Bhopal verdict: a cruel joke

[This joke with the victims of Bhopal seems to be majorly because majority of them belong to the so-called-ever-appeased community, corruption may be secondary - Editor, Online Edition]

A few years ago, Salman Khan, the Hindi film actor, was arrested in a blackbuck hunting case in Jaipur. The local community which regards blackbuck as a diety, was raring for the Bollywood actor’s blood for his heinous crime. Blackbuck, after all is an animal. Sometime later, Mansoor Ali Khan, the nawab of Pataudi, was intercepted by the police while returning home after a “shikar” with his kill hidden in the boot of his car. Once again there was a lot of hue and cry from every corner of the country. Animal activists became active and demanded strictest of punishment for the accused. The world, of course came to know how much we care for our wildlife. It’s a different matter that we are yet to prove to the same world our genuine concern for human lives.

Not to talk about natural calamities like famines or floods which the country faces periodically, there are incidents, or rather accidents, in which masses get killed because of gross negligence on the part of human beings themselves. The Uphaar cinema hall fire tragedy is still fresh in our minds. But the biggest industrial disaster in the world was the Bhopal gas leak in which 20,000 people died and thousands were paralysed and maimed for life.

The devastating gas tragedy that took place more than 25 years ago is taking its toll even today. Thousands more have died from long term exposure to lethal gases. The waste that still lies at the Union Carbide factory site has led to children being born with congenital defects. The toxicity of the gas has rendered hundreds of people visionless and left them with life-long congenital malformations and respiratory disorders. In the absence of any suitable compensation these people have been left to fend for themselves. They continue to suffer. The government both at the state level and the Centre are pathetically oblivious of their fate.

But, be it the Uphaar tragedy or the Bhopal tragedy, the final verdicts pronounced in these cases have one thing in common. The rich and mighty can get away with anything in our country. The punishment in both the cases was so meagre - a cruel joke on the hapless victims. In a case of illegal hunting, demands are made for stiff jail sentences while those responsible for killing human beings are given lenient sentences.

What can be a bigger travesty of justice than the verdict in the Bhopal case. The seven convicts got away with just two years of imprisonment in the world’s worst disaster which killed 20,000 and left tens of thousands disabled for life. The judgement, ironically, came after more than 25 years. And, to add insult to injury, the seven held guilty are already out on bail. One can only imagine the role money and might can play in our country. A sentence of mere two years and a fine of a petty 2 lakh is the cost of 20,000 lives. The judgement is a second murder of those who survived, as also a mockery of our judicial system. The verdict not only speaks volumes about justice delayed is justice denied, but also about the fact that there is no column for providing justice for the poor and helpless people. The punishment for killing one blackbuck, and killing 20,000 hapless and poor humans is the same.

The powerful people in our country do try to suppress and subvert justice. The infamous Jessica Lall and Nitish Katara murder cases are just two examples in which Manu Sharma and Vikas Yadav, respectively, were the main accused. While the former is the son of a powerful Congress politician Vinod Sharma, the latter is the son of a powerful U.P. don and politician, D.P. Yadav. It was only after the media and public outrage that the investigating agencies and the judiciary woke up from slumber. Retrial took place and eventually the guilty were awarded life sentences.

The officials of the Union Carbide were also rich and powerful. That’s why, shockingly, the international collaborators were provided with a safe passage out of country by the Indian government itself, in all likelihood under pressure from the U.S. government itself. Now, the focus has shifted to Warren Anderson, who headed the Union Carbide India at the time of the tragedy. No one is talking about the members of the ruling government at that time who provided him with safe passage out. The Indian media has also pointed fingers towards the complicity of the then ruling state government in Bhopal as well as the Central government in New Delhi along with the CBI for facilitating Anderson’s escape after the tragedy. Is it not time to book those who helped Anderson escape, and are still very much here in the country? The fact is that various concerned departments of the government colluded with foreign investors. This amply shows how morally impoverished and ethically bankrupt our establishment and we as people are! The fact is that the rot has set in so deep within our enforcement and judicial system that it will need revolutionary efforts to clean up the whole mess.

While the verdict pronouncing a sentence of a mere two years is hardly justifiable, the judiciary is not much to be blamed for it simply because the case presented before it was a weak one. However, what has been intriguing is that the judiciary has taken more than 25 years to reach a conclusion. Bhopal case is not an exception. There have been hundreds of high profile cases where the courts have taken decades to deliver verdicts.

Yet another question that needs explanation is why the rich and powerful in our country are dealt with utmost leniency? Barring some exceptions, the judgement delivered by a lower court is never final and there is always a chance of appeal in the higher courts. The affected party has to again wait while the procedure of appeals takes time. Court dates after dates! Delays and more delays! Justice, in the end, gets totally defeated.

Not that the people sitting at the helm in our judicial setup are not aware of this fact, but they remain conspicuously silent on the question of corruption in the legal system of the country. No one takes a positive step towards making any amends to the existing rot and clean up the mess. With the present pace, it will take decades to clear the existing backlog in our courts.

Ironically, now the Central government is in the process of making amendments in the bill relating to foreign companies. The said bill seeks to delete the clause that allows American suppliers to be sued for damages in case of accident due to negligence on their part. The move which, at best, can be termed as insensitive and ridiculous, only shows our scant regard for human life.

The Bhopal verdict is not just about subversion of justice but it points at the gaping holes and flaws in our judicial system under which the rich and mighty perpetrators of crimes go scot free, while poor victims continue to suffer. The verdict highlights the need for urgent and stringent laws for environmental disasters.