The Centre suffered a major setback as the Supreme Court today rejected its request for more compensation from Union Carbide for the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. The gas leak killed over 3,000 people and was one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
The Centre had sought to reopen the case and directed Union Carbide’s successor company to pay an additional Rs 7,844 crore to victims of the gas leak. It argues that, in addressing the issue in 1989, it could not have adequately assessed the seriousness of the actual damage to human life and the environment.
The five-judge constitutional judge dismissed the petition, saying the settlement could only be reversed on the grounds of fraud and that the centre did not argue the point.
The court also said the centre had provided no reason to bring the matter after two decades. It directed using Rs 50 crore from the RBI to settle outstanding compensation claims.
“We are dissatisfied that the Union of India has not presented any reason to raise this issue after two decades. We believe that a therapeutic petition cannot be accepted,” the bench said. “If it is reopened, then it could open Pandora’s box and work against claimants,” it added.
The constitutional bench, headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna, Abhay S Oka, Vikram Nath and JK Maheshwar, reserved its ruling on the petition on January 12.
Union Carbide’s successor firm, represented by senior counsel Harish Salve, told the court that the depreciation of the rupee since 1989 cannot justify seeking “additional” compensation now. The companies had said the centre never signalled its deficiencies when the settlement was reached.
During the hearing, the court had asked the government to provide more compensation “out of its own pocket”. Compensation worth Rs 715 crore has now been paid for Union Carbide, owned by Dow Chemical, under the 1989 settlement.
On December 2, 1984, toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. More than 3,000 people were killed, and more than 100,000 were affected.
Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide at the time, was the lead defendant in the case but did not appear for trial. The Bhopal court declared him absconded in 1992. Two non-bailable arrest warrants were issued before his death in 2014. On June 7, 2010, the Bhopal court sentenced seven Union Carbide India Limited executives to two years in prison.
The centre filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court in December 2010, seeking more compensation. Curative petitions are a last resort after an adverse judgment is issued and a request for review is denied. The centre did not file a review petition to reverse the settlement but wants to increase the amount.