It was the world's worst industrial accident, immediately killing at least 3,500 people, and injuring another 15,000. The ensuing fight for justice, which has lasted for 25 years, has turned a corner with the sentencing of those charged.
The judgement has been called "delayed justice," but the sentences for those Union Carbide India officials charged have not brought peace or closure to the community of Bhopal, India. Around the world, the news of the sentences have only generated anger, recrimination and for many, an erosion in confidence that big business will ever look out for the rights of the little guy. A court in Bhopal, India sentenced eight people to two years of jail, reported the Indian Express. They must also each pay a fine of $2,100, said Common Dreams.
The seven remaining (one was sentenced posthumously) immediately applied for bail. The Hindustan Times reported hundreds of people had come to the courthouse, and while waiting for the verdict, called for the deaths of the India Union Carbide officials.
The sentences have generated so much outrage because thousands of people died as a result of the accident while thousands of survivors live with the debilitating effects of exposure to the poisonous gas leak; compensation was slow to be distributed; and the factory still exists in Bhopal, decaying and contaminated with the chemicals that were present 25 years ago.
In 1996 India's Supreme Court waived the original charges of "culpable homicide" that had been laid against officials, changing the charges to "death by negligence," which, in India means jail terms are a maximum of two years time.
Union Carbide USA and it's then-Chair, Warren Anderson, were charged over the accident, but have never been prosecuted. Union Carbide said it was not charged by India for the 1984 gas leak, emphasizing this statement in a press release issued Monday.
Union Carbide recounts the incident saying "In the early hours of December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant in Bhopal, India. According to the state government of Madhya Pradesh, approximately 3,800 people died and several thousand other individuals experienced permanent or partial disabilities." The company said the accident was the result of sabotage, a position maintained to this day.
The exact details of the incident are a little more telling than Union Carbide would like to admit. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center reported that Union Carbide's pesticide plant "... leaked over forty tons of the poisonous gas methyl isocyanate into the community surrounding the plant. Indian officials estimate that the gas leak left nearly 3000 people dead and 50,000 people permanently disabled and that 15,000 people died subsequently from exposure to the poisonous gas. (Unofficial estimates range up to 7000-8000 initial deaths, and 15,000-20,000 subsequent deaths.)"
For its part in the incident, Union Carbide has washed its hands, saying in a statement, "All claims arising out of the release were settled 18 years ago at the explicit direction of and with the approval of the Supreme Court of India."The eight charged and convicted are Union Carbide India Chairman Keshub Mahindra, VP Gokhale, managing director; Kishore Kamdar, vice-president; J Mukund, works manager; SP Chowdhury, production manager; KV Shetty, plant superintendent; SI Qureshi, production assistant.
BBC News reprinted portions of the commentary made in Indian newspapers condemning the sentences.
Many of the victims who were exposed to the gas died a terrible death, burned by the corrosive gas, suffering respiratory failure, writes Corrosion Doctors. The emergency alarm system for the plant had been disabled, so the company could not alert the community to the release of gas.
There is a law suit against Union Carbide USA for contamination of the environment in Bhopal.
Amnesty International characterized the sentences as "too little, too late." In its press release, Amnesty International said "These are historic convictions, but it is too little, too late. Twenty-five years is an unacceptable length of time for the survivors of the disaster and families of the dead to have waited for a criminal trial to reach a conclusion,” said Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.
More than 25 years after the disaster, the site has not been cleaned up, the leak and its impact have not been properly investigated, more than 100,000 people continue to suffer from health problems without the medical care they need, and survivors are still awaiting fair compensation and full redress for their suffering."
It is thought the seven convicted will appeal their sentences.