In the din of the political drama triggered by leadership change, the state, it appears, forgot to pay even lip service to those killed in the Bhopal gas tragedy this year. Twenty one years since that fateful night of December 2-3, 1984 though, a band of die-hard campaigners for the survivors' cause still visits a local court without fail.
The wheels of justice have turned slowly but the hearings into the criminal liability case for the horrific industrial accident are finally drawing to a close and a verdict is expected within the next couple of months. "The evidence of prosecution witnesses is almost over," says advocate Ajay Gupta, the Bhopal-based lawyer who is one of the defense counsels for the officials of the erstwhile Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) who are facing criminal charges for the accident.
When the CBI extradited gangster Abu Salem and his wife Moncia Bedi amidst fanfare, the irony of the Bhopal disaster just got starker for the victims who survived the ghastly night and its aftermath. Survivors and activists point out how the Government of India had dragged its feet on extraditing Warren Anderson, the then chairman of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) from the US.
The FIR of the criminal case was registered by the Bhopal police on December 3, 1984. It was later handed over to the CBI, which, as the prosecution agency, has been accused of tardiness. Some key witnesses into the case were not even listed among the 240-odd witnesses that the prosecution had lined up.
Veteran journalist Rajkumar Keswani, who was the first to have warned of the likelihood of an accident, local lawyer Shahnawaz Khan who had shot off notices to the Union Carbide management for the lack of safety measures and trade union leader Hatim Zariwala who had fought with the plant management over deviation from security norms and complained to the state government much before the MiC blow-up hit Bhopal, were left out of the witness list.
"It was a glaring omission," says activist Abdul Jabbar, convenor of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan. Only after the organisation intervened that the court recorded its evidence in July-August this year. Yet, the case has taken inordinately long since the CBI first filed the chargesheet on December 1, 1987.
"In Abu Salem's case, a contingent of high-level CBI officers has worked. Even in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, a CBI STF had gone into the case," continues Jabbar. "But in the Bhopal disaster's criminal liability case, only a CBI DSP assisted by some investigation officers have worked."
This is not the only thing that riles the survivors. The CBI has stopped filing even the progress report on Anderson's extradition to the local court which has issued a permanent warrant of his arrest. He, along with UCC, UCIL, UC Eastern (Hong Kong) and nine officials of the UCIL including Keshub Mahindra, Vijay Gokhale, V. Mukundan and Shakeel Qureshi were charged under Section 304 (Part II) of the IPC (for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) among others.
Upon the appeal of Indian officials, the Supreme Court diluted the case against them to 304 (A) of the IPC, which is for causing death due to negligence like in any common accident, in September 1996. As for the companies named in the chargesheet, the CBI expressed its inability to make headway against the UC Eastern (HK) because it was dissolved in 1992.
UCC was never represented in courts and has since been taken over by Dow Chemicals. UCIL is now Eveready India Ltd. and Dow Chemicals India Ltd., which the prosecutors and lawyers of survivors tried to turn into a party to the criminal case, washed its hands of any liability;They stated last year that they have nothing to do with the US-based multinational, says lawyer Shahnawaz Khan.
Another attempt, this time to make the Dow Chemicals which has taken over UCC a party in the case, was frustrated when the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed the issuance of a notice by the CJM court trying the case in Bhopal. Sandeep Gupta, the Dow lawyer in the high court, says, "We have obtained a stay order."
The activists now plan to move the High Court to get the stay vacated. Asserts Jabbar: "After taking over the UCC, Dow cannot disown the criminal liability. As for Anderson, the arch villain for Bhopal's gas victims, the CBI has already informed the court that a US law firm engaged by the Government of India to pursue his extradition had stated that chances were slim because of his advancing years and the weak nature of the criminal case, including the sections he has been charged under against him.
Even if the Bhopal court were to proceed with conviction of the accused as charged, the case isn't likely to be over. There are appeals to be made in the sessions court, the High Court and then the Supreme Court. Agrees Jabbar: "Any favourable order of the CJM court will at least be a moral victory for us." But 21 years after the disaster, it would be a little too late.