India’s Supreme Court yesterday turned down a government demand to hand harsher sentences to seven men convicted for their role in the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy.
The accident, blamed on Union Carbide, a US chemical group that ran the plant, killed thousands instantly and tens of thousands more from its lingering effects over the following years, according to official figures.
A government appeal had asked for the seven company executives convicted last year of negligence to be tried on a more serious charge of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” which carries a jail term of 10 years.
The men were sentenced to two years in prison by a state court, causing outrage and anger among survivors in Bhopal, a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The executives were granted bail after their convictions.
“The curative petition is based on a plea that is wrong and fallacious,” a five-judge bench in the top court said, adding that “no satisfactory explanation” had been given for filing the review after so long.
The charges of negligence were framed in 1996 after an order from the Supreme Court.
Survivor groups reacted with dismay at the setback yesterday.
“The verdict comes as a shock for all the victims,” said Balkrishna Namdeo, an activist at the Bhopal Gas Victims’ Association. “Every victim of the Bhopal gas leak is upset and angry today and we will express our anger across India.”
Government figures put the death toll from the accident at 3,500 within three days of the leak, but the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has since estimated the figure at between 8,000 and 10,000 in the same period.
The ICMR has said that by 1994 about 25,000 people had died from the consequences of gas exposure and victims’ groups say many are still suffering the effects today.
Rachna Dhingra, an activist from the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said the hopes of survivors and the families of the dead now resided in a separate review of the convictions in a Madhya Pradesh State court.
The state government and police have also filed petitions there asking for harsher sentences for those found guilty.
“We will use all our energy to seek justice,” Dhingra said.
Following a public outcry over what were perceived as lenient sentences last year, the national and state governments announced a host of measures to help survivors more than 25 years after the disaster.
These included new funds for a cleanup of the still-contaminated site, a new attempt to extradite the former chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, and the Supreme Court petition asking for increased sentences.
The shell of the old pesticide factory still stands in Bhopal and activists have complained for years that chemicals at the site have not been cleaned up, leading to continued groundwater contamination.
Separately, the federal government filed a second petition in the Supreme Court asking for higher compensation from the company, which was initially set at US$470 million in a settlement reached in 1989.
Union Carbide sold its stake in the plant after the accident and the group has since been acquired by Dow Chemical. Dow insists that all of Union Carbide’s liabilities were settled in the 1989 agreement.