On Tuesday, March 14th, the Supreme Court of India reconvened to hear the findings of the judge’s panel on the central government’s curative petition brought against Dow Chemical and its subsidiary Union Carbide for additional compensation for the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster. The bench, chaired by Justice S. K. Kaul, ruled that there was no legal precedent for pursuing the curative petition and that the issue “could not be raked up three decades after the incident”. The panel ruled that the 1989 settlement which the petition sought to ‘cure’ could only be vitiated by fraud on the part of Union Carbide, but no grounds for fraud were brought by the central government. The court gave credence to the allegations of Carbide’s lawyers that it was the job of the Union of India and the State of Madhya Pradesh to detoxify the factory site in the wake of the disaster, and that they’re failure to do so or to take out an insurance policy against the original compensation settlement constituted negligence on the part of the state. They also repeatedly referred to a portion of the money from the original settlement that remains available for use by the central Government, despite the amount being wholly inadequate to address the needs of the thousands still affected by permanent health conditions resulting from gas exposure.
The decision was met with widespread dismay and condemnation from survivors, who had themselves urged the Government to pursue grounds of fraud against Union Carbide on the grounds that UCC consistently suppressed the results of their own studies that clearly show exposure to MIC gas results almost exclusively in permanent bodily injuries, not merely temporary ones, to minimise their liability at the time of the 1989 settlement. Additionally, the Supreme Court judge’s bench chose to ignore all additional evidence presented by survivor groups in support of the Government’s case. The evidence presented by survivor groups and their legal representatives clearly shows deaths and injury figures far higher than those estimated in the original settlement. The court’s decision to overlook this condemns thousands of innocent survivors to never receive a rupee in compensation for the suffering they are still experiencing daily.
At a press conference held yesterday, Monday March 20th, the survivor organisations condemned the decision of the Supreme Court to dismiss the Curative Petition. Rashida Bee, President of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh and founder of the Chingari Children’s Rehabilitation Centre, said:
“The Supreme Court Bench has deliberately ignored arguments against Union Carbide using fraudulent means to settle the case on the disaster in February 1989. Our lawyer who the Court named and attempted to shame, in fact presented documentary evidence of Union Carbide’s representative misleading Indian government officials into believing that majority of survivors suffered only temporary injuries. There is not a word in the decision about this.”
“The Court’s claim that Bhopal survivors received six times more compensation than that provided under the Motor Vehicles Act is overwhelmingly false.” Said Balkrishna Namdeo of Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogi Sangarsh Morcha. “The MV Act of 1988 stipulates payment of Rs. 50 thousand to Rs. 2.5 lakhs to victims of injury, depending on its severity, and the number of Bhopal victims who have received six times the minimum amount is less than 1 % of the claimants.” he said.
Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information & Action, commented:
“The judges have displayed ignorance of the basic fact that contamination of groundwater in Bhopal by Union Carbide’s hazardous waste predates the gas disaster of 1984 and is unrelated to it. They chose to ignore that the ongoing contamination is due to unsafe dumping of poisonous waste before and after the disaster by Union Carbide. Also ignored by them was the condition of returning the land in its original condition under which Union Carbide had taken the land on lease.”
Nawab Khan, President of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Pursh Sangarsh Morcha, added:
“Nowhere in 34-page decision is there any indication that the judges are even remotely familiar with the scientific facts on medical consequences of exposure to Union Carbide’s leaked gas. There is nothing in it to show that the judges had any understanding of the chronic nature of exposure induced diseases among the Bhopal survivors.”
“While the decision claims to be sympathetic to the survivors, the Bench’s derisive attitude towards the survivors’ organisations is clear in the manner it describes them throughout the decision”, said Nousheen Khan of Children against Dow Carbide. “The judges have also made their bias for Union Carbide clear by completely omitting to mention that the corporation continues to abscond from the criminal case on the disaster”, she added.
While the full repercussions of this shocking decision by the Supreme Court are yet to unfold, one thing is clear: we must continue to support the survivors. When the highest court in the land fails to defend the rights of their own citizens under the constitution, and so prevents them from ever being able to obtain a remedy remotely proportionate to the harm they continue to endure, we must show the Bhopal survivors that we will not abandon them, and that we will continue to support their right to health, and a life of dignity.