The victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy feel let down even though eight people have been convicted. A lay person may find it difficult to understand why. The answer lies in a long history of decisions, which made it impossible for the lower courts to do anything meaningful.
The Supreme Court in 1989 upheld an agreement between the government and Union Carbide India Ltd, under which only a pittance was to be paid to the affected persons. The settlement also quashed all criminal proceedings against the accused.
In a subsequent decision in 1991, the apex court set aside that part of the earlier order which had quashed all criminal proceedings and allowed them to be revived. In a second round of litigation, the court diluted the charges and the accused were to be tried under section 304A of the Indian Penal Code (causing death by negligence), not under section 304 Part II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder, with up to 10 years imprisonment), effectively capping the sentence at two years.
The gas victims are naturally outraged, let down by the government and the judicial system. The trial court order has come after 26 years. I am convinced not a single accused will ever go to jail and the matter will drag on in superior courts for years.
As told to Manish Ranjan.
Colin H. Gonsalves is a Supreme Court advocate and founder, Human Rights Law Network. Respond at firstname.lastname@example.org