After 26 years, with many different judges hearing the case, the judgment on the Bhopal gas tragedy has been delivered. The tragedy was an accident that arose from the criminal negligence of the Union India Carbide India (Ltd) officials. Over 15000 persons died from the leakage of poisonous gas. Over 500,000 people were permanently disabled by inhaling the gas.
In its judgment the court convicted 7 company officials including its former 83 year old chairman. They were sentenced to 2 years imprisonment each with right of bail.
All accused are presently free.
The Chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, based in the US, was charged with culpable homicide. During his visit to India Anderson avoided appearance in court and fled India. He is a declared absconder. The Indian government failed to extradite him.
This judgment provoked universal condemnation. One special prosecutor said: “A court of law, not a court of justice has done its duty.” Even Law Minister M Veerappa Moily expressed acute disappointment. He said that the government would “revisit the issue of law pertaining to disasters such as the Bhopal gas leak…We must draw lessons from the verdict and take corrective steps.” The existing law therefore is likely to be reappraised and amended. The official apathy in ameliorating the condition of the victims after tragedy occurred was also criminally callous and negligent. However, let us focus presently on the reform of law pertaining to such disasters.
If the existing law’s proposed amendments are to be based on the principles of justice several questions arise which the government might address while reforming it.
Firstly, Warren Anderson’s guilt is traced to the fact that the company’s operation was criminally negligent and hazardous and as its chairman he did not take steps to prevent the tragedy. That seems just. But then on the same principle should not every fatal disaster arising from negligence in a public undertaking, whether in air, on rail, on airport escalator, in public construction or elsewhere, attract criminal charges in similar fashion against all the government officials concerned, including ministers? In the Bhopal gas tragedy did official authorities make the periodic customary checks for safety of the Union Carbide plant? If there were shortcomings, were they reported and was preventive action enforced by the government? If not, are not some government officials also complicit and guilty?
Secondly, should the gravity of the crime be judged by the degree of criminal negligence, or by the extent of damage caused by it? For example, if two airline pilots commit precisely the same careless error on different planes with one causing the death of a single person and the other the death of hundreds, should the sentence for each be similar or different?
When Law Minister Moily reappraises the law he might keep these questions in mind. With crammed cities, burgeoning population, high tech operations, with traditional official apathy and sloppiness disasters arising from negligence have already shocked India in recent times. In the coming days these could increase. One hopes the government will introduce reform in existing law that compels more diligence and accountability.