As BP struggles to contain the damage the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has caused to the Gulf of Mexico and to the people whose livelihoods depend on its waters, a legal judgment in the worst industrial catastrophe in history highlights how wrong the aftermath of such disasters can go not just in terms of a cleanup but in the matter of justice. It is a terrifying lesson in how a corporation can evade full responsibility for one of the most heinous accidents in human history.
On Monday, more than 25 years after 40 tons of highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) was released from a Union Carbide plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal killing thousands in a matter of hours and over years, rendering hundreds of thousands seriously ill and causing genetic defects in yet-to-be-born generations a local court announced its verdict. It held eight former employees of Union Carbide India Ltd guilty of criminal negligence and sentenced seven of them to two years in prison and a fine of $2,100. (The eighth defendant died during the course of the 23-year trial.) The convicted former employees were out on bail of just $500 each in less than two hours. Union Carbide India, which no longer exists, was fined less than $11,000.
The judgments are likely to be appealed. Given the speed of the wheels of justice in India, the case is likely to outlast most of the Bhopal survivors and the accused. The most prominent name in the latter category is Warren Anderson, the American CEO of Union Carbide, the U.S. parent company. He is now 89 years old. Arrested by Indian police when he visited the disaster site, he was released on bail and flew out of the country. He continues to be a fugitive from Indian law and hence has not been tried. (He is believed to be living somewhere in New York state.) At the same time, no one has been assigned responsibility for cleaning up Bhopal's ground zero, which researchers and activists say continues to leach toxic chemicals into the groundwater, used by thousands of families.
The outcome of the case has ignited outrage and disbelief across India. No less than the Law Minister and a former Chief Justice have said justice has been delayed and denied. The Economic Times newspaper led its front page with the headline "After 25 Years, Another Tragedy Strikes Bhopal." "We are used to being let down," says Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, her voice catching as she spoke to TIME by phone, "by our government ... now even the judiciary."
The letdowns have been serious and repeated and apparently preordained because of decisions that facilitated the disaster itself. Investigations over the years have shown that the Bhopal plant design was faulty and that there was next to no emergency preparedness issues that the parent company in the U.S. apparently knew about, according to the groups that conducted the studies. The company was operating in India with standards unacceptable in the U.S.
The Indian government seemed to go out of its way to cushion the experience for Union Carbide. After first suing the company for $3.3 billion in 1985, New Delhi announced an out-of-court settlement of $470 million in February 1989. Then a 1996 ruling by another Supreme Court judge watered down the charges against the accused from culpable homicide (with maximum punishment of 10 years' jail term) to criminal negligence (maximum sentence two years).
The various governments that have ruled India in the meantime have not taken on Union Carbide, which is now owned by Dow Chemical. Meanwhile, Keshub Mahindra, chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd at the time of the Bhopal disaster and now chairman of India's automobile giant Mahindra & Mahindra, was nominated for a civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, in 2002. He had to decline in the face of widespread protests.
Although environmental legislation was ramped up in the wake of the Bhopal disaster, companies continue to operate in India in ways that severely if not as dramatically pollute the environment and impact people's health and livelihoods. Britain-based mining major Vedanta, for instance, has faced censure from Amnesty International for violating the human rights of communities in Orissa, where it operates bauxite mines. India continues to be the world's e-waste dump. Of late, the government, keen to attract foreign investment to its nascent nuclear energy market, has been pushing a bill to limit the liability of a nuclear-plant operator to $111 million. "We've learned nothing from Bhopal," says Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. "There is a drive to attract foreign investment overwhelming all other considerations." Opposition parties have already demanded a rethink of the proposed legislation in the face of the Bhopal outcome.
There is still outrage that the U.S. refuses to extradite Warren Anderson to face criminal charges in India. New Delhi made the request in 2003, and it was refused the year after. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robert Blake, reacting to Monday's Bhopal verdict, said, "I don't expect this verdict to reopen any new inquiries or anything like that. On the contrary, we hope that this is going to help to bring closure." The Bhopal activists now plan to file a writ petition in the higher court to admit more charges against Union Carbide and Anderson, seeking an as-yet-unspecified figure for personal and property damages, health monitoring and cleanup of the site, which is likely to run into billions of dollars.
Indians point at the way the U.S. government is now confronting BP holding it squarely responsible for the oil spill and accountable for all cleanup costs as a stark contrast to the way their own government has dealt with Union Carbide. The hope in India is that U.S. courts will be more amenable to the requests of Bhopal's victims now that America has a huge environmental disaster in its own backyard. The Bhopal activists say the Indian government must join the case in the U.S. as a plaintiff (indeed, it owns the land on which the Union Carbide factory was located). "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should be inspired by President Obama's recent commitment toward making BP pay every cent for its oil spill," says Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. "And the U.S. government must follow the same standards on corporate liability for U.S. corporations operating in India as it expects for corporations operating in the U.S."