Exactly 26 years after over 5,000 people were killed and about five lakh injured when deadly methyl isocyanides leaked from Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, the government on Friday moved the Supreme Court seeking an additional compensation of Rs 7,844 crore for the victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster.
Contending that the basic assumptions of facts forming the foundation of its earlier orders on compensation were incorrect, the Centre requested the court to direct Union Carbide Corporation’s successor Dow Chemicals to pay the additional compensation.
The curative petition by Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers has sought re-examination of the SC’s February 14, 1989 judgment, fixing the compensation at 470 million dollar (Rs 750 crore) and three subsequent orders. The SC had on February 15 and May 4, 1989 passed orders determining the mode of payment and settlement and on October 3, 1991 it had dismissed a petition seeking review of its judgments.
This is the second curative petition filed by the Centre in connection with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case. The first one sought to charge the accused, who were given lighter punishment by a court in Bhopal, with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Drafted by advocate Devdatt Kamat and settled by Attorney General GE Vahanvati, the petition has been filed after conducting “a through review of all issues” at the highest level in the aftermath of widespread public outcry following the June 7, 2010 verdict in the criminal case that resulted into imposition of milder sentences on the culprits.
Describing it as a “rarest of rare” case, the government said it approached the SC as the legal guardian of the gas victims “in an attempt to cure gross miscarriage of justice” and the court should consider it on merits and not on technical considerations such as delay.
Instead, the court should exercise its jurisdiction to address the error in its judgments on the issue “in public interest” apparent on the face of the record.
It sought payment of the additional compensation from Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), Dow Chemicals Company (which owns UCC since 2001), Mcleod Russel India having 50.9% shareholding of UCIL and UCIL, which is currently known as Eveready Industries Ltd.
The Centre maintained UCC and its subsidiary named in its petition are jointly and severally liable for payment of the claims as “it has emerged that basic underlying assumptions of fact and data in the impugned judgments and orders are incorrect, thereby vitiating the very foundation on which the compensation was awarded.”
The Centre said the SC in its 1989 judgment had observed the settlement was based on certain ‘assumptions of truth’ and if the said assumptions are unrelated to 'realities', then the 'element of justness’ of the settlement would seriously be impaired and liberty was given to approach the court.
Death and Injury
Explaining the “factual inadequacies” in earlier judgments, the petition said the compensation in 1989 was decided on the basis of assessment that there were 3,000 deaths, 20,000 people with temporary injury and 50,000 with minor injury.
However, the figure now stands at 5,295 deaths, 35,000 people with temporary injury and 5.27 lakh with minor injury, it added. “If death cases alone have been found to be almost double than what was assumed in the impugned order, the settlement of compensation amount cannot be considered to be reasonable,” it said.
In fact, the additional amount on this count was calculated at Rs 676 crore payable in 1989. The petition gave three options to calculate the amount’s present day value with the maximum being Rs 5,786 crore. The two other calculations were Rs 3,298 crore and Rs 2,936 crore.
Relief and Rehabilitation
Claiming to recover the Rs 1743 crore spent by the Centre and the Madhya Pradesh Government on relief and rehabilitation of the victims, the petition said: “the tax payers’ money cannot be utilised for the purposes of meeting the liability of the companies which are tort feasors (wrong doers)”.
Seeking to apply the ‘polluter pays” principle, the petition said the judgments and orders did not take into account the impact of the disaster on the environment and the respondent companies were liable to pay the costs on account of environmental degradation, calculated at Rs 315 crore.
The Centre also sought to invoke the doctrine of strict liability against UCC and its successor to compensate these additional victims for the loss caused to them.
The government had paid Rs 10 lakh in death cases, Rs 5 lakh for permanent disability and Rs 2 lakh for cancer cases. Those suffering from renal failure and temporary disability were paid Rs 2 lakh and Rs 1 lakh respectively.