(Beyond Pesticides, June 8, 2010) An Indian court in Bhopal, India, capital of Madhya Pradesh, found chemical company Union Carbide guilty of negligence and convicted eight former senior employees for their role in the world’s worst industrial disaster that killed thousands. The verdict came 25 years after the Union Carbide gas-leak and included a sentence that many victims of the accident protested was too light. According to Reuters, the defendants were charged with “death by negligence” and sentenced for two years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees ($2,175). The court also fined the former Indian unit of Union Carbide 500,000 rupees ($10,600).
The Central Board of Investigation initially charged 12 defendants with culpable homicide, which would have carried a sentence of up to 10 years, but the Indian Supreme Court reduced these charges in 1996. Many victims and activists found the light sentence, “an insult”, and Sandhna Kamik of the Bhopal Gas Victims Struggle group protested, “Even with the guilty judgment, what does two years punishment mean? They will be able to appeal against the judgment in higher courts.”
Survivors, relatives and activists gathered in protest with signs saying “hang the guilty” and “traitors of the nation” and tried to enter the court complex, but were stopped by police. Bhopal activist Rachna Dhingra stated, “This was not an exemplary punishment that would deter corporations from repeating a Bhopal gas disaster. There’s nothing to be happy about.”
According to the International Campaign for Juice in Bhopal, more than 27 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the pesticides plant in Bhopal on December, 3rd 1984 because none of the six safety systems were functional. Investigations have shown that poor design and maintenance and inadequately trained staff largely contributed to the accident, which occurred when water entered a tank of methyl isocyanate and raised the tank pressure, causing the leak. MIC is an intermediate chemical used in the production of aldicarb, carbaryl, carbofuran, methomyl and other carbamate pesticides.
Amnesty International estimated that more than 7,000 people died within days of the accident, 15,000 died in later years and 100,000 people have since suffered chronic and debilitating illnesses as a result of the catastrophe and the absence of a site remediation. Union Carbide did not properly clean the site and thousands of tons of toxic chemical waste have been contaminating drinking water. The Indian Council of Medical Research estimated that over a half a million people were harmed in some way. Sicknesses including cancer, blindness, immune and neurological disorders and birth defects have affected local residents, many of whom live in surrounding slums.
Warren Anderson, the head of the Indian unit of Union Carbide at the time, left Bhopal quickly after the incident, and now lives in New York, and has not appeared in any of the proceedings. The Indian court has ordered the Indian government to request his extradition, but the U.S. rejected India’s request in June 2004, saying the request did not meet requirements of the bilateral extradition treaty.
Michigan-based Dow Chemical, the world’s second largest chemical maker, bought Union Carbide in 2001 and therefore assumed its liabilities for the Indian chemical plant disaster in 1984. However, Dow Chemical has refused to clean up the site, provide safe drinking water, compensate the victims, or disclose chemical information to physicians. Dow Chemical places responsibility on the government of the state of Madya Pradesh, claiming that the legal case of was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide agreed to pay a $470 million settlement, most of which was used to pay compensation up to $2,000 to victims unable to work, but many received nothing.
Some commentators say the Indian judge’s verdict in the Bhopal trial does not set a promising precedent for the consequences of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps the reminder of this catastrophic event and the failure of the Indian government to adequately punish those responsible might stimulate discussion of the proper punishment for BP.
Read more about the Bhopal disaster and a 2008 MIC explosion in West Virginia in our Daily News article posted in December 2009 on the 25th Anniversary of the Bhopal explosion.