Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Court Gives First Jail Terms for 1984 Bhopal Disaster

Court Gives First Jail Terms for 1984 Bhopal Disaster
June 07, 2010
By Bibhudatta Pradhan and Jay Shankar

June 7 (Bloomberg) -- An Indian court sentenced seven former senior employees of Union Carbide Corp.’s local unit to two years each in jail, after the first ever convictions related to the deadly 1984 leak of toxic gas in Bhopal.

Those given prison terms include the former chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd., Keshub Mahindra, one of eight charged with causing death by negligence, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. One of the accused has since died. The Supreme Court ruled the officials could not face charges of culpable homicide for one of the world’s worst industrial accidents.

An explosion at the Union Carbide pesticide plant on Dec. 3, 1984, released methyl isocyanate gas into the streets of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state in central India. Union Carbide estimated that 3,800 people were killed by the leak. Amnesty International, a human rights group, commissioned a study that showed 7,000 perished within days, and that another 15,000 later died from exposure to the gas.

“After 26 years, if a court finds someone guilty then you cannot call it justice,” Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said in a phone interview. “The maximum punishment they got is two years in jail, after killing thousands of people, maiming tens of thousands and poisoning the water.”

Dow Purchase

Midland, Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co., the world’s second largest chemical maker, acquired Union Carbide in 1999. Dow says all liabilities were settled in a $470 million out of court settlement Union Carbide agreed with the Indian government in 1989.

Keshub Mahindra, 86, is now the chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., India’s biggest tractor maker. Mahindra’s spokeswoman Roma Balwani said the company will issue a statement later.

The court’s verdicts today came after the trial had dragged on for more than two decades. A total of 178 prosecution witnesses were examined and 3,008 documents presented as evidence, Press Trust reported. The seven surviving former executives were released on bail and have the right to appeal to a higher court.

Anderson ‘Absconding’

Those convicted are all Indians. Warren Anderson, the former chairman of Union Carbide, had earlier been declared by a court an absconder after failing to appear for trial, the Press Trust agency said.

Union Carbide said today the company and its officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of Indian courts since they did not have any involvement in the operation of the Bhopal plant, which was owned and operated by Union Carbide India Ltd., or UCIL.

“All the appropriate people from UCIL -- officers and those who actually ran the plant on a daily basis -- have appeared to face charges,” Tomm F. Sprick, a spokesman for Union Carbide, said in an e-mailed response.

Union Carbide India Ltd., which no longer exists, was ordered to pay a fine of 500,000 rupees ($10,600), Associated Press reported today.

Activists did not spare Indian administrations since 1984 that they say failed to bring top company executives to justice. “The government has treated the people of Bhopal as if they had expendable lives, as if they can be sacrificed in the interest of foreign investment,” said Satinath Sarangi, also of the Bhopal action group.

--Editors: Mark Williams, Sam Nagarajan

To contact the reporter on this story: Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at; Jay Shankar in Bangalore at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hari Govind at

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