Indians outraged by Bhopal gas verdict prepare counterpunch

Activists vowed to appeal a court decision Monday that issued seemingly light sentences over the infamous 1984 Bhopal gas leak, which killed 15,000 people. Opposition politicians threatened to stymie a key nuclear deal with the US.

Raj Patidar/Reuters
Victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster attend a demonstration outside a court in the central Indian city of Bhopal Monday.

Anger across India over what many see as a light sentence for eight men Monday over the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster – often called the world’s worst industrial disaster – may reignite a battle for justice that had fallen off the radar of much of Indian media and society.

Activists vowed to appeal the court’s decision, and survivors' rights groups began organizing protests. The biggest fallout may be on the fate of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, draft legislation that would limit the liability of nuclear companies and be a keystone of a India-US civilian nuclear deal. In response to the verdict, opposition parties reaffirmed their intent to block the legislation.

Monday’s decision by a local court – to sentence eight former employees of Union Carbide of India Limited (UCIL) to two years’ imprisonment and a little over $2,000 in fines in what is often called the world's worst industrial disaster – shocked most Indians, particularly victims of the disaster. The December 1984 gas leak from a pesticide plant in the congested city of Bhopal killed several thousand within days and at least 15,000 over the years. The case had sat in the courts since 1986. Its outcome also drew widespread criticism of both the legal system and the investigatory and prosecutory agencies.

Union Carbide said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal Monday that it had already settled with the Indian government for $470 million in 1994, and had nothing to do with the Indian subsidiary anymore. The company has sold its share to Dow Chemicals.

Seeking legal recourse

Activists planning their legal strategy in the higher courts say they will ask that the sentences on the charges don't run concurrently, to extend imprisonment of the officials to four years. They are also appealing the 500,000 rupee (a little over $10,000) fine on Union Carbide of India Limited (UCIL).

How much legal recourse they have is unclear since the court gave the maximum possible punishment for the charges. Many lawyers and activists trace Monday's verdict to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1996 to reduce the charges from culpable homicide, which carries a punishment of up to 10 years, to criminal negligence.

The Bhopal gas disaster was instrumental in bringing in new and stricter Indian laws dealing with environmental disasters and the storage and transport of hazardous materials, says prominent environmental lawyer Shyam Divan. "It was a shock to the system, and we are much better off now in terms of the legislative framework at least.”

But they can't be applied retrospectively, he continues. The Bhopal case had to be tried under "the old regime, which was inadequate."

Holding foreigners to account

Activists are also asking the Indian government to set up a special prosecution cell to help bring foreign accused to justice. American Warren Anderson, the former head of Union Carbide, the US parent company, was also accused in the case but was never extradited from the US to face the charges in India. An “absconder” in the eyes of the courts here, he is a particular point of anger for Indians, with his absence feeding the idea that foreign multinationals are not accountable for their actions in the country.

Revisiting the nuclear bill

This anger also drives much of the opposition to the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which would set the protocols for India’s civil nuclear commerce.

“This is a wake up call for the people in this country,” says Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. “This is not just about Bhopal. Tomorrow, if there is a nuclear disaster, people will be treated worse because a US company cannot be held liable.”

The bill places liability wholly on the nuclear power plant operator, not any foreign suppliers or companies building the reactors, and caps that liability in case of a nuclear accident to about $100 million. Accident cases are limited to the jurisdiction of Indian courts. It was set to be introduced in parliament in March but deferred due to the opposition.

US State Department officials said Monday they hoped the verdict would not impact the bill’s passage. Indian Law Minister Veerapa Moily, however, told an Indian newspaper Monday evening that it probably would. The verdict suggests the laws on industrial disasters need to be strengthened, he said.

Opposition parties, including the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the leftist parties, have reiterated their opposition to the bill, with the latter saying that the compensation was too low and that the bill would safeguard corporate and US interests at the expense of India.

That's a view echoed by Abdul Jabbar, a victim of the disaster and organizer of a local rights group: "Government policy favors the multinationals, but we have to carry on fighting, and doing what we can to get justice."

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