On June 7th a magistrate in Bhopal, India, finally handed down a verdict in 23-year-long criminal case against former executives of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), Union Carbide Corporation's (UCC) majority-owned subsidiary. At least 8,000 people died immediately, and 16,000 have died subsequently of poisoning from the 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyante gas that leaked from Carbide's Bhopal pesticide factory on December, 3 1984. The suffering in Bhopal has been criminal, and 26 years later, it seems the legal verdict will be criminal as well. All 7 of the accused were found guilty of homicide by negligence in the 95-page judgment that chronicled the enormous evidence presented (178 witnesses called, and over 3000 pages of documentation submitted). The charges carried a maximum sentence of only two years. But rather than deploying this token leverage, the judge, citing the age and infirmity of the accused, only charged each $2100 fine and released them all on bail. Primary accused in the case, former UCC CEO Warren Anderson, was not even present; he absconded from charges in Bhopal in 1984.
For 26 long years the lack of any convictions in this mass murder has made injustice palpable on the streets of Bhopal, and the verdict, despite its terrible inadequacy, at least marked some action in this infamous case. But Bhopalis have not been the only ones waiting on this verdict. The Indian government and business sector have paid close attention, worried what message a conviction will send to multi-national foreign interests. Those business interests, especially Dow Chemical USA (now Union Carbide's owner), and TATA Corporation India (Dow's best friend in India a company that actually tried to take responsibility for a Bhopal clean-up so that Dow wouldn't have to) wanted to know if corporate crimes will ever be punishable. The US State Department has watched carefully to see if they will have to surrender Anderson, who now lives in Florida with his wife. And around the world people interested in environmental justice and the rule of law have waited to see if the rights of poor citizens mean anything in this globalized, corporatized world. Criminally, the answer seems to be No.
It is significant therefore, that at long last a judgment has been rendered. But why, in a case of this severity, has it ended up being so fundamentally toothless? It turns out that at various points the Indian government and judiciary have abetted the accused in ensuring that their only punishment will be a comfortable retirement.
In 1996 three justices from the Indian Supreme court reduced the charges against the accused from Section 304-Part II, culpable homicide (which carries a possible 10-year sentence) to the aforementioned 304A (2 years max). And in 1994, another Justice from the India Supreme Court had allowed UCC itself to liquidate its assets and abscond from India. Meanwhile, Anderson posted $800 bail in 1984 and never returned to face his charges. While the Indian government maintains that they pursued this warrant, but were blocked by the US, the former joint-director of India's Central Board of Investigation (CBI), B. R. Lall, has reported that the government, at the behest of US interests, blocked the CBI's attempt to extradite Anderson during the1990's.
In the wake of this judgment, enraged Bhopal survivors and activists are demanding, again, that the charges against the accused should be enhanced and that Anderson should at last face trial. But the travesty of the trial is only one aspect of the many ways that the Indian government has shamefully betrayed Bhopal's victims. Most outrageous is the government's current support for Dow Chemical in their ongoing Indian expansion. Rather than treating Dow as though they are illegally harboring a fugitive UCC - that is charged with responsibility for the horrible deaths of 20,000 Indian citizens, Manmohan Singh's government has been busy for years giving Dow the red-carpet treatment. It has warmly welcomed Dow through India-USA CEO forums, helped Dow procure expedited permits in India, and has been caught in scandal with Dow, as in several cases of Dow representatives bribing Indian officials. Currently, it is also possible that with the passage of the Nuclear Liability Bill, Dow will get its final wish from the Indian government a cap on the potential liabilities of foreign corporations for any future Bhopals.
It seems an awful, but evident, truth that the world's largest democracy is more interested in protecting corporations from courts than people from poisoning. But it should also be evident that their complicity in Bhopal's marginalization will never make it go away only justice, healthcare and remediation can do that.