People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 24

June 13, 2010



Criminal Injustice from House of Justice


THE verdict for punishing the guilty in the world’s worst industrial accident --- the Bhopal gas tragedy --- has finally come after a quarter of a century. This has been universally decried as both justice delayed and justice denied. In fact, the verdict is worse. It is plain injustice, indeed, criminal injustice! While the main accused, Warren Anderson, the then chairman of the Union Carbide, continues to live peacefully in New York, eight other Indian (of whom one is now dead) executives of Union Carbide have been sentenced to a mere two years imprisonment. The local court also fined them about Rs one lakh each and the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), Rs five lakh. The convicted persons were immediately thereafter freed on a personal bond of Rs 25,000 each.


As our readers will recall, the world’s worst ever industrial disaster took place on the night of December 2-3, 1984 when over 40,000 kg of toxic gas leaked from the fertiliser plant of the UCIL, killing over 4,000 people instantaneously and injuring over a lakh. While the estimations of exact numbers vary, it is universally accepted that over 20,000 people have died so far and nearly six lakh people have contracted life-long infirmities. Investigations had established the negligence of the UCIL management and a lack of safety systems, despite earlier warnings, that led to this disaster. 


Though Anderson was arrested, when he arrived in Bhopal four days after the accident, for causing death by negligence, he was soon released on a personal bond of Rs 25,000, put on a state government plane to New Delhi, allowed to escape to the USA and remain an absconder to date. While he promised, in his bond, to return to India to stand trial in the case when summoned, he never did so. The government of India has so far failed to get him extradited for trial. 


The clouds of suspicion of complicity on part of the Indian government and the Indian system of delivery of justice became darker when, mysteriously, all criminal charges against the UCIL were dropped in 1989. It was only the widespread public uproar that led to the Supreme Court reopening the cases in 1991. However in 1996, again mysteriously, the apex court directed the charges to be converted from culpable homicide (maximum sentence of ten years) to death due to negligence (maximum sentence of two years). It was under this latter charge that fifteen years later, the present, patently unjust verdict has been delivered. 


Such injustice cannot be acceptable. Under pressure from the USA, the system of delivery of justice in India cannot be allowed to get distorted or negated. If this is allowed, then the very faith and confidence of the Indian people in our parliamentary democracy would be grievously undermined. The Indian government must seriously remedy this gross injustice, bring the guilty to book and deliver justice to the victims. It is simply unacceptable that every victim of this ghastly disaster, on an average, has received a pittance of Rs 12,410. 


The law minister, responding to the strong feelings expressed across the country against this verdict, has said that the case against Anderson is “legally and technically” still on and if “he can be obtained, he can still be tried.” The country will be assuaged only if this is pursued in right earnest. The law minister has further assured the country that a new law to strictly deal with such manmade disasters would be enacted within the next six months. 


If this be the case, the UPA-2 government must seriously reconsider and withdraw the Civilian Nuclear Liability Bill (CNLB) that it had so hurriedly introduced in the parliament, again under US pressure. In the Bhopal gas tragedy, the UCIL paid Rs 713 crore as compensation after prolonged legal wrangling. Under the CNLB, the maximum compensation required to be paid by the supplier is a mere Rs 500 crore. This could be increased to Rs 2,100 crore when the liability is transferred to the government. Now everybody knows that in the case of a nuclear accident, the casualties would run into much, much higher figures and the damage caused would be infinitely severe. Yet, this bill caps the liability to less than what even the Union Carbide was forced to pay for the Bhopal disaster. Clearly, this bill must be resoundingly rejected in the light of this experience. 


This court verdict, clearly, sends the message to the US and other western powers that they can set-up their industrial plants in India and reap superprofits without worrying about any serious liabilities in case of such serious accidents. The US assistant secretary of state has echoed this by saying that the present court verdict should lead to closure of the entire issue. The US has already refused any future action against the Union Carbide which has now become a subsidiary of the multinational Dow Chemicals. 


Contrast such callousness with the USA’s response to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico recently. The Obama administration has pledged to hold oil giant, BP, accountable for billions of dollars in damages and clean up operations as well as penalties in the aftermath of the offshore oil rig accident that killed eleven men and emptied millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea. As far as the Bhopal accident is concerned where over 20,000 lives were lost, the USA wants the matter to be “closed.” Such are the criminal double standards of imperialism and the industrialised West.


This UPA-2 government, despite its proclivities, must not be allowed to succumb to US pressures to enact the CNLB. The least that it can do now is to demand the extradition of Warren Anderson and subject him to a speedy trial, which the law minister has stated is possible. The government must do the necessary --- either appeal against this verdict or initiate a fresh process in the apex court to ensure that proper justice is delivered to the victims. It must also bring to book those whose complicity aided the delay in and denial of justice, while it must take steps to strengthen the laws that would ensure a fair and speedy delivery of justice in the future.