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Bhopal tragedy: The long wait for justice begins, again

The gap between culpable homicide and death due to negligence won’t be immediately apparent to the legally untrained eye. But add 15,000 deaths, a large number of deformed and stillborn children, 27 years and a futile cry for justice into the picture, the difference jumps out to hit you in the face.

The size of  the tragedy and the quantum of punishment to the accused in the Bhopal gas tragedy look grossly mismatched: just two years of imprisonment for 15,000 deaths, some say it’s 25,000. People get that kind of punishment for traffic accidents. Clearly, justice had not been fully done, particularly in the face of mounting evidence that the methyl isocyanate leakage in December 2004 was a result of deliberate mismanagement in the plant.

 Bhopal tragedy: The long wait for justice begins, again

A continued cry for justice. Reinhard Krause/Reuters

The case suffered its biggest blow in 1996 when a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the then Chief Justice AH Ahmadi diluted the charges against the accused. They  were tried under Section 304(A) instead of Section 304 Part II of the Indian Penal Code. The former attracts a jail sentence of two years, while a convict under the latter gets  a maximum of ten years imprisonment.

The then Union Carbide India Chairman Keshub Mahindra and six others were sentenced to two years imprisonment in 7 June  last year. Mahindra has opposed the CBI's plea claiming that the case should be decided on the basis of law. The verdict had sparked a nationwide outrage.

The evidence put up before the court were not strong enough. It was allowed to be weak. There were rumours of a quid pro quo between the Central government of that period and the US administration. A cash-strapped India required US funds desperately to meet its needs and it was willing to make compromises in the case. The charge could be unsubstantiated but it fits into the CBI’s approach to the case.

Fourteen years on, faced with public anger, the CBI wanted a revision of the charges from death caused due to negligence to culpable homicide not amounting to murder. "What took you 14 years to file the curative petition?" asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday while throwing out the petition.

While there is no legal provision stopping opening of cases after 14 years, the delay on the CBI's part was telling. Moreover, the additional evidence put up by the agency was apparently not strong enough to convince the Supreme Court. Now, the case goes back to the sessions court again. Beginning of another long wait for the victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster.

The whole case brings to the fore the debate over sensitive installations and corporate culpability again. Those opposed to the Jaitapur nuclear plant project and people in its support must take note.


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Updated Date: May 11, 2011 15:51:02 IST

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