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Keshub Mahindra convicted in Bhopal case

BS Reporter  |  Bhopal/Mumbai 

Keshub Mahindra

Judgment comes 26 years after the gas leak tragedy, all eight convicts get bail.

Twenty-six years after the world's worst industrial disaster that killed an estimated 25,000 people, a Bhopal court today convicted eight former top managers of Union Carbide India (UCIL), from whose factory deadly gas had leaked out into the city. Those convicted include Keshub Mahindra, 85, former non-executive chairman of UCIL. He is presently chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra.

Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohan Tiwari awarded the maximum sentence, of two years imprisonment, to all of them on the charge of causing death by negligence. They were entitled to apply for, and got, bail almost immediately.

Warren Anderson, the then Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide Inc, however, is not on the list, as he is formally still an absconder and did not subject himself to trial. The 89-year-old Anderson lives in the US.

Leakage of deadly methyl-isocyanate (MIC) gas from UCIL’s plant in Bhopal on the night of December 2-3, 1984, had also left tens of thousands of others injured and maimed. In the years that followed, people exposed to the gas kept dying.

The guilty, including the managing director, the production manager and the plant supervisor, were also ordered to pay a fine of Rs 1 lakh each. Of the eight convicted, one,

R B Roychoudhury, had already died. The court also fined the former Indian unit of Union Carbide a sum of Rs 5 lakh.

The company executives were originally charged with culpable homicide but — to the outrage of survivors and victims — the Supreme Court in 1996 reduced the charge to death by negligence, with maximum imprisonment of two years.

Activists to appeal
Outside the court on Monday, victims and members of human rights groups anxiously waited. Some shouted that the verdict was an insult. Others criticised the time it had taken for the convictions.

Activists said the sentences were too light and they were planning to appeal against the judgment in a higher court.

Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide in 1999 but says all liabilities related to the accident were cleared in a $470 million out-of-court settlement with the Indian government in 1989.

In a statement issued after the verdict, Union Carbide washed its hands off the case and said its executives in the US were not part of the case, since the charges were divided long ago into a separate case. “Furthermore, Union Carbide and its officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian courts since they did not have any involvement in the operation of the plant, which was owned and operated by UCIL (Union Carbide India Ltd)," the statement said. Adding, that the operation and management of the plant on a day to day basis was done by UCIL.

Long legal delay
A 1989 pact between the central government and Union Carbide had absolved the company of all criminal and civil liabilities of the tragedy. The pact was partially set aside in October 1991 by the Supreme Court, which said payment of financial damages would only partly offset its civil liabilities but could not nullify the criminal cases against Union Carbide. It was only after this verdict of the apex court that the trial in criminal case in the disaster began in November 1991, before a chief judicial magistrate.

The trial court eventually in 1993, after examining initial evidence, charged eight Indian officials, including Mahindra, under provisions dealing with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The offence carried a maximum punishment of 10 years in jail.

The eight accused moved the Madhya Pradesh High Court's Jabalpur bench, challenging the lower court's decision to try them for the graver offence of culpable homicide. They said they could at most be tried for committing the milder offence of causing death due to a rash and negligent act, which entails a maximum sentence of two years.

As the high court rejected their contentions, they approached the Supreme Court, which acceded to their plea and dropped the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The apex court verdict on this came in 1996, after which trial resumed in a Bhopal court.

First Published: Tue, June 08 2010. 00:14 IST