(Recasts, adds details, quotes, background)
BHOPAL, India, June 7 (Reuters) - A court on Monday found the Indian unit of U.S. chemicals firm Union Carbide guilty of negligence and sentenced seven Indian former employees to two years in jail over one of the world’s worst industrial accidents that killed thousands in 1984.
A Union Carbide plant in the central city of Bhopal accidentally released toxic gases into the air towards nearby slums and the government says around 3,500 people died as a result. Activists say 25,000 died in the immediate aftermath and the years that followed.
Seven Indian former employees were sentenced to two years in prison and fined 100,000 rupees ($2,100) in a judgment for which activists have campaigned for a quarter of a century. But activists said the sentences were too light.
The court also fined the former Indian unit of Union Carbide 500,000 rupees ($10,600).
Hundreds of protesters, many waving placards saying “hang the guilty” and “they are traitors of the nation”, tried to force their way inside the court complex but were stopped by police.
“Let us in. They may have been punished, but what about us? There are so many of us who have not received any compensation,” said Shanta Bai, a gas victim.
Ram Prasad, a 75-year-old villager, said: “This punishment is not enough. I lost my son, younger brother and my father and I still have nightmares.”
Keshub Mahindra, the current chairman of India’s top utility vehicle and tractor maker Mahindra & Mahindra (MAHM.BO), was the highest-ranking person convicted on Monday. He was chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd at the time of the accident.
Those convicted can appeal to a higher court, a process that can take years in India.
“This was not an exemplary punishment that would deter corporations from repeating a Bhopal gas disaster,” said Rachna Dhingra, a Bhopal activist. “There’s nothing to be happy about.”
The case cuts deep in a country of 1.2 billion, mainly poor, people. It highlights the challenges of how to ensure improving health and safety regulations keep pace with a fast-growing economy, now Asia’s third largest.
The legacy of the Bhopal disaster looms over a stalled bill in the Indian parliament that would limit the responsibility of foreign firms entering India’s lucrative civilian nuclear market. [ID:nN02176783]
The verdict in Bhopal applied only to Indian officials of the former Union Carbide’s Indian arm. Separate cases have been filed against the company and its overseas officials.
Union Carbide settled its liabilities to the Indian government in 1989 by paying $470 million before being bought by U.S. company Dow Chemical DOW.N.
In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, around 40 metric tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked into the atmosphere and was carried by the wind to the surrounding slums.
Activists and health workers say a further 100,000 people who were exposed to the gas continue to suffer today.
Sicknesses included cancer, blindness, respiratory difficulties, immune and neurological disorders, and female reproductive disorders, as well as birth defects among children born to affected women.
“Delay in justice is practically denial of justice,” India’s law minister M. Veerappa Moily told reporters. “It is most unfortunate that it has taken that much of time to give the verdict. We have to address that issue.”
Activists say thousands of tonnes of toxic waste have not been properly disposed of at the now derelict pesticide factory and seeps into the groundwater for local residents. The government denies the groundwater is contaminated.
Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Paul de Bendern