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How the Bhopal gas tragedy trial unraveled

June 08, 2010 10:14 IST
It was the night between December 2 and 3 in 1984. It was a night when graveyards in Old Bhopal ran short of space and cloth merchants threw open their shops at midnight, freely donating any length of cloth to cover the endless corpses that were to be cremated or buried…
 
It was a night when Bhopalis ran for their lives, chased by the fumes of 40 tonnes of methyl iscocyanate that was leaking from the pipes of the Union Carbide plant, thanks to a chemical accident.
 
People were fast asleep under quilts and woken up by shouts of those awake and screaming. They joined them to run for their lives, as their eyes burnt..as if potatoes boiled in hot water...This is how Bhopalis describe the hellish experience.
 
Those who survived got a compensation of Rs 1 lakh per dead. But, they are waiting for justice even now. They are still awaiting compensation for the futile years they have spent unable to do any work, with bodies wasted by ill health, lungs left too weak to breathe fully, pockets full of pills they have to pop now and then to keep going.
 
That wait was to have terminated on Monday in the verdict from the chief judicial magistrate's court. The verdict has finally nailed down eight accused executives of Union Carbide and also pronounced a sentence against them, as well as the company. The verdict of the chief judicial magistrate of Bhopal, however, looks too light in comparison to the lives lost by the people of Bhopal. The long wait for the verdict has also terminated in silence on the main accused -- the former chairman of the parent company, Warren Anderson, who was once proclaimed absconder by the same court.
 
Chasing Warren Anderson
 
The first step to pursue him was taken on December 1, 1987, when the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a chargesheet against him and, and 11 other accused, including UCC, Union Carbide (Eastern) Hong Kong, and UCIL. On July 6, 1988, the chief judicial magistrate, Bhopal, issued a letter to the US administration, seeking permission for the CBI to inspect the safety systems installed at the MIC unit of UCC's premier pesticide plant, the Institute in the State of West Virginia, USA. On February 9, 1989, CJM, Bhopal, issued a non-bailable warrant of arrest against Anderson, accused number one, for repeatedly ignoring summons.
 
On February 14, 1989, the US administration granted permission to CBI to inspect the safety systems of UCC's pesticide plant at Institute, West Virginia, for comparison of safety standards there and that installed at the Bhopal plant. While the matter relating to payment of interim compensation was being heard before the Supreme Court, UCC and the Government of India reached a settlement.
 
The settlement stipulated, inter alia, that UCC would pay $470 million as compensation and GoI would withdraw the criminal cases instituted against the accused in the Bhopal gas leak disaster case.
 
Following a review petition in October 1991 , the Supreme Court revoked the criminal immunity granted to UCC and all other accused in the Bhopal gas leak disaster case. To meet the medical needs of the gas victims, the Court further ordered GoI to construct a 500-bed hospital. The construction cost of the hospital and its running cost for eight years (which was estimated to be around Rs 50 crore at that time) was to be borne by UCC and UCIL.
 
In November that year, criminal cases against all the accused were revived in the CJM's Court in Bhopal. A proclamation was issued by CJM, Bhopal, ordering Warren Anderson (accused number one), UCC (USA) (accused number 10), and UCE (Hong Kong) (accused number 11), to present themselves before the CJM on February 1, 1992. A proclamation for Anderson's appearance was also published in the Washington Post. In 1992, the CJM declared Anderson, UCC (USA) and Union Carbide Eastern (Hong Kong) as absconders for non-appearance
in the criminal case. The CJM also declared that if the accused did not appear in court on March 27, 1992, their properties were liable to be attached.
 
A hospital donated by an absconder
After being proclaimed offender, UCC (USA) set up the so-called Bhopal Hospital Trust in London, with Ian Percival as its sole trustee. UCC endowed the entire shares of UCC in UCIL to the trust. Apart from an initial grant of £1,000 for administrative expenses of the trust, the only funds endowed to the trust by UCC were the shares of UCC in UCIL. In March 1992, the CJM, Bhopal, issued a non-bailable warrant of arrest against Anderson and ordered GoI to seek extradition of Anderson from the United States.
 
But, acceding to UCIL's request, the CJM postponed attachment of UCC's properties in India. In April 1992, UCC announced that it had endowed its entire shares in UCIL to the so-called Bhopal Hospital Trust.
 
However, CBI and NGOs filed applications in the same month before CJM, Bhopal, for attachment of shares and properties of UCC in India. Hence, the CJM, Bhopal, refused to recognise the claim of the so-called Bhopal Hospital Trust and attached the shares and properties of UCC in India.
 
In July 1992, CBI filed an application before the CJM, Bhopal, for the appointment of a receiver for the attached properties of UCC in India. The Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed the appointment of a receiver in response to the revision petition filed by UCIL against the order of the CJM, Bhopal.
 
In February 1994, the Supreme Court of India modified the order of the CJM, Bhopal, dated April 30, 1992, and allowed UCC to sell off its shares in UCIL.
 
The dilution of charges
 
Between 1991 and 1996, the accused sought dilution of charges against them and achieved what they wanted. The order of Justice A M Ahmadi, delivered on September 13, 1996, brought down the charge from Section 304 (Part II) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to Section 304 (A) of IPC, without considering the evidence of the culpability of Union Carbide India Ltd and its officials. By reducing the Bhopal disaster to the equivalent of a traffic accident, the prison term for the crimes of Bhopal was brought down from 10 years to 2 years.
 
Between 1996 and 2010, the CJM heard 178 witnesses and eight defence witnesses to arrive at the verdict given on Monday.
 
The case against CBI
 
The case found the CBI wanting in its ability to prosecute the Indian and the foreign accused. Organisations of survivors in Bhopal, which were the main petitioners in the case, said the CBI failed to present evidence even when it was available. There was evidence, for instance, they say, which demonstrated that UCC (USA) and Warren Anderson were aware in 1973 that the technology for the MIC plant in Bhopal was 'untested'. There was evidence that showed the design of the Bhopal plant was substantially different and inferior in terms of safety, when compared to the MIC plant owned by Union Carbide in Institute, West Virginia, USA.
 
There was proof establishing that Keshub Mahindra and other executives knew or should have known about the hazardous design of the plant and the additional hazards due to design modifications. The other failure of the CBI was its inability to produce the three absconding foreign accused in court. It also could not stop the accused Union Carbide Eastern Inc, Hong Hong, from disappearing. It also never visited the West Virginia plant to document the design differences between the two plants. And, lastly, it could not prevent the sale of shares of UCC (USA) in UCIL in 1994, thus loosening the grip of the Indian court over the absconding corporation. It also did not appeal against the order of the Supreme Court that diluted criminal charges against the Indian accused.
Sreelatha Menon
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