Gas tragedy: Order reserved for higher punishment

BHOPAL: The district and sessions judge has reserved its judgement on a revision petition filed by the CBIand the state government seeking enhancement of punishment in the Bhopal gas tragedy case, awarded by a lower court on June 7, 2010.

The revision petition seeking enhancement of punishment was filed by the CBI and the state government in the court district and sessions judge Sushma Khosla, who, after hearing arguments of both the parties, reserved her judgement yesterday.

On June 7, 2010, the lower court awarded punishment to the then officials of the Union Carbide, including Keshub Mahindra, under section 304 A of the IPC, in which only two years’ imprisonment is awarded.

The petitioners demanded that those responsible for the tragedy should be tried under section 304 (II) of the IPC, in which ten-year imprisonment and fine is awarded, as the punishment given to them by the lower court is too light in view of gravity of the offence.

However, defence counsel argued that the curative petition filed by the state government in the Supreme Court on the issue had already been dismissed while the revision petition was filed in the sessions court after the mandatory time limit of 90 days and therefore, the court should not concede to the CBI request.

Government toed Union Carbide’s line on compensation: RTI

Just months after the 1984 gas leak at Union Carbide’s plant here, the Indian government agreed to the “terms” set by the company on compensation to be paid to victims, a Right to Information (RTI) activist has claimed. Not only that, the government treated the world’s worst industrial disaster as a “railway accident”.

“We have obtained top secret documents dated Feb 28 and March 5, 1985, that show that Union Carbide was proposing a settlement within three months of the disaster,” Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA).

According to documents accessed through the RTI Act, the deal was struck Feb 28, 1985, between the then chemicals and fertilisers secretary and top Union Carbide functionary Rolf H. Towe and its Indian subsidiary’s managing director V.P. Gokhale.

“Union Carbide had proposed a payment of Rs.1 lakh for each death in 1985 and six years later this is the amount the government actually paid the Bhopal victims,” said Sarangi.

Ironically, Union Carbide had calculated the compensation on the basis of the Railway Act, which the government did not object to, thus equating the gas leak with a train accident, he said.

“Because of its collusion with the American company, the Indian government introduced injury categories and later paid the minimum amount of Rs.25,000 as compensation to 93 percent of the victims with lifelong injuries by arbitrarily assigning them temporary injury category,” he added.

On the intervening night of Dec 2-3, 1984, tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas had leaked from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, leading to the death of 3,000 instantly and 25,000 over the years. Over 500,000 people have been affected so far.

Activists say even 26 years after the accident, the union government’s curative petition in the Supreme Court did not present the true picture of the horrors of the incident.

“On the basis of the figures published by the government’s apex medical research organisation, the Indian Council of Medical Research, at least 20,000 people have died till 2009,” said Balkrishna Namdeo of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha.

“ICMR’s research shows that between 1984 and 1989, there were 3,500 spontaneous abortions as a result of gas exposure and these need to be included in counting disaster-related loss of life,” he said.

Namdeo said in the curative petition filed in the apex court, the government has gone against the findings of its own research agency and presented a ridiculously low figure of 5,295 deaths.

Organisations working for Bhopal victims have demanded that in place of the current figure of Rs.3,000-6,000 crore, the government should ask Union Carbide’s current owner Dow Chemical to pay over Rs.37,000 crore for deaths and personal injuries.

They said the government should seek at least Rs.6 lakh as compensation per victim.

“In the curative petition, the government has not asked for any compensation for damage caused to the next generation of victims,” Rashida Bee of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, who is involved with the rehabilitation of children of gas affected parents with congenital malformities.

“Studies published in international scientific journals such as the Journal of American Medical Association and the American Journal of Industrial Medicine show that the poisons of Union Carbide leakage have affected the next generation too,” she said.

Rashida Bee pointed out that in October 1991, the Supreme Court had directed the Indian government to provide medical insurance coverage to the next generation of victims, but this order remains to be implemented.

“For the last one year we have been writing to the prime minister and group of ministers on Bhopal on the specific issue of deaths and health damage caused by Union Carbide, but we have not received any response so far,” Rachna Dhingra of BGIA.

Apex court to hear plea to hike Bhopal gas victims’ relief

The Supreme Court Thursday said it would hear a petition of the central government seeking enhancement of compensation for the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy to the tune of Rs.7,500 crore.

The apex court bench of Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia, Justice Altmas Kabir, Justice R.V. Raveendran, Justice B. Sudershan Reddy and Justice Aftab Alam passed the order after considering the government’s petition during the in-chamber hearing.

The court in its brief order said: ‘Place these petitions seeking enhancement in court along with curative petition in CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) vs Keshub Mahindra on Feb 28 at 2 p.m.’

The gas tragedy killed 3,000 people instantly and affected over 15,000 due to a leak of methyl isocyanate gas from the Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in the heart of Bhopal.

On Dec 3 last year, the 26th anniversary of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the central government moved a petition in the court seeking revised compensation for the victims and the consequent environmental degradation.

The government sought the enhancement of compensation, determined by the apex court in 1989, on the grounds that the settlement arrived in 1989 was based on the ‘assumptions of truth unrelated to realities’.

The petition said that the revised amount sought in 2010 was on account of devaluation of rupee, interest rate and purchasing power parity and inflation index.

