Bhopal Gas Tragedy A Legal Disaster; New Law Need of Hour. By Fr. Anand Muttungal


The first verdict of the Bhopal gas tragedy after 25-years of wait on June 7 came as a rude shock to its victims and all other law abiding citizens across the glob. It is a wake up call to people across the glob to build safeguards against the industrial disaster in the corporate world. The Bhopal trial court, obviously, handed down two years imprisonment to the accused, the maximum the charge of “causing death by negligence” prescribed in the law book.
The order, however, failed to take stock of the irreparable losses the tragedy had done to human lives and the environment. This, as I understand, no less than a classical example of the sheer helplessness of our legal and political system where everyone tries to pass the buck on the other with a bleak hope that any law abiding citizen can get justice in the present system.
There should be someone held responsible for the loss of an estimated 35,000 lives in the aftermath of the world’s biggest industrial disaster that struck the Bhopal , the state capital of Madhya Pradesh way back on December 3, 1984 when the forty tonnes of methyl isocyanate escaped from the Union Carbide plant.
Now it is explicitly clear that the existing laws in the country have lost their teeth to deal with such huge human catastrophe and we need new law to deal with such situation. Before that we need to know what all contributed for this tragedy and it will give you a quick insight as who are all responsible for it as well. According to authenticated government documents, the US Company was permitted to set up the plant in the midst of human habitat without proper testing of the risks involved it.
However, after two year of the tragedy, the Central government woke up to the need for some laws rather than a full proof law to check such disaster. The Union government enacted Environment (Protection) Bill in 1986 against the “Principle of Strict Liability” on which the Indian industry was working. The Indian Judiciary, however, treated disasters in the light of the case, Rylands vs Fletcher (1866).
Accordingly, ‘there are certain industrial activities which, though lawful, are so fraught with the possibility of harm to others that the law has to treat them as allowable only on the term of insuring the public against injury’, (Principle of Strict Liability). As a result the powerful accused used this provision all through in the similar nature of cases and escaped from punishment. The same thing has almost repeated in the Bhopal gas tragedy verdict as well.
Union Carbide made the US District Court Judge to believe that the UCIL was a "separate entity, owned, managed and operated exclusively by Indian citizens in India ". So the whole case was shifted to India . The law suit continued in the Indian Supreme Court which told both sides to come to an out-of-court settlement. At last agreement was reached for US$ 470 million for damages caused in the Bhopal disaster, 15% of the original $3 billion claimed in the lawsuit(1989). Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department released a report in 2003 stating that it has awarded the compensation to 554,895 people for injuries received and 15,310 survivors of those killed. The average amount to families of the dead was $2,200, the cost of a precious Indian life.
All these must force us to formulate new laws to deal with such disaster in the corporate world. Legal experts say that the Public Liability Insurance Act (PLIA-1991), the National Environment Tribunal Act (NETA), 1995, the National Green Tribunal Bill, 2009 are not sufficiently equipped to deal with such disaster. All these laws are speaking about the victims of disaster but it has much deeper side in a disaster like gas tragedy. It causes genetic damage for generations. The children of the victims and their descendants also medically suffer the impact of the tragedy in one way or the other. How do we compensate the injustice done to the unborn?
The law that we propose must have provisions to deal with better design of the facilities to handle toxic materials, location of such industries, preventive maintenance strategies, worker training programs, environmental education programs, development of systemic hazard evaluation models, emergency planning, disaster preparedness programme, time bound compensation and justice to victims etc. If these industrial and legal disasters do not force us to clamour for better system, it would be an unforgivable sin against our future generation.

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