When eight out of 12 original accused in the world's worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas leak of December 3-4, 1984, are brought to justice nearly 26 years later, it is difficult to respond to the verdict with anything other than dismay. Key protagonists Warren Anderson and Union Carbide Corporation (UCC, USA) have literally got away with mass murder. The eight Indians held guilty, among them Keshub Mahindra, chairman of UCC's Indian subsidiary, have been sentenced to two years' imprisonment by the trial court. Mr. Anderson was Accused No. 1 in the 1987 charge sheet filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation; as Chief Executive Officer of the parent UCC, he was directly responsible for the deaths and devastation that came in the wake of the leak of toxic methyl isocyanate gas from Carbide's Bhopal plant. Mr. Anderson, who had approved and ratified the standards in design, safety, and operations of the plant, was placed under house arrest immediately after the calamity but he won his release on a promise to return to India and stand trial. Of course, he never intended to return, and successive Indian governments merely went through the motions of trying to secure his extradition. In 1992, the district court in Bhopal declared Mr. Anderson a fugitive from the law. In 1993, the case was bifurcated and the eight Indian accused were tried separately.
The families of the gas victims are bound to see the Bhopal verdict as a cruel joke on their patience and suffering. The minimal punishment handed down to the eight Indians is less a reflection on the Bhopal judge than a consequence of a 1996 Supreme Court order diluting the charges — from culpable homicide to causing death by negligence, which carries a maximum imprisonment of two years. The unconscionably delayed verdict also raises larger liability questions for industrial disasters, especially in the context of the Civil Liability Nuclear Damages Bill. The Bhopal toll and consequences, short- and long-term, were horrific beyond precedent. The 4,000 immediate deaths and the tens of thousands disabled were the First Act of a heart-rending saga that continues to take its toll to this day. Thousands more have died from long-term exposure, not to mention children born with congenital defects and those falling sick from drinking water contaminated by the uncleared waste lying around the Carbide factory grounds. What the government has done for the generations of poor victims will go down in the annals of infamy. It sued Carbide for $3 billion but settled for 15 per cent of the amount, as a consequence of which survivors received an average compensation of less than Rs.15,000. Those born with disabilities and others suffering the long-term consequences have been left to fend for themselves. It is truly a case of too little, too late.