The Union Government’s Civil Lawsuit on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy is Infructuous!

  • The entire country was shocked by the turn of events when the Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh gas tragedy unfurled unexpectedly leaving scores of people affected. Forget about the ensuing loss of lives and livelihood, even unborn and future generations too were affected by the deadly gas leak prompting the union government to initiate measures to suitably compensate the lot. Yes, a loss of precious life cannot be compensated by any amount, but the norm to disburse compensation to the affected family offers some solace. The families of victims continued to mourn the loss even as the union government decided to seek more compensation retrospectively from the Union Carbide Corporation despite lacking jurisprudence. Let’s look at the story in detail.

PC: The Angle Bureau

  • The matter reached the Supreme Court for adjudication. The SC has asked pertinent questions on the Government of India’s curative writ petition against the 1989 settlement order directing Union Carbide Corporation to pay $470 million (nearly Rs 750 crore) as damages for the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. UCC was willing to cough up $426 million while GOI submitted that any amount less than $500 million would not be reasonable, following which SC settled on a midway figure of $470 million that both UCC and GOI agreed upon. Remember, the settlement was panned for short-changing the victims, for being inadequate for environmental repairs, and as an ineffective financial deterrent against gross negligence.
  • After failing to extract a higher compensation then, GOI is now seeking over Rs 7,000 crore in additional damages. The belated demand is unlikely to yield a positive outcome in most jurisdictions. Raising the victim’s hopes at this point makes no sense at all. SC noted that Rs 50 crore from the original compensation remains unutilized, a damning indictment of successive governments. Notably, SC pointed out that vitiating a settlement after over three decades could damage India’s investment climate. This is so correct. Yes, we are aware of the judicial activism being bandied about by the legislature and the executive. In this particular case, it makes eminent sense for SC to step in on the policy matter. Of course, for a change.

PC: Wikimedia Commons

  • SC also minced no words when it suggested that populism could be behind the belated curative writ petition, observing that it cannot be the basis for a judicial review. Needless to mention, having messed up in Bhopal, India has a responsibility to prevent more Bhopals from happening. As such, comprehensive legislation that helps in promptly and accurately fixing civil liability for negligent conduct is our best bet. In the absence of the same, courts are arbitrarily deciding compensation here. Rather than resorting to adhocism by the government and judiciary, a policy with firmness and predictability should be introduced forthwith. Looking at victims’ perpetual plight, this assumes paramount importance for the concerned stakeholders to act.