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.”

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Are we prepared to deal with another Bhopal Gas Tragedy? With Civil Nuclear Liabilities Bill its hard to imagine

The victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, one of the world’s worst disasters are still facing the consequences of the unfortunate incident. The legal framework in 1985 was inadequate to conduct a fair trial of Union Carbide and its CEO Warren Anderson. The U.C.C paid a settlement amount of 470 million dollars to the victims, considering it as its moral obligation. No criminal or civil proceedings were initiated against the notorious Multinational Union Carbide. The decision of Bhopal Gas Tragedy still considered a black chapter in the judicial history of India.

Instead of rectifying the flaws that were observed in the Bhopal Disaster Case, the United Progressive Alliance (U.P.A) government was planning to put forth the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill. However due to the mass opposition from all the sectors of the society, the government had to eventually withdraw its scheduled introduction in the Parliament.

The Nuclear Liability bill was highly criticized on its provisions related to compensation including capping of nuclear operator liability, fixing maximum liability amount and the absence of direct liability of supplier. It is also contended that the maximum liability mentioned in the bill is the minimum liability considered in United States.

The government is also planning to be a part of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC), which is funded by the International Atomic Energy Association. The convention which is yet to be operational is so far ratified by only four countries amongst which U.S.A is the only country with most of the nuclear installations. The parties to the convention contribute to an international fund which is then utilized to provide additional compensation beyond liability to the member states.

The bill clearly states that a three-tier compensation scheme would be instituted on occurrence of any nuclear accident. The maximum liability enumerated is 300 million Special Drawing Rights (i.e. Rs 2,100 crore). However Russia has fixed  no maximum liability in such cases.

Unlike in countries like Germany and Finland, the bill fixes the liability of the operator to mere Rs 500 crores or 109 million dollars. When compared to the inadequate compensation granted in Bhopal gas tragedy (470 million dollars) the amount is found extremely low. It is also argued that capping liability is contrary to the judgment passed in the Oleum Gas Leak case. The Supreme Court in the judgment stated that the liability in such cases must be strict and absolute.

Further, the Clause 17-a of the bill has positioned an indirect and remote liability on the supplier. The right to recourse is only provided in cases of gross negligence or wilful act on the part of the supplier. However it does not include supply of defective articles. Any further appeal in a civil court is disallowed, if it is decided by Claims Commissioner or a Nuclear Damage Claims Commission, which deal with potential nuclear damage claims under the Clause 35.

It is unfortunate that the provisions of the bill are detrimental to the interests of its own citizens. The bill not only infringes upon the fundamental rights of the individuals by debarring their right to appeal and limiting right to recourse. It also enforces a heavy burden on the tax payers of the country. Relying on a convention which is yet to be operational, for supplementary compensation is highly flawed policy decision by the government. The consequences of a nuclear accident would be far more adverse than that of Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The government must reconsider its proposals for the betterment of the society at large.

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