At the time of calculating earlier compensation, the number of dead was taken to be 3,000, which subsequently turned out to be 5,295. Similarly the victims with minor injuries were taken as 50,000 which eventually turned out to be 527,895.

The total revised amount being sought in the petition is $1,241.38 million as per Aug 22, 2010 rates.

The basis for calculating this amount was that the compensation awarded in February 1989 was Rs.675.96 crore. When converted into dollars at the then prevailing rates it would have been equal to $442.67 million.

The petition contended that if the amount had remained invested in dollars on yearly basis and based on London interbank offered rate it would have become $1,241.38 million by Aug 22, 2010.

The amount of compensation to be paid in 2010 varies based on the parameters of calculating it. The compensation awarded in February 1989 is being claimed in 2010, the petition said.

The petition placed various options before the apex court for calculating the enhanced compensation. That included the levying of interest, calculating by taking inflation index in consideration and basing calculation on dollar value as prevailing today.

The petition also sought the recovery of Rs.1,743.15 crore which the central government and the Madhya Pradesh government spent in the aftermath of the tragedy for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims.

The petition said that this was the tax payer’s money, which could not be spent on the wrong committed by the Union Carbide.

Another component of the revised compensations was Rs.315.7 crore which, the petition said, was spent on the handling of the toxic waste left behind by the gas leak.

We are starving, say ex-staff of Union Carbide

They are neither victims nor accused in the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and yet 632 former permanent employees of the now defunct Union Carbide plant find themselves at the receiving end.

They were employees at the plant, which saw the world’s worst industrial disaster break out on the night of Dec 2-3, 1984, killing thousands of people. They complain of being driven to virtual starvation in the absence of any relief.

‘Sometimes, I want to commit suicide, but seeing the face of my daughter and grandchildren I change my plan…,’ Champalal Gupta, one of the former employees of the company, told .

The employees, many of whom worked for over 15 years in the plant, have got no compensation from either their company after its unit was shut down or from the government. The plant was shut soon after the industrial disaster in 1984 and the staff was paid salaries for about six months.

‘Till June 1985 we got salary. But thereafter we, along with 3,000 temporary employees, were given three months’ salary and terminated by the company,’ said Gupta, who was an operator in the plant.

‘When we were hired, in the service agreement it was mentioned that if the company would terminate us (permanent employees), we would get six years and three months’ salary,’ he said.

Gupta and his colleagues filed a case in a labour court after their termination. In 1996-97, the court gave a decision in favour of the employees and told Union Carbide to give them six years and three months’ salary.

The company later moved an industrial court, where Gupta and others lost the case. In 2003, Gupta and his colleagues moved the Madhya Pradesh High Court, which is still hearing the case.

‘The case is in the final stage, but we do not have money to pay fees to our lawyers and because of it the matter is pending,’ Gupta said.

‘We have already spent all our money in court hearings and there is no money left with us to feed ourselves. How can we give fees to lawyers?’ asked Gupta.

He complained of the government not considering them for relief. ‘Even after working for 13-15 years in the plant, the government refused to treat us as gas victims and did not consider us for relief,’ Gupta said.

Ironically, not too many know of their plight even as victims of the tragedy are still fighting for justice.

Another former permanent employee, Jagdish Sharma, told IANS: ‘Though we were permanent employees, the company cheated us by taking action under the provisions meant for dismissal of casual (temporary) employees.’

‘We and our families have been suffering for two decades,’ he added.

Forty tonnes of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas seeped out of the plant on the night of Dec 2-3. It killed 3,000 people instantly and 25,000 over the years. It also affected 100,000 people that night and estimates are more than 500,000 still continue to suffer in myriad ways.

Bhopal gas survivors want to meet Obama

Even before US President Barack Obama landed in Mumbai, about a hundred survivors from the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy staged a demonstration outside the Union Carbide factory here, demanding to meet him in Delhi Nov 8.

The survivors and those affected by groundwater contamination caused by Union Carbide’s hazardous waste voiced their demand, saying Obama should ensure that both Union Carbide and Dow Chemicals obey Indian laws and abide by the decisions of Indian courts.

The survivors shouted slogans like, ‘Bhopal Mein Insaaf Nahi to Ameerki Vyayapr Nahi’ (If no justice in Bhopal, no business to US) and held posters like ‘IS BHO A PAL OF BHOPAL?’ — BHO being referred as the acronym of Barack Hussein Obama.

The demonstration started at 11:30 a.m. and lasted till 2 p.m. The survivors will hold a sit-in at Jantar Mantar in Delhi Nov 8.

Tonnes of poisonous methyl-iso-cyanate gas spewed out of the now-shut pesticide plant of Union Carbide India located in a congested part of Bhopal Dec 2-3 night in 1984, killing over 3,000 overnight.

In the years that followed, people exposed to the gas kept dying or suffered from life-long ailments and complications. The deaths in the world’s worst industrial disaster are believed to have mounted to about 25,000 over the years.

On June 7, a Bhopal court held seven officials of the Union Carbide India plant and the company itself guilty of criminal negligence and causing the industrial disaster.

But as the guilty were bailed out within minutes of the verdict, survivors and activists called it a mockery of justice. Dow Chemical is owner of Union Carbide since 2001.