Bhopal: A 25-year crime; a 2-year bailable sentence

There is no comparison but if you take the BP oil spill and the Union Carbide gas leak you will see how shamelessly we let big corporations get away with murder.

This is not justice from any angle you look at it. The verdict in the Bhopal Gas Murders – for a long we all have been calling it a tragedy – has been pronounced by a local court in Bhopal. This is a case that has dragged on for 25 years, claimed 15,134 lives and affected 5.74 lakh people. Let us remember that ‘affected’ is not a term to be used loosely – people are still suffering from the effects of the gas leak, unborn children will not be normal, it has debilitated thousands who have lost all hope of employment and a right to live with some semblance of dignity.

Union Carbide, the multinational giant that caused the world’s worst disaster 40 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate gas had leaked from a tank in the Union Carbide plant located in a thickly populated area of Bhopal, exposing more than 5 lakh people to its deadly effects. As part of the compensation deal with Union Carbide, the Centre decided to drop all criminal charges in 1989. The case was revived in 1991 on the plea of the victims.

Despite this, Dow Jones was allowed to purchase the plant; obviously, it cannot be held culpable. However, the fact that an outside group was permitted to buy it and that it even wanted to after a calamity of this magnitude speaks volumes about how careless and unconcerned we are about what happens to those who will get affected.

UC paid $470 m (then Rs 705 cr) in compensation to the Indian government in 1989.

The Indian government gave false figures and after striking a deal with Union Carbide the case was shut. UC cannot be held accountable. US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robert Blake, has made that very clear:

"We hope that this verdict today helps to bring some closure to the victims and their families. But I don't expect this verdict to reopen any new inquiries or anything like that. On the contrary, we hope that this is going to help to bring closure.”

Sure. Some closure.

The accused have been sentenced to two years in prison, fined Rs 1 lakh and granted bail immediately. This is pathetic. Our Union law minister Veerappa Moily, said, “This is one case where justice is delayed and practically denied. I would say justice is buried... There is a need for fast-track courts.”

25 years later they want fast-track courts. What will those courts do? I’ll tell you. The accused, in this case a few biggies, Keshub Mahindra, will be exonerated even if the case goes to the high court. And that is not the point. We do not know where to stop. There is haphazard industrialisation under the guise of globalisation.

The last time the media spoke about it was during the anniversary and at least one paper was worried that we would be called a banana republic.

It is all about how good we look to the world, when it is this rampant encouraging of outside forces or our own imitation of them – without taking into consideration whether our environment is fit enough to deal with it – that makes us turn into the demon destroying its own tail.

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An earlier piece of mine here


  1. The Bhopal tragedy inquiry reported no less than a dozen fail-safe features having failed, which resulted in many things going wrong simultaneously. Industrial plants that are well-designed have fail-safe features that will trip and shutdown the plant operation before disaster strikes....the only catch is that these fail-safe features need to be maintained and kept in good shape for them to work when needed.

    Unfortunately in Bhopal, the operators of the MIC plant in Bhopal allowed all such fail-safe systems to stop function, and there was also no oversight from the government of India on the issue to check if the plant operators were in compliance with safety standards, not to mention there were no such standards set by the Indian govt. at that time.

    Union Carbide's management was culpable in trusting their Indian counterparts in the claims that all was well with the Bhopal plants when it was not. Ignoring the unresolvable issue of who and how the culprits responsible are, the only way to avoid such disasters in the future is to have governmental oversight over such industrial plants with the potential for causing huge damage and regularly checking up on the safety mechanisms in the plant that usually exist to stop such disasters from happening in the first place.

