Soon after the Bhopal gas tragedy, American lawyers were seen in the city enlisting clients from among survivors of the disaster.
But a year later, the central government introduced the Bhopal Claims Processing Act, 1985, taking away the victims’ legal right to demand compensation from Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), on the ground that the underprivileged victims would not be able to take on a big company.
Instead, the Centre argued, it would execute their legal rights as their ‘sole guardian’.
But now, with the gas victims feeling betrayed by the government after the two-year sentences for the accused, is it time to re-examine whether the victims would have been better off fending for themselves?
Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan, who has been actively associated with litigations involving gas victims, said there could be no doubt that the government betrayed the victims. “It (the government) has had much greater concern for the company than the victims, and its efforts all through have been to handle the matter in a way so as to cause the least amount of discomfiture to the company,” he said.
Bhushan, however, said there was nothing wrong in introducing such a legislation since it would have been difficult for people to fight a legal battle against the company — but things went wrong afterwards.
Supreme Court lawyer Agney Sayal said in a democratic country, it was imperative that the legislature exercising its powers would enforce such a law to come to the victims’ rescue. “There were no checks and balances. There was corruption, and commissioners behaved as if all victims were cheats.”
But even after the SC asked a committee to see how the welfare courts were functioning in response to a petition, and the committee said all was not well with them, the government did nothing to improve their functioning, Sayal added.
Legal experts on Tuesday said the issue could not be reopened, and the deal reached between the government and Union Carbide for payment of $470 million for disbursement among the victims was final.
“This was settled by the Supreme Court in a judgment, putting a seal of approval on the agreement reached between the government and Union Carbide,” senior counsel K.T.S. Tulsi said. “Later, Parliament enacted a law in this connection which was upheld by the apex court. The victims neither got compensation nor justice.”
(With inputs from Satya Prakash in New Delhi)
Concurrent sentence may be challenged
Following outrage over the punishment pronounced by a local court in the Bhopal tragedy case on Monday, the CBI is considering an appeal against the concurrent sentence to the convicts.
Although the SC had diluted the charges against the accused in 1996 — meaning, the court could pronounce a maximum sentence of two years — the quantum of punishment to each accused is four years and nine months.
But the court order for concurrent punishment reduced the sentence to just two years. It also ensured bail to the accused on furnishing person bonds of Rs 25,000 each.
While speaking to NGOs, CBI lawyer C. Sahay said that the agency might appeal in a higher court.
“Sahay told us the CBI might appeal against concurrent sentence,” said Rachna Dhingra, Bhopal Group of Information and Action. The CBI may also challenge the verdict to raise the amount of fine, she added.