Insight to Bhopal Gas Tragedy: A case lost before trial

Almost everyone around the globe is aware of the catastrophe that happened in Bhopal but there are a very few people who actually know what were the legal lacunae involved in the Bhopal case. The battle was lost before the trial and the victims were betrayed at every step of legal proceedings.

The Battle in United States

At that time Indian Law had no provision of punitive damages to effectively deal with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The Government of India through an act appointed itself the sole representative of the victims for any legal course with Union Carbide with regard to compensation. The act empowered the government with the exclusive rights to represent and act on behalf of the survivors/victims of the gas leak. The corollary was that the victims could not seek legal redress of their own.

Consequently, the Government decided to approach the U.S. District Court to seek justice. The government justified its stand mainly on three grounds:-

The US courts could grant higher compensation as compared to the one likely to be granted by the Indian Courts. It believed that the parent multinational company Union Carbide could be tried effectively in US. The Indian Courts were incompetent to handle mass tort litigation.

Ironically the government ignored the operating principle in US according to which a suit could be maintainable in an American Court only in cases where the damages or injuries occur on American Soil, to American residents or the dependents of American residents. Alternatively, if the prosecution would have proved a design defect in the plant, the suit could have been entertained by the American Courts. But since it was established that the gas leak happened because of poor maintenance, the parent company was not held liable in the US courts.

US Court’s Decision

The US court ruled that UCIL was a separate entity, owned, managed and operated exclusively by Indian citizens in India. Carbide was ordered to submit to the jurisdiction of Indian Courts; nevertheless it could dispute the verdict rendered by the Indian Courts before its domicile courts. Initially the government of India had filled a suit claiming 3 billion Dollars which could have been achieved only through attachment of UCC’s assets in the US.

The Indian Mistakes

A significant order was passed by Justice Deo of Bhopal District court which directed UCC to pay Rs. 350 crores as interim relief. The order being  interim could not be decreed. And without a decree UC could and did refuse to pay it.

On February 14, 1989 the Supreme Court directed Union Carbide to pay up US $ 470 million in “full and final settlement” of all claims, rights, and liabilities arising out of the disaster in 1984. The victims and legal heirs of the dead, were not informed  before this settlement took place.

None of the courts ever directed UCC to reveal any epidemiological information that it had. It refused to render any toxicological information as it formed an integral part of its “trade secrets”. It denied that the gases released during the disaster could cause any adverse health effects in the victims. Moreover, UCC was never ordered to clear the toxic material present on the disaster site which it could have been under the “polluter pays” principle evolved in Oleum Gas Leak Case.

The SC refused to consider UCC liability as unquestionable and absolute. The principle of absolute liability was never evoked by the SC. According to this theory where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and an accident in such an operation results in the escape of a toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident, and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions under the rule of strict liability.

SECTION 304 TO 304(A)

Originally the charge sheet was filed under Section 304 of IPC i.e. culpable homicide not amounting to murder specially paragraph 2 which deals with the accused having the knowledge that the act would cause death. The charge sheet clearly stated that the UCC plant in Bhopal was deficient in safety and design measures. It further stated that the management was aware of these defects and their probable consequences but it failed to inform the district administration.  In 1996 the two judge SC bench held that the charges under Section 304 were not made out and the accused could only be charged under Section 304(A) for causing death by rash or negligent act. Justice Ahmadi while delivering the judgment observed,

“Even assuming that it was a defective plant and it was dealing with a very toxic and hazardous substance like MIC the mere act of storing such a material by the accused … could not even prima facie suggest that the concerned accused thereby had knowledge that they were likely to cause the death of human beings.”

Hence the diluted charges ensured that accused could now be awarded merely a maximum punishment of 2 years and not 10 years.

How was the UCC benefited?

The long trial benefited UCC in various ways. First of all, the fear of length prompted the government to enter into a swift settlement. Secondly, the adverse public pressure on the government also evaded with time. Lastly, UCC saved interest on the sum it finally had to pay.

