BHOPAL, India -An Indian court sentenced the former top managers of the company blamed for the massive Bhopal gas leak 25 years ago to two years in prison on Monday in the first convictions over the catastrophe.
Eight people were found guilty in the local court in Bhopal, capital of central Madhya Pradesh state, over the 1984 incident which poisoned tens of thousands of people in the world’s worst industrial accident.
A lethal plume of gas escaped from a storage tank at the US-run Union Carbide pesticide factory in the early hours of December 3, 1984, killing thousands in the surrounding slums and residential area.
Among those found guilty of criminal negligence was the chairman of the Indian unit of US group Union Carbide, Keshub Mahindra, a leading industrialist who is now chairman of car and truck group Mahindra & Mahindra.
The guilty, also including the managing director, the production manager and the plant supervisor, were all sentenced to two years in prison and were ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 rupees (2,100 dollars), lawyers told reporters.
All of them are now expected to launch appeals and will not be jailed immediately. One of the eight convicted, R.B. Roychoudhury, has already died.
Warren Anderson, the American then-chairman of the US-based Union Carbide parent group, was among the accused but he was not named in the verdicts after the Bhopal court declared him an “absconder”.
The company executives were originally charged with culpable homicide but — to the outrage of survivors and victims — the Supreme Court in 1996 reduced the charges to death by negligence with maximum imprisonment of just two years.
“Even with the guilty judgement, what does two years’ punishment mean?” Sadhna Karnik, of the Bhopal Gas Victims Struggle group, told AFP.
“They will be able to appeal against the judgement in higher courts,” he said.
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.
“Justice has been delayed and denied,” read one placard.
Government figures put the death toll at 3,500 within the first three days of the leak but independent data by the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) puts the figure at between 8,000 and 10,000 in the same period.
The ICMR has said that until 1994, 25,000 people also died from the consequences of gas exposure, with victim groups saying many were still suffering from the effects to this day.
Survivors remember their eyes grew huge and red after the leak and they began frothing at the mouth and vomiting after inhaling the gas. Many recall hundreds of dead lying in the streets.
Government statistics compiled after 1994 concluded that at least 100,000 people living near the factory were chronically sick, with more than 30,000 residing in areas with contaminated water.
A study last year by the Britain-based Bhopal Medical Appeal said the shanty towns surrounding the site were still laced with lethal chemicals that are polluting groundwater and soil, causing birth defects and a range of illnesses.
Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide in 1999 but says all liabilities related to the accident were cleared in a 470-million-dollar out-of-court settlement with the Indian government in 1989.
A statement released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the disaster said the settlement “resolved all existing and future claims” against the company.
Union Carbide “did all it could to help the victims and their families” until the settlement and said the Indian government should be responsible for providing clean drinking water and health services to residents, it said.
The company said at the time and continues to insist that sabotage was behind the leak, but the victims have long fought for it to provide further compensation and for its senior staff to face justice.
One victims’ group member, Satyanath Sarangi, described the maximum two-year sentence as comparable to the punishment for a “traffic accident.”
“We will continue our fight,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described Bhopal as a tragedy that “still gnaws at our collective conscience” and has vowed continued efforts to tackle the issues of drinking water and site decontamination.