New Delhi: Twenty-six long years after the country’s worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal lower court on Monday sentenced each of the seven accused to two-year jail sentences and a fine of Rs1 lakh.
Supreme Court Lawyer Prashant Bhushan speaking to Mint’s Padmaparna Ghosh says that though the verdict sets a good precedent, it is sad that the conviction was for ’negligence’ and not ’culpable homicide’. Download link here
Lawyers said the decision to hold senior management responsible for such disasters sets a legal precedent even as activists representing survivors insisted the judgement does not go far enough.
Poison source: The Union Carbide plant, now defunct, in Bhopal. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
The convicted include Keshub Mahindra, then non-executive chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), which owned the factory from which the killer fumes escaped into Bhopal’s night air in December 1984, killing an estimated 3,000 people. Mahindra, currently chairman of Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, declined comment.
The erstwhile UCIL was also fined Rs5 lakh. The convicted have been given bail.
The verdict does not cover Warren Anderson, former chairman of Union Carbide Corp. (US) and the main accused in the gas tragedy; he has been termed an “absconder” by the lower court and is being tried in a different court.
Experts said the landmark judgement has highlighted the lack of a law to deal with large industrial disasters, forcing the prosecution to rely on existing civil and criminal laws which do not make any distinctions in the nature of a crime.
“It is a precedent, but it is not enough. The accused have been tried under ‘causing death due to negligence’ whereas they should have been tried under ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder,” said Prashant Bhushan, a Supreme Court lawyer.
Bhushan was referring to the Supreme Court order in 1996, which reduced the charges on the accused from “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” to one causing death by negligence. The former can potentially invite a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, the jail sentence in the latter is a maximum of two years.
The apex court ruling followed after the accused challenged the Madhya Pradesh high court, in 1995, upholding their prosecution for stricter charges.
Activists believe that the Supreme Court verdict weakened the case of the prosecution.
“This is a disaster in three levels. First was in 1984, second when the government failed to adequately charge the perpetrators, and third the contamination going on at present in and around the accident site,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, an activist with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.
Lawyers and environment activists believe that industrial accidents of such magnitude should not be covered under general sections of section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). “A separate section should be inserted in the IPC which can take care of such industrial accidents” said Sanjay Parikh, a Supreme Court lawyer.
Click here to view a slideshow of photographs of the defunct plant.
Existing and proposed environmental legislation does not have any criminal provisions either.
“The National Green Tribunal, for instance, has only civil liability. There was some talk of including criminal provisions, but that has not happened. In such cases, the IPC or the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code) are the only options,” said Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental lawyer.
Bhushan added that industries using hazardous substances should invite higher penalties for violations.
“Instead the government is limiting liabilities (pointing to the Nuclear Liability Bill),” Bhushan added, asserting that with rapid industrial growth, such provisions are critical.
The other convicted UCIL officials are Vijay Gokhale, former managing director, Kishore Kamdar, former vice president, J Mukund, former works manager, S.P. Chaudhary, former production manager, K.V. Shetty, former plant superintendent, S.I. Qureshi, former production assistant, R.B. Roy Chaudhary, former assistant manager.
Sahil Makkar contributed to this story.