India Affirms Bhopal Settlement, Reopens Carbide's Criminal Case
BOSTON — THE Supreme Court of India last week upheld a $470 million settlement between the government of India and Union Carbide Corporation over the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, but it also reopened criminal prosecution of those responsible for the mishap.The decision is a compromise designed to placate critics of the February 1989 settlement - who charged that India let the corporation off too easily - while maintaining a hard-fought agreement between the two parties, according to lawyers in the United States and India who have followed the case. "I think it's a tightrope act," says Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of science policy and law at Cornell University. "That's right," agrees Soli Sorabjee, a former Indian attorney general who has been the government's chief lawyer on the case since December 1989. "Carbide can [now] be proceeded with criminally." The $470 million agreement closed a civil case in which the Indian government was seeking $3.3 billion in compensation. Also, the government agreed to cease all criminal prosecutions, effectively acknowledging that the reasons for the mishap - which caused some 3,500 deaths and disabled thousands of other people - would never be ascertained. The deaths and injuries occurred when more than 40 tons of a gaseous chemical used to make pesticides burst into the night sky over some of Bhopal's poorest neighbor hoods. Ms. Jasanoff is editing a book on the lessons of the Bhopal disaster and says many Indians she has interviewed were outraged by the settlement. A renewed criminal case, she says, might give these people a sense that moral accountability will someday be established. Former Union Carbide Corporation chairman Warren Anderson said immediately after the disaster that his company accepted "moral responsibilities" for the tragedy. Criminal charges, which are technically still pending, were filed against Mr. Anderson and officials of Carbide's Indian subsidiary, but it appears doubtful that the long arm of Indian law could reach Carbide officials in the US, despite the existence of an extradition treaty between the two nations. "Nobody has any illusions about that," says C larence Dias, an Indian lawyer who runs a New York-based organization of third-world jurists. Mr. Sorabjee says extradition requests were part of the earlier criminal case, but adds, "How strongly the government pursues it, that's a different matter." He notes that New Delhi is trying to open India to international investment. Union Carbide officials, meanwhile, assert that a disgruntled employee is to blame. In a statement last week, spokesman Robert Berzok said the reopening of the criminal case was "unfortunate," but added that sabotage by the employee would be established as the "true cause of the disaster." Carbide's critics in India reject this explanation, saying the disaster was caused by lax safety standards and poor employee training. The Supreme Court's ruling also acknowledged the criticism that the $470 million is not enough to compensate the survivors of the disaster, says Rajiv Dhawan, a New Delhi lawyer active in the opposition to the settlement. If claims for compensation exceed the funds provided by Union Carbide - which has been gathering interest for more than two years - then the government must make up for the shortfall, the court said. "The problem," says Mr. Dhawan, "is that the responsibility must now go on to the taxpa yer rather than Carbide." Dhawan says the court "is picking up the residue of a badly done job," referring to the settlement. "It was absolutely necessary that the entire negotiations should have taken place openly ... and with the victims' participation, which has to this day been denied them," he says. In terms of what is to be learned from Bhopal, says Jasanoff, the Supreme Court's recent action isn't in itself significant. But if it gives rise to a dramatic effort to blame a multinational corporation's US headquarters for a disaster in the third world, she says, "that will have an impact."