Bhopal Gas Tragedy: 33 Years, 500,000 Affected, No Justice

Posted by Kunal Basu in Politics, Society
December 3, 2016

The ghosts of the past never do really seem to relinquish their firm grasp on their modern contemporaries – both metaphorically and literally.

More than 30 years have lapsed since the occurrence of the Bhopal gas tragedy between the nights of December 3-4, 1984. Yet, justice still evades the victims of this largest industrial disaster even today. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster is quantitatively nothing, as compared to the magnitude of gas leakage and consequent deaths of nearly 15000 people affected by the noxious methyl isocynate (C2H3NO) gas emanating from Union Carbide’s industrial plant in Bhopal.

The judicial orders passed by the Madhya Pradesh district trial court had specifically stated that adequate compensation amounts must be paid to the victims of this tragedy. The court also stated that for a period of 7 years, free medical checkups be afforded to all victims of this unforseen disaster. This was approved further by the Supreme Court in its ruling made in ‘Union Carbide Corporation vs UOI’ [1990 AIR 273]. Consequent steps were also taken by the higher judiciary in positive attempts made by it towards ameliorating people’s sufferings, as is quite evident from the Supreme Court’s ruling in ‘Charanlal Sahu vs UOI’ [1990 AIR 1480]. But ironically, in its current context, more suffering, rather than intermittent relief seems to be plaguing the affected injured parties; i.e. the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Although the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act was passed in 1985 to redress the grievances of victims affected by this gas leak, it has not been very successful in its objective. Civil litigation claims are pending adjudication in the courts even today. Many of the affected persons have probably died by now. What good are settlement claims and civil lawsuits, if speedy justice is not served upon the injured plaintiffs?

Although the MIC gas has long dissipated over the years, the negative effect and deleterious impact it has had on people’s lives has not completely vanished. Even today, victims are giving birth to babies born with unwanted congenital diseases or severe deformities. This and other allied problems, such as upper respiratory track syndrome (URT), facial or bodily deformities are also a byproducts of the major health problems faced by people who are adversely affected by the unplanned gas leak.

 

But whose fault is it actually supposed to be? Who was responsible for not overseeing statutory compliance of the law? Or carrying out surprise checks on the industrial plants manufactured and operated by Union Carbide (India) Ltd.? Was it not incumbent upon the statutory authorities to conduct surprise checks on the industrial plant to confirm their environmental vis-a-vis industrial safety for humans?

It was further stated that the recently deceased Warren Anderson, the alleged chief culprit behind this disaster, had fled from India to escape trial by the Indian judiciary. That may well be true, as nowadays, media reports often portray the authorities sometimes working hand-in-glove with criminal offenders. But denial or otherwise, the hard reality is that Mr. Anderson did not appear for any of the judicial proceedings conducted by either the District Court, Bhopal or the Supreme Court of India.

A further question arises as to safety features and efficacy of statutory compliance reports. It is common knowledge that before any industrial plant be allowed to function, it must be thoroughly tested for any kind of malfunctioning processes that would be likely to hinder its uninterrupted operability. Contrary to this, as the Bhopal gas leak incident did occur, destroying around 15000 in its wake, obviously, this requirement was not complied with.

The Supreme Court has very rightly stated that the authorities responsible for aiding the escape of Warren Anderson must be brought to book. But unofficial media reports have clearly stated how the authorities through Arjun Singh, Bhopal CM, had ordered for safe passage for Anderson when the Madhya Pradesh police attempted to arrest him at Bhopal Airport. Is this the way enforcement of the Indian statutory laws, vis-a-vis its executive administrators grant justice to the aggrieved plaintiffs in a suit – by simply allowing an offender to evade the law seeking to punish him?

Unfortunately, Section 8 of the 2005 RTI Act, debars persons from accessing statutory records. Particularly where the matter is lis pendens before the Indian courts.

Why are no efforts being made to identify and arrest those who knowingly conferred safety status of UCC’s industrial plant that led to the disaster? Are they being shielded by those having an interest in their non-apprehension by law? Or is the executive apathy towards people’s interests and legal rights so rustic in its approach that it sides with criminal elements, rather than than with the electorates that voted it to power?

It is a pity that Section 8 of 2005 RTI Act debars individuals from accessing records that are detrimental to the nation’s security and sovereignty. Or else, the real truth as to the UCC’s statutory compliance with legal procedures would have been revealed to the public without further delay.

As a young lawyer, I would hope that justice is delivered to the affected people as expeditiously as possible. What is the use of passing new legislations such as the Delhi (Right of Citizens to Time Bound Services) Act (2011), if a basic fundamental right to justice is denied to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims for over thirty years?

Although this step by the Supreme Court of India in identifying the culprit authorities is a slow first, yet it is definitely a laudable move in delivery of justice. One can only hope and that the courts can deliver justice speedily to the victims in pursuance of Article 21 of the Constitution.

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