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An estimated 4-minute read

Bhopal Verdict- Not so bad

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The Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal on June 7, 2010 pronounced the much awaited-delayed-disappointing verdict on the criminal liability of the perpetrators of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. For 20,000 lives lost, 7 of the accused were convicted for 2 years while accused No.1 (you know who) still remained an absconder from justice. “Grave Injustice”, “Justice delayed, also denied”, “Not a verdict, but a mockery” cried the news headlines. Soon activists, local journalists, lawyers and of course our beloved politicos joined the bandwagon in criticizing the decision delivered in a tiny magistrate court somewhere near the middle of India. 

Other than the fact that CJM did the maximum he could, it is also important to note some of the positives that emerged as an aftermath to the judgment. For starters, the CJM gave the maximum sentence possible for the offence under section 304A of the IPC. Probably the more fitting provision would have been 304 part II (punishable upto 10 years), however as the Supreme Court in 1996 thought otherwise, there was little the CJM could do. The media, either inadvertently or purposefully (to create a hysteria after the judgment) failed to highlight this before the judgment was delivered. 

More interesting was how the media, civil society and opposition exploited the public opinion against the judgment and thus incidentally ensured that the government behaves more responsibly. The electronic media, driven by TRPs, asked tough questions, brashly took positions and tried to identify the villains of Bhopal. The activists, mostly ignored in the last 25 years, took full advantage of the newfound limelight and voiced their viewpoints. The opposition- left and right- with an interest in maligning the government, highlighted the inaction of the state towards the victims of Bhopal. The government, clearly at the backfoot, expressed its concern for the victims and in a desperate effort to win back some public support, constituted a Group of Ministers on the issue which recommended that the compensation to the victims be increased.   

Even minimal observance would reveal that all the different public agents, even while rightly pointing out issues and taking decisions, were, in some way or other, furthering their self-interest. The interest along with it being public was also concomitantly private- be it profits, publicity, votes or brownie points. Almost paradoxically the not-so-complimentary interests of the different groups, acted in a manner, perhaps fortuitously, for the benefit of the victims of Bhopal and the people of India. Sounds strange, but true.

The extra compensation, if distributed properly, would be a welcome relief for the victims on whose behalf the government had entered a grossly unjust settlement with Union Carbide decades ago. Of course, it would be the government which will be paying indirectly through the tax payer. But it is the same tax payers money which goes into the various subsidies and the ‘stimulus’ package for the corporate sector. Considering this, the extra compensation for the hapless Bhopal victims should not pinch the taxpaying citizen; though it should have been the private enterprise which should have, in first place, been liable. 

Now regarding the larger benefit for the people, all the hype and hoopla surrounding the verdict have oddly brought some form of accountability on the state. The constant pressure coming in from opposition and civil society through the media, forces the state to act in more judicious and just ways. It will not be very easy for any government to get away with anything similar to Bhopal due to this. The Nuclear Liability Bill has hence come under severe criticism and the government even had to drop the idea of introducing an amendment which made the nuclear operator incapable of suing the foreign supplier in case of nuclear accident caused by the latter’s fault. 

The present draft of the bill caps the total liability for any nuclear accident at around 450 million dollars, lower than the much criticized 470 million dollar settlement for Bhopal made 2 decades ago! Any nuclear accident, as the Chernobyl disaster has demonstrated, will have a much larger casualty figure than that of Bhopal. Also, out of the 450 million dollars, less than 1/4th will be paid by the nuclear operator while the government pays the rest! 

Following the Bhopal verdict, the government said it would have a relook of the bill and there are chances that these provisions would be altered. There has also been the talk of having new laws for industrial disaster, class action litigation and a faster justice delivery mechanism. All the damage associated with Bhopal were done years back when the compensation was lowly fixed and criminal liability diluted. The events following the present Bhopal verdict has only demonstrated that public opinion still matters and the high and mighty state can be forced to act more responsibly. 


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