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Asia

Activists call Bhopal gas disaster verdict a travesty of justice

More than 25 years after a gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal killed an estimated 25,000 people, an Indian court on Monday found the eight accused guilty of criminal negligence.

Survivors holding posters as they waited for the verdict in the premises of Bhopal court

Survivors holding posters as they waited for the verdict in the premises of Bhopal court

After a marathon trial lasting more than two decades, a Bhopal court has delivered its verdict. But the verdict has not brought closure to the families of the victims of the gas tragedy. Rather it has left them feeling even more angry.

Activists were furious that the eight Union Carbide officials had been convicted only of criminal negligence, which is punishable with a maximum of two years in jail, despite the enormity of the tragedy.

Moreover, to make matters worse from their perspective all eight obtained bail soon after the verdict.

In this file photo, two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal

In this file photo, two men carry children blinded by the pesticide leak to a hospital

'A bad precedent'

Satyanath Sarangi, president of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), an NGO which has been working for the gas tragedy victims for several years, maintains there has been a travesty of justice.

"This verdict sets a very bad precedent," he says. "In fact this verdict will encourage hazardous corporations and their officials to go ahead to kill more people and maim them because they can get away so easily. If a disaster like Bhopal can be converted into something like a traffic accident, then what about people killing 10 people. No one will pay attention to them, they can get away with murder. Today’s verdict is like a judicial disaster because it is giving hazardous corporations a free reign over the lives and health of the people of India."

Entrance to the US-owned Union Carbide plant, in Bhopal, India

Entrance to the US-owned Union Carbide plant, in Bhopal, India

Late verdict

On the night of December 2, 1984, tonnes of methyl iso-cyanate (MIC) spewed out of the now defunct pesticide plant located in a congested part of Bhopal, a city in central India. Even a quarter century after the accident, inhabitants of the place are suffering from the after effects of poisoning.

Large groups of survivors and relatives, along with rights activists, gathered outside the court. They said the verdicts were too little, too late.

"There are deformed teenagers in this place who cannot bear children, there are others who are paralyzed and lead a life like a vegetable. This is such a big crime that has happened and the authorities have been shielding the culprits right from the beginning. After 25 years where we have witnessed death and destruction, we do not have the right to even listen to the verdict," says Prahalad Lal, whose family suffered because of the disaster.

Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide Corp. at the time of the gas leak in Bhopal

Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide Corp. at the time of the gas leak in Bhopal

Survivors to challenge the ruling

Many victims claimed that the state and union governments were more worried about the impact of the trial on the inflow of investment by multinational companies.

Not enough steps were taken, they maintained, to execute the non-bailable arrest warrant against Warren Anderson, the then chairman of Union Carbide and seek his extradition. Anderson, and Union Carbide and its subsidiaries, have never appeared in court.

Survivors of the tragedy have vowed to challenge the verdict in a higher court. But considering that it has taken so many years for a verdict in India's notoriously slow judicial system, they also realize that the kind of verdict they would like to see might take forever.

Author: Murali Krishnan (New Delhi)
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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