NEW DELHI, May 11 (Reuters) - India’s top court on Wednesday dismissed a government petition seeking harsher sentences for seven people convicted for their role in the Bhopal industrial disaster that killed thousands of people in 1984.
The seven employees of U.S.chemical firm Union Carbide, whose plant leaked toxic gases, were given two years imprisonment by a lower court last June for negligence leading to the world’s worst industrial accident.
The court decision sparked outrage and forced the government to approach the Supreme Court to seek a tougher penalty on grounds of homicide.
But the Supreme Court said there was not enough reason to build a case of culpable homicide which could lead to a stiffer sentence.
“The materials produced do not meet the requirement (for homicide),” Chief Justice Sarosh Homi Kapadia said as he read out the judgement.
The court’s order will be a relief for the convicted, who include Keshub Mahindra, the current chairman of India’s top utility vehicle and tractor maker Mahindra & Mahindra . He was the chairman of Union Carbide India in 1984.
In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, around 40 metric tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked into the atmosphere and was carried by the wind to surrounding slums of Bhopal in central India.
Activists say 25,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the accident and in ensuing years, and about 100,000 people who were exposed to the gas continue to suffer today from ailments that range from cancer, blindness to birth defects.
“What is the message the Supreme Court is sending? The message is that you (firms) can come, you can maim, you can kill and you can get away with two years,” activist Satinath Sarangi told CNN-IBN television on Wednesday.
Union Carbide settled its liabilities with the Indian government by paying $470 million for the victims. It sold off its Indian operations to a local firm, before itself being itself bought by Dow Chemicals .
The government is trying to see if Dow can be held liable and be forced to pay up more compensation. Dow denies any responsibility.
Reporting by R. Venkat Raman, writing by C.J. Kuncheria; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani