A five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court will hear the Centre’s plea for prosecuting Bhopal gas tragedy case accused, who have escaped with lighter punishment of two years jail term, under the stringent penal provision attracting maximum ten years of imprisonment.
The bench headed by the Chief Justice S H Kapadia will take up the curative petition seeking to recall the apex court’s 14-year-old judgment that had diluted the charges against the accused who were prosecuted just for the offence of being negligent.
The petition filed by CBI sought restoration of the stringent charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder instead of death caused due to negligence against the accused in world’s worst industrial disaster that left over 15,000 people dead and thousands maimed.In order to expedite the hearing of the case, the bench, also comprising justices Altamas Kabir, R V Raveendran, B Sudershan Reddy and Aftab Alam will hear the case on day-to-day basis and after the criminal case it would hear the plea for enhancement of compensation from Rs 750 crore to Rs 7,700 crore for the victims.
Seeking reconsideration of the September 13, 1996, apex court judgment which had whittled down the charge to causing death due to rash and negligent act against former Union Carbide India Chairman Keshub Mahindra and six others, the agency submitted that it was was a “gross miscarriage” of justice.
The bench had on 31st August last decided to re-examine its own judgment that led to lighter punishment of two years imprisonment for all the seven accused after the lighter punishment had triggered a nationwide outrage and it had issued notices to all of them on CBI’s plea for restoration of the stringent charge of culpable homicide.
Besides Mahindra, Vijay Gokhale, the then Managing Director of UCIL, Kishore Kamdar, then Vice President, J N Mukund, then Works Manager, S P Choudhary, then Production Manager, K V Shetty, then Plant Superintendent and S I Quereshi, then Production Assistant were convicted and sentenced to two years’ jail term by a trial court in Bhopal on June 7 last year.
The curative petition in the criminal case was filed after the trial court judgement in the 26-year-old case, following which the Centre appointed a group of ministers (GoM) to recommend steps including ways to get the punishment enhanced.
The charge under section 304 part-II was diluted to section 304A by a bench comprising the then Chief Justice A M Ahmadi and Justice S B Majmudar on the plea of the accused in the 1984 gas disaster case.
All the accused were tried as per the 1996 judgment of the apex court under section 304A of Indian Penal Code which attracts a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment for causing death by a rash and negligent act.
The government had on December 3, the anniversary of the gas tragedy, moved the apex court seeking enhancement of the compensation from Rs 750 crore to Rs 7,700 crore for the victims.
The apex court had on February 28 this year issued notices and sought response from Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), Dow Chemicals Company (which owns UCC since 2001), Mcleod Russel India having 50.9 per cent share-holding of UCIL, and UCIL, which is currently known as Eveready Industries Ltd, on a petition filed by the Centre seeking payment of additional damages from them.
The petition filed by the Centre in the capacity of legal guardian of the victims of the gas tragedy has contended that the figure of 470 million dollars was arrived by the apex court on “incorrect and wrong assumption of facts and data in the impugned judgements”.
The Centre has submitted that the apex court in its 1989 judgement had observed that the settlement was based on certain ‘assumptions of truth’ and if the said assumptions are unrelated to ‘realities’, then the ‘element of justness’ of the settlement would seriously be impaired and liberty was given to approach the court.
The government has asked the apex court to exercise its jurisdiction to address the error in its judgements on the issue “in public interest” apparent.
It said the companies are responsible for the disaster and as such “the tax payers’ money cannot be utilised for meeting the liability of the companies which are tort-feasors (wrong doers)”.
The Centre maintained that UCC and its subsidiary named in its petition were jointly and severally liable for payment of the claims as “it has emerged that basic underlying assumptions of fact and data in the impugned judgements and orders are incorrect, thereby vitiating the very foundation on which the compensation was awarded”.
The Centre contended that in the comprehensive review conducted by it in June, 2010, it has emerged that the figures that formed the basis of the compensation awarded by this court are “completely incorrect”.
It said the compensation in 1989 was decided on the basis of assessment that there were 3000 deaths, 20,000 people with temporary injury and 50,000 with minor injury.
However, the figure as estimated now stands as 5,295 deaths, 35,000 people with temporary injury and 5.27 lakh with minor injury, the petition said.
“In these circumstances, the petitioner is approaching this court for remedying the manifest injustice that has resulted from the incorrect assumptions of fact in the impugned orders pursuant to the liberty granted by this court,” the Centre said in its petition.
The government said filing of the curative petition was an attempt by it “to cure gross miscarriage of justice and perpetration of irremediable injustice being suffered by the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy”.
Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh government has also approached the apex court for enhancement of compensation and to try the accused under the stringent penal provision.