges against the accused under section 304 Part (II) (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), section 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means) and other relevant sections of IPC. Rajiv Gandhi had just become Prime Minister only weeks before the Bhopal tragedy following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Narasimha Rao was the Union Home Minister and Arjun Singh was the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh then. 

But, in March 1989, the UCC setteled all liabilities related to the accident, including cleaning up the site, with a $470 million out-of-court settlement with the Union Government. Then as if in a hurry the government immediately decided to drop criminal charges, without taking the victims into confidence and much before the VP Singh Government is sworn in. After the accused in the case moved the Apex Court, it amended the charges on September 13, 1996 to 304 (A) (causing death by negligence), 336 (acts endangering life or personal safety of others, 337 (causing hurt by endangering life or personal safety of others) and other sections of IPC. Now hold your breath, the offense under 304 (A) carries a maximum punishment of up to two years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 25,000 as against death penality under 304 Part (II).

Sadly the poison gas that poured out of the Union Carbide factory has still not woken up the Indian Corporate World, the Indian Government, the Bureaucracy or the Honerable Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. With the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill we will create more Bhopal’s in our backyard and still be able to sell India cheap. And dead Indian’s cheaper.

For the UPA Government trying to push the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill on capping civil nuclear liability in order to pave the way for the American transnational companies to export their nuclear reactors to India without having to bear the full liability on account of an accident, is a non issue. The Bill, which was introduced twice and hastily  withdrawn, states that the total liability for a nuclear incident shall not exceed 300 million Special Drawing Rights (Approximately Rs 2100 crore at current exchange rates). Within this amount, the liability of the supplier shall be Rs 500 crore. The liability of Rs. 500 crore is the same liability UCIL negotiated in 1989. The price for the worst Industrial disaster in the World. The price for 25000 dead Indians. 

Now here is the icing, if the liability in case of a Nuclear accident exceeds Rs 500 crore, the Union Government of India shall be liable for the amount exceeding Rs 500 crore. If damage is caused in a nuclear installation owned by the central government, the government will be solely liable.

We have seen how the political leadership, the Indian Judiciary  and Bureaucracy has dealt with the worst industrial disaster in the World, which killed and maimed thousands of people. In the intervening 25 years, the Congress Party ruled Madhya Pradesh for 15 years and the BJP 10 years, so no one is above board. As tragic as the tragedy itself, these tyrants of the modern day India, through political manipulation have ensured that on an average each victims of Bhopal gas tragedy got, just Rs. 12,412 as compensation. Let us not play ball to the powers-to-be, to manipulate us any more at the insistence of the American Corporations and the US Government. And if you believe ignorance is bliss, watch the videos of the human tragedy, once again. 

Video: The Bhopal Gas tragedy photographs compliled on YouTube. Copyright with photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew.

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