  2. There is no alternative to industrialization when it comes to improving the overall economic conditions of society at large -- industrialization provides the base for a variety of trade and transactions that cannot exist in a non-industrial society. But in the "with great power comes great responsibility" mould of thinking, industrialization also raises the bar for average human behaviour -- complacence and ignorance has no place here. A plant manager sleeping on the job can cause untold misery to the civilian populace living around a plant. This becomes very important as India moves towards becoming an industrial society with most of the base load power generation from nuclear power plants -- even these nuclear plants carry risks similar to the MIC plant, but the only way to really ensure that Bhopal-like tragedies never take place is to ensure proper oversight to ensure the the existence of safety systems and that these systems are always in top working condition. An analogy here is maintaining a mechanical machine like a car, which comes with safety features such as seat belts and air bags -- if the car operator does not maintain the car properly, it matters little what kind of the advanced features the car has because none of them will work as designed when the passengers of the car really need them to work.

  3. Farzana,
    The U.S. government statement on Indian court ruling was quite interesting.
    On a related note - it would be interesting to see how the claims settlement happens in BP oil spill case.
    Appears that we need to re-visit the definition of "failed state".

    Al :
    Proverbial Gorilla in the room is not just the negligence - of which there were enough warning signs before the disaster actually struck (try looking up references to Rajkumar Keswani) - related to safety. Even more criminal behavior on part of both UCIL and Indian governments (central government and M.P. state government) unfolded post disaster at almost every step.
    It is not just negligence, a corruptible soft state provides enough incentives to the corporations to resort to cutting corners for better "bottom lines".

    p.s. for Farzana : No "Express Tribune" article this week too ? Still "On" with them ? Just curious.

  4. Al:

    Given that this did happen, there is responsibility to be taken. We are not talking about the security guard of an apartment block.

    There is political motive here, western pugnacity, tardiness of the government. In the US if there is snow in your driveway and someone slips and hurts you will be sued. Too hot coffee? List is endless...

    In this case people have been let off the hook too easily. India is not becoming industrialised; it already is. What we need to understand is how far we can stretch it with our infrastructure and commensurate with the needs of the majority of the people.

  5. Mahesh:

    BP oil spill will be more an ego tussle.

    I think failed states are beyond definition, because almost each one fails at some level.

    PS: Thanks for remembering about Express Tribune. I expressed my reservations and have been given all kinds of reassurances. So, I guess it is 'on', but I have not yet told them :)

  6. FV: "Given that this did happen, there is responsibility to be taken. We are not talking about the security guard of an apartment block."

    Agree with that. The problem with pushing this line at a time like now when Warren Anderson is 89 years old is that it lets the guilty go free by making him a scapegoat.

    "There is political motive here, western pugnacity, tardiness of the government."

    No doubt. That still seems to be the motive.

    " In the US if there is snow in your driveway and someone slips and hurts you will be sued. Too hot coffee? List is endless..."

    That is because the local laws make a person legally responsible for the upkeep of the property, but I am not entirely sure becoming a litigious society is the answer. I don't think we want to end up as a litigious society like the USA, though that may become inevitable over time if we are not careful.

    "In this case people have been let off the hook too easily. India is not becoming industrialised; it already is."

    I think we are in for a lot more industrializing given current population pressures, which makes it all the more imperative that the public be smart enough to keep the lobbying power of these industries in check...and then there is the other problem of too many criminals in politics who have no compunctions about committing criminal acts of omission and commission on the job.

    " What we need to understand is how far we can stretch it with our infrastructure and commensurate with the needs of the majority of the people."

    One of the bottom lines of industry is Energy, which is what all industries require aplenty, and we currently live in a land of rotating blackouts, because there are not enough power plants and not enough fuel for even the current level of consumption.

    Thankfully, the present govt.'s nuclear initiatives are a good step in the direction of running power plants at full capacity.

  7. http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?265777

    Mahesh, Thanks for the tip about Mr. Keswani. His web page has an extensive list of his work over the years. You probably read the above, but I saw this recently.

  8. http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?265858

    The above article is a damning indictment of the culpability of Indira Gandhi for following unconstitutional means in the setting up of the MIC plant in Bhopal.

    The plant license was granted by the Indira Gandhi govt. overruling expert advice that did not want the plant in India -- the Congress(I) people like Arjun Singh, who are central to the Bhopal Disaster, should be strung up for this kind of sycophantic behaviour that pretends that India is the property of the Nehru clan's political party instead of being a constitutional democracy (which it is only nominally).


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