Bringing down the curtains on legal proceedings that continued for almost four decades, a five-judge constitution bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Sanjiv Khanna, Abhay S Oka, Vikram Nath and J K Maheshwari rejected the curative petition — the last resort in court proceedings — filed by the Centre for compensation above the amount of $470 million (around Rs 750 crore) paid by the US company in 1989 towards full and final settlement covering all litigations, claims and liabilities arising out of the industrial disaster that claimed 5,295 lives.
Seeking enhanced compensation, the Centre submitted that damage done to life and environment wasn’t estimated properly in 1989 and more people died or suffered over the years, which must be taken into account. But the court said there was no legal foundation in the Centre’s demand for more compensation and that too after agreeing to the mutually acceptable settlement.
The government and the company had signed on the settlement in 1989, and it was also approved by the apex court. Some NGOs and affected people had challenged the SC’s order by filing review petitions that were dismissed, but the Centre preferred not to seek a review then. It filed the curative petition in 2010 and the apex court took 13 years to decide it.
The court not only did not find merit in the Centre’s claim and disapproved its decision to rake up the issue, but also said that there was “gross negligence” on the part of the government by not providing insurance cover to the survivors of 1984 tragedy as directed by the court in its verdict.
Finding holes in the Centre’s claim, the court pointed out that the government had itself claimed that the settlement amount was sufficient for compensation and even the welfare commissioner had said in his report that all affected people had been compensated and the amount was six times more than the compensation paid in road accidents cases in the country. The court also noted that Rs 50 crore out of the settlement amount remained unutilised.
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“We are unsatisfied with the Union of India for not furnishing any rationale for raking up this issue,” the court said.
Pulling up the Centre for not providing insurance cover to the victims, the court said, “The responsibility was placed on the Union of India, being a welfare state, to make good the deficiency and take out the relevant insurance policy. Surprisingly, we are informed no such insurance was taken out. This is gross negligence on the part of the Union and in breach of the judgment of this court. The Union cannot be negligent on this aspect and then seek a prayer from this court to fix such responsibility on Union Carbide.”
Tragedy struck Bhopal on the intervening night of December 2-3,1984 when the highly dangerous and toxic gas, methyl isocynate (MIC), escaped from the factory of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). It resulted in the death of 5,295 people, injuries to almost 5,68,292, besides loss of livestock and loss of property.
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The court during the hearing said that government seeking re-opening of the final settlement could have wider ramification as there would be no sanctity to Centre’s assurance, particularly when many international companies are coming in the country for investment. The bench said that it was a mutually acceptable settlement and the “sanctity of the settlement” would go away in case of re-opening of the case.
The company had strongly opposed the Centre’s plea and said the settlement was accepted by the apex court after more than sufficient judicial scrutiny and the Centre after having benefited from the readily available settlement fund cannot now question the quantum of settlement.
“If this settlement were to be set aside, the appeal by UCC and the suit by Union of India in the district court in Bhopal would revive and in the first instance UOI would have to lead the evidence to establish liability against UCC, and UCC shall be entitled to have $470 million brought by it, to be remitted by UOI with interest,” the company said in its response.
Watch Supreme Court rejects Centre’s curative plea for enhanced compensation for the victims of 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy