Bhopal's long injustice

The people most responsible for the disaster in Bhopal were not in the courtroom today when the verdict against eight Indian employees of Union Carbide India Limited was announced. Union Carbide Corporation (US), its former chairman Warren Anderson, and Union Carbide Eastern have been refusing since 1992 to obey the summons of the Bhopal court and answer charges of culpable homicide. The evidence against them remains unheard. Instead the prosecution focused on the small fry, the Indian managers, while the case that they were ultimately carrying out orders that originated in the US has not been tried.

This morning roads within a mile of the court were barricaded, public gatherings were banned, and police with batons were out in force. People who had waited 26 years for justice gathered in the streets to await the verdict pronounced on the Indian accused. Reports that all the defendants had been found guilty produced short-lived joy, but news of the sentences left the crowds shocked, disbelieving, disgusted, angry.

The company fined $11,000 for causing the deaths of more than 20,000 people? That's 55 cents a death. What of the quarter of a century of suffering endured by more than 100,000 sick survivors? Eleven cents apiece. As criminal damages go, never has a lower price been set on human life and health.

As for the seven accused (one had died during the 18-year trial), they were fined paltry amounts and sentenced to two years, but of course they are already all out on bail. "It's insulting!" one Bhopali woman shouted. "They deserved death," cried another. But no one should have been surprised at the lenience of the sentencing. All of this could have been foreseen.

I have spent the last month restructuring the website, going through a quarter of a century of press cuttings, documents, photographs and posts by successive website editors. What we can begin to piece together is the forming of a deal. Both the American administration and its allies in India were desperate that US executives should not be pursued. A 2003 email from a US ministry of justice official reveals that "extensive discussions with India in the past about pursuing a criminal homicide case against UCC executives would not be helpful". I do not have space in this piece to list the rash decisions, mad cost-cutting and cutbacks on safety and maintenance ordered from the US that can be traced to the accident, but details and source documents are on the site.

The US administration and its allies in India were desperate that American executives should not face criminal charges. But could the Indian accused be persuaded to take the rap? The first thing would be to dilute charges against them so they would not risk the 10 years associated with the original charge of "culpable homicide". Justice Ahmadi of the supreme court obligingly reduced the charges to "a rash and negligent act" with a level of culpability like that of a careless driver in a road traffic accident.

Next, in November 1996, the CBI – India's equivalent of the FBI – told the Bhopal court that in the light of the decision to reduce the charges against the Indian accused, it was looking afresh at the question of extraditing Anderson, who by this time had been "an absconder from justice" for four years. The CBI is run out of an obscure department headed by the Indian prime minister. It thought about Anderson's extradition for six years, then entered a plea in the Bhopal court to dilute the criminal charges against Anderson, the American parent UCC, and Union Carbide Eastern to bring them in line with the reduced charges faced by the Indian accused. Had this succeeded, there would have been no question of extraditing anyone, because "a rash and negligent act" isn't an extraditable offence.

There was never going to be justice in this case. The long trial has been a farce, its outcome decided in the US 25 years ago.

Indra Sinha, a British writer of British and Indian descent.