Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Supreme Court Dismisses Union Govt's Petition Seeking to Reopen Settlement

A settlement, the Supreme Court said, can only be set aside on account of fraud. The Union government has not argued that there was fraud in this matter.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday (March 14) dismissed the Union government’s curative petition seeking more compensation from Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) for victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984. The Centre had wanted to reopen discussions on a settlement that had been reached with the company.

A settlement, the Supreme Court said, can only be set aside on account of fraud. In this case, LiveLaw reported, the Union government has not claimed that fraud has taken place. The bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Sanjiv Khanna, Abhay S. Oka, Vikram Nath and J.K. Maheshwari said that reopening the settlement would likely only work in the company’s favour, and also told the government to use Rs 50 crore lying with the Reserve Bank of India to address any pending claims.

“The method to impose greater liability on UCC is not warranted. We are disappointed in the union for not having addressed this. Nearly 6 times compensation has been disbursed to the victims compared to the pro rata. Centre to use ₹50 crores lying with RBI to address the needs of the claimants in the Bhopal gas tragedy case. If it is reopened, then it will only work in favour of UCC by opening a pandora’s box and will be to the detriment of the claimants,” the court said, according to Bar and Bench.

The court also noted that despite its directive, the Union government had failed to take out insurance policies:

“The Union has filed the curative petition seeking to reopen the settlement. The responsