BHOPAL, India (Reuters) - A court on Monday convicted seven Indian former employees of U.S. chemical firm Union Carbide of negligence and sentenced them to two years in jail for the world’s worst industrial accident that killed thousands in 1984.
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 as a judgment for which activists have campaigned for a quarter-century was delivered.
“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.
The government says around 3,500 people died after a Union Carbide plant in the central city of Bhopal accidentally released toxic gases into the air toward nearby slums.
Activists say 25,000 died in the immediate aftermath and the years that followed.
The seven former employees were also fined 100,000 rupees ($2,100), while the former Indian arm of Union Carbide was convicted of the same offence of negligence and fined 500,000 rupees ($10,600). An eighth employee who was accused has died.
Activists and survivors said the sentences were too light and too long in coming through India’s notoriously slow-moving justice system, which has a shortage of judges struggling to clear millions of cases in backlog.
The Supreme Court in 1996 also ruled the accused could not be tried for culpable homicide but only for negligence, which carries a shorter sentence.
“This punishment is not enough. I lost my son, younger brother and my father and I still have nightmares,” said Ram Prasad, a 75-year-old villager.
Keshub Mahindra, the current chairman of India’s top utility vehicle and tractor maker Mahindra & Mahindra, 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. All the sentenced were granted immediate bail for 25,000 rupees each.
“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.
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.
A criminal case is pending against the then CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, whom lawyers say is responsible for the disaster and the contamination of the soil and water around the factory. There is a warrant for Anderson’s arrest in India.
Union Carbide settled its liabilities to the Indian government in 1989 by paying $470 million before being bought by U.S. company Dow Chemical.
Union Carbide issued a statement after the verdict to emphasize it had sold off its entire stake in company’s Indian unit, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), in 1994. The company was renamed Eveready Industries.
“All the appropriate people from UCIL -- officers and those who actually ran the plant on a daily basis -- have appeared to face charges. Union Carbide and its officials were not part of this case since the charges were divided long ago into a separate case,” a company statement said.
“Furthermore, Union Carbide and its officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian court since they did not have any involvement in the operation of the plant, which was owned and operated by UCIL.”
In the early hours of December 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.
Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee Alex Richardson and Sanjeev Miglani