Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 04 April 2023

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Source: By Khadija Khan: The Indian Express

The Supreme Court dismissed a curative petition filed by the Centre, seeking additional funds from Union Carbide Corporations’ successor firms for extending higher compensation to victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, which led to the deaths of 3,000 people and caused significant environmental damage.

After a leak of toxic methyl isocyanate gas from Union Carbide’s factory in Bhopal on the intervening night of 2 and 3 December 1984, that led to the deaths of over 3,000 people and affected 1.02 lakh more, the Union Carbide Corporation, now owned by Dow Chemicals, gave a compensation of USD 470 million (Rs 715 crore in 1989).

What is the present case about?

In the ‘Union of India And Others. v. M/s. Union Carbide Corporation And Others’, the Centre sought Rs. 7,844 crores from the US-based firms through a curative petition it filed in 2010, for additional compensation for the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. A curative petition can be filed after a review plea against the final conviction is dismissed. It is meant to ensure there is no miscarriage of justice and to prevent abuse of the process.

The Centre’s claim for a curative petition was based on a demand for additional compensation, in a reexamination of the Supreme Court’s 1989 order where compensation was decided as Rs. 750 crores.

The plea also sought a relook at the Court’s orders relating to modes of payment and settlement, on grounds that the settlement was based on an incorrect estimate of the total number of deaths, injuries, and losses. The Centre also said that the environmental damage caused was never factored in, and thus sought to reopen the settlement on the basis of fresh documents.

According to the plea, the previous figure for deaths stood at 3,000 and for injuries at 70,000. However, the Central government contended that the actual number of deaths was 5,295, whereas injuries reached 5,27,894.

What did the court decide today?

Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice SK Kaul and comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna, Abhay S Oka, Vikram Nath, and JK Maheshwar dismissed the petition filed by the Centre. Reading out the last two paragraphs of the main judgment, the bench stated, “It is the Union’s own stand that the commissioner has adjudicated all claims to the procedure established by law where the possibility of reimbursement was provided.”

Further, it was admitted in the proceedings culminating in the court’s order of 19 July 2004 that the amount of settlement was found to be in surplus of the actual requirement. The claimants had been provided more compensation than what was reasonably awarded to them under the law, the court said, adding that “this reinforced the position that the settlement amount was sufficient to compensate the claimants”.

The Court also noticed the absence of an insurance policy by the Central government and said, “Responsibility was placed on the Union of India, being a welfare state, to make good the deficiency and to take out the relevant insurance policy. Surprisingly, we were informed that no such insurance policy was taken out. This is gross negligence on part of the UOI and is in breach of the directions made in the review judgment. The Union cannot be negligent on this aspect and then seek a prayer from this court to fix such responsibility on the UCC.”

Moreover, the court found no legal basis to revisit the claim after three decades of the tragedy and said that doing so could open up Pandora’s box. “Either a settlement is valid or to be set aside in cases where it is vitiated by fraud,” the Court reasoned, adding that there was no such fraud in this case.

The Court was equally dissatisfied with the Centre being unable to produce any rationale for raking up this issue decades later. “Even assuming that the figures of affected persons turned out larger than contemplated earlier. An excess amount of funds remain available to satisfy such claims,” the Court said pointing to a sum of “Rs 50 crores lying with the RBI”, while directing it to be utilized by the government for the satisfaction of pending claims, if any, in accordance with the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 and the schemes under it.

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