Guilty, but bailed

Seven Union Carbide officials get two-year jail term for Bhopal gas leak that has killed 20,000

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Published: Wednesday 30 June 2010

IMAGEON JUNE 7, a Bhopal city court held eight persons guilty in connection with the toxic gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant more than 25 years ago that killed thousands and affected over 500,000 people.

The court sentenced the guilty to two years in jail but the convicts, including Keshub Mahindra, the then chairman of the company’s Indian arm, were let off on bail.

Chief judicial magistrate P Mohan Tiwari imposed a fine of about Rs 1 lakh on the guilty officials of Union Carbide (India) Limited (UCIL). The officials got away with a lighter sentence under the Indian penal provision for death due to negligence. They were originally charged with culpable homicide that carries a maximum punishment of 10 years. The seven officials (one died during trial) were also convicted of gross negligence and endangering others’ life. All sentences would run concurrently.

Warren Anderson absconding

UCIL’s parent company United Carbide Corporation (UCC) of USA and its then chairman Warren Anderson are the prime accused in the case but could not be brought to trial. Anderson is absconding and the Indian government failed to get him extradited.

Activists and victims said the court verdict is a mockery of justice. “It’s almost like letting them walk free,” said N D Jaiprakash of Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sahyog Samiti, a forum fighting for the victims’ rights. “They have got bail and in near future they are not going to jail. They will not pay fines and would appeal against the judgement in the high court,” he added.

An estimated 20,000 persons have died over the years due to methyl isocyanate poisoning. The gas had escaped from the UCIL factory on the intervening night of December 2 and 3 in 1984. Activists said 6,000 affected persons are still visiting hospitals for treatment. “The court verdict has seriously undermined the concept of corporate liability,” said Rachna Dhingra of the non-profit International Campaign for Justice. “It would give multinational companies a feeling they can get away with murder in India,” she said.

Charges watered down

Investigations in the case were conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that charged the accused of culpable homicide. The Supreme Court diluted the charge to causing death by negligence in 1996. “We had filed an application under Section 216 of the Criminal Procedure Code this year for enhancing the charge to culpable homicide, but the city court rejected the application,” said Jaiprakash.

Activists said the government and the CBI are responsible for making the case weak. “It is evident from the settlements the government has had with the accused company right from the beginning of the case,” said a lawyer. He was referring to the government accepting US $470 million as compensation in 1989, though it had sued the company for $3.3 billion in a US court.

Nityanand Jayaraman of the nonprofit Sipcot Area Community Environmental Monitors in Chennai said CBI had done a shoddy job of prosecuting the accused. Its failure to get the absconders to stand trial and its not appealing against dilution of criminal charges against those who underwent trial are instances of the agency’s failure, he said.

CBI spokesperson Harsh Bhal denied the charges. “The Supreme Court diluted the chargesheet. How could CBI have made the case weak? CBI, on its part, presented to the court every bit of evidence that was available,” said Bhal.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.