Bhopal: A city court on Monday held seven officials of Union Carbide plant and the company itself guilty of criminal negligence for the 1984 gas disaster that killed thousands of people. But as the guilty were bailed out within minutes, survivors and activists called it a mockery of justice.
The court which tried the seven officials of the Union Carbide India, sentenced them to two years in jail and imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh.
The convicted included 85-year-old Keshub Mahindra, who then headed the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) from whose pesticide plant tonnes of lethal gas leaked on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, killing about 3,500 instantly and thousands later.
The seven were convicted under Section 304 (a) of the Indian Penal Code. They included former top brass of Union Carbide, Mahindra, Vijay Gokhale, J Mukund, SP Chaudhary, KV Shetty, Kishor Kamdar and SI Quireshee. Another accused, RB Chaudhary, died during the 23-year-long trial.
The company UCIL was fined Rs 5 lakh.
As all the seven were released on a personal bond of Rs 25,000, the verdict was denounced by activists, environmental and legal experts.
"Today`s verdict is a disaster... They`ve made it look like a traffic accident," said Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, an NGO representing the survivors and an activist who has been involved with the victims since the 1984 disaster.
"The charges have been diluted. The victims are disappointed," Sarangi said.
The anger was palpable among the survivors of the horrific industrial disaster that grabbed worldwide attention.
Nupur Dhimya, 62, who lost her two children and husband in the disaster, said: "Twenty-five years have passed since the disaster... look what we have got. The accused were convicted only for name`s sake and bailed out within minutes."
Ramesh Baghel, 50, who claimed he could not marry because of ailments caused due to exposure to the gases, said: "We have been waiting for 25 years to see that some day those guilty of ruining our lives would be punished but these men have effectively been set free."
Tonnes of methyl-iso-cyanate (MIC) spewed out of the now shut pesticide plant located in a congested part of the city December 2-3 night in 1984.
In the years that followed, people exposed to the gas kept dying or suffered from life-long ailments and complications. The death toll is believed to be about 25,000.
Said an angry survivor: "We have lost our kith and kin... our land, water and air remain polluted. Our kids have multiple health disorders. But the accused will manage to get away with a mere two years in jail. Do you call this justice?
"The Prime Minister and the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) should be ashamed of themselves... The government and Union Carbide are hand in glove in this disaster. This is absolute injustice," she fumed.
Sarangi accused the Indian authorities of lacking the political will to go after Warren Anderson, who headed Union Carbide Corp, the parent company in the US.
Anderson, 89, is in the US and described as "absconding" here. There was not a word about him in the judgment delivered by Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohan P Tiwari.
"The message is going out that peoples` lives don`t matter, what matters is foreign direct investment (FDI). You can kill people, maim them for life and get away almost scot-free," he said.
Rashida Bi of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh said: "This is complete injustice done to the 25,000 dead. It is a shameful verdict. We are extremely disappointed."
Anger, frustration and disappointment were writ large on the faces of the survivors as they heard about the sentencing.
Said Sayed M Irfan of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha: "We were eager to know the verdict. But as usual our expectations were futile."
"We have become like footballs... being kicked from Bhopal to Delhi and Delhi to Bhopal."
Another victim, Abdul Sattar said: "Rich and mighty people always get away. There is nothing new in it."