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Asia

Indian media slam Bhopal verdict

After a court in Bhopal, the capital of central India's state of Madhya Pradesh, sentenced Indian officials of the Union Carbide company for the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984, Indian media have reacted with outrage.

Survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy shout slogans against Warren Anderson of Union Carbide

Bhopal survivors shout slogans against Union Carbide's Warren Anderson on Monday

The anger over the mild verdicts is not limited to the editorial pages. The Asian Age gives its report on Monday's court ruling the title "Is justice blind?" And The Telegraph talks about a "Gas tragedy 2" and continues: "Benign sentence for worst disaster".

The paper then juxtaposes the major figures: "Crime: 15274 dead (Official figure). Punishment: 2 years in jail and fine". And of course, the managers sentenced on Monday were immediately released on bail.

A major reason for criticism in the media is that they were punished for causing death by negligence, a section of the penal code normally invoked against "rash drivers", as some commentators observed. Others wryly noted that a sentence of two years was usually reserved for pickpockets.

The length of the trial has come in for scathing criticism, too. After all, it took more than 25 years to deliver a verdict in such a major case.

But most of all, questions are being asked as to why the real culprits were not present in court: The US chemical giant Union Carbide which ran the Bhopal plant and did not have proper safety standards in place, as the Times of India reminds its readers.

The paper concludes: "No country sells its people so cheap. No country sells its poor so cheap. No country sells its dead so cheap. Today - on the day of Bhopal disaster judgment - if there is a failed state in the world, it’s India. It's not Iraq. It's not Somalia. It's not Sudan. It's India.Today, India proved that it doesn't really care for its people, particularly if they have been slaughtered by powerful people from the most powerful nation in the world. Instead of taking on America and fighting for justice for its poor, India is more than happy to sell its dead cheap."

The main topic in Tuesday's Indian newspapers is that the United States considers the case closed now and is not planning any further investigation, particularly not into Warren Anderson, Union Carbide's chairman at the time of the accident. Commentators don't miss the chance to point to the inconsistency between this inaction and President Obama's tough talk against BP over the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Indian authorities have claimed that Warren Anderson has absconded and they cannot get hold of him. The papers rubbish this claim, as everyone knows where he is living in New York. The Times of India points out that "in 2003, Greenpeace activists paid Anderson a visit at his home and handed him an arrest warrant".

Why couldn't the Indian authorities make a strong case for his extradition to India? The editorial in the Asian Age notes: "It is no surprise that many have accused the government of not moving against company officials in India and the US fearing this might discourage multinational corporations from investing in India. Such fears are puerile, and an affront to this country's sovereignty."

The papers are particularly scandalized by the Indian government's behavior in the case. The Pioneer commends Law Minister Veerappa Moily for calling the judgment a case of "justice buried". But it goes on to attack the ruling party: "if Mr Moily had been half as sincere as he pretends to be, he would have also said that the party to which he belongs, the Congress, was in power in Madhya Pradesh when deadly methyl isocyanate leaked from Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal 26 years ago and the then Chief Minister, Mr Arjun Singh, did everything possible to scuttle a fair inquiry in order to prevent company officials from being held guilty. Let us not forget that Warren Anderson, then chairman of Union Carbide Corporation, the parent American company of Union Carbide India Ltd, who visited Bhopal after the world's worst industrial disaster that killed more than 15,000 people, was nominally 'arrested', taken to his company's guest house so that he did not suffer any inconvenience, granted bail after six hours, and then put on a Government plane to fly out of the city and subsequently India to the safe confines of the US. All this was supervised and arranged for by Mr Arjun Singh with the full knowledge of the Union Government then headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi."

The Pioneer goes on to list the government's failures in responding to the accident, and concludes with a rhetorical question: "have any lessons been learned from the Union Carbide disaster?"

Author: Thomas Baerthlein
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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