Are we still left with a remedy?

1. A curative writ petition must be filed under article 32 r/w 142 of the Constitution to set aside the 1996 judgment; seeking the relief of a fresh trial under Section 304 Pt 2 of IPC.

2. An appeal to the sessions court under Section 377 of CrPc on ground of inadequacy of sentence because of lesser charge under Section 304 A IPC can also be filed.

3. Pursuing Extradition is significant for the effective trial of Warren Anderson.

4. Civil Liability of both the government and the UCC needs to be re-addressed. Cleaning of the affected area, proper medical treatment of the victims and distribution of compensation are some of the vital steps that need to be taken.


Bhopal Gas Tragedy is aptly referred to as the night that never ended. The long legal battle benefited none but the accused. The victims were continuously victimized by the fluctuating judgments rendered in the country. The media, bar, bench, authorities, central and state governments all failed to effectively fulfill their responsibilities.

“The greatest disaster in India was not on day of Bhopal Gas Tragedy but on the occasion, when we failed to protect our own countrymen and decided to sell the living dead to a multinational for some dollars.”

Read more

Being in Bhopal, How Can I Forget This Day – A Gas Tragedy That Ruined Lives

Bhopal Twenty Five Years On From Union Carbide Disaster

Midnight 2-3 December changed lives of the thousands of people living in Bhopal. One of the most prosperous industrial cities was changed into a graveyard.

The gross negligence of Union Carbide lead to one of the biggest industrial disaster throughout the world. Methyl Isocynade and other toxins released from the disaster resulted in around 20,00o deaths. The official figures have never revealed the real estimates. OFFICIALLY the disaster was not of that greater magnitude as presupposed by the victims or the activists. They believe that the miseries of people are just exaggeration of reality. The people are pretending to have chronic diseases and the congenital deformities in their children is a myth.

There were number of hospitals established to treat the victims of Bhopal Gas tragedy who were effected by serious respiratory, vision and  skin diseases. But now the hospital administration believe that other patients are more worthy of treatment and that is why the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Victims have to wait for hours to get their Chemotherapy. They are generally attended in afternoons at the convenience of the doctors. Most the victims are not covered under the ambit of relief because they did not possess rashion cards.

It is unfortunate that our leaders never realized that the victims of the saga were not from elite societies but were mostly poor and destitute who were deprived of both education and resources. They were the people who were unable to understand the ENGLISH spoken in the courts, they were the people who could not afford trips to Supreme Court and they are the people who still don’t know the names of the disease they are suffering from. They were twice victimised once when the gas leaked and again when the fought for justice.

Bhopal Tragedy  still awaits a decesion. What was done was only a settlement of 470 million dollars. And ironically the Supreme Court did not consider children below age of 12 years as victims. May be the gas chosed to effect people according to their age. Most of the victims could not convince the administration in spite of their miseries.

People have been writing PIL’s to Supreme Court but the most of the people consider the matter closed. No criminal prosecution was ever held on Union Carbide. The settlement that was done was on ex gratia payment and as a moral duty. People who were associated with Union Carbide were later on promoted with high judicial and admistrative positions. The trial was a mockery of the Indian Legal System. The victims were victimised again and again and the criminal were given special treatment in the embassy.

The accident site still contains hazardous materials which have not been cleared by the government or by the Union Carbide. The underground water of the place is contaminated with toxins. The people are forced to consume such non potable water because they can afford either medicines or potable water.

In 1991 came the Liberalization, Privatization and Globalisation Policy of the country since then India have progressed drastically but the Victims of Bhopal Saga  are still there where they were in 1984.

Things have not changed for them they still meet every Sunday in parks and discuss their sorrows. They have little means to support themselves the only thing keeping their struggle alive is their zeal to fight against injustice done to them but if there interests are constantly ignored then a day would come when Bhopal Gas Tragedy would be just an unfortunate incident and not a disaster.

Read more