Activists and survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy have slammed Monday's verdict in the case against eight former Union Carbide India executives as “meaningless” at best, and a deadly “insult” at worst. Many warned that it signals an indifference to justice when corporate bigwigs are involved.

“This is a black day for us,” said Abdul Jabbar, a survivor who now heads the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan. He vowed that the verdict would be appealed in the High Court. But with the system taking quarter of a century to deliver its first verdict in the criminal case, both the survivors and the guilty could be dead by the time justice is served, he said.

Light sentence is an “insult”

“They have reduced the world's worst industrial disaster into a traffic accident,” said Satinath Sarangi, an activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, commenting on the lightness of the sentence. Since the Supreme Court had diluted the charges from “culpable homicide” to “death by negligence” in 1996, this was the maximum sentence possible.

Fellow activist Nityanand Jayaraman said that the CBI's “mishandling of the case” would be “tantamount to dereliction of duty,” and said that even if the CBI did not appeal the verdict, the people would do so.

“There is a strong sense of betrayal, but also of foreboding. The government is sending a signal to investors that they can come here, run their companies however they please with a minimum of regulation, and if something goes wrong, at worst, they will get a rap on their knuckles,” he said.

Noting that the government kept Bhopal citizens out of the courtroom as a preventive measure, activist Rachna Dhingra said: “It was the people who were treated like criminals. The real criminals were escorted in by police, they were treated like VIPs and now they have walked free. The government considers the lives of some people more expendable than others.”

“The government is saying there will be no punishment for big foreign companies,” said Mr. Jabbar, who warned that the Nuclear Liability Bill was an indication of the same attitude.

Opposition demands Nuclear Liability Bill rethink

Opposition political parties took up his refrain. “There is a lesson in this,” said BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad, who said the government should appeal the verdict. “After this bitter experience, the government should rethink its plans for the Nuclear Liability Bill.”

CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat agreed. “If the justice system is so weak, as proven by this verdict, then it is horrifying to think what will happen if there is a nuclear accident,” she said. The government should look into the infirmities in the CBI which led to such a diluted verdict, and appeal in the higher court, she added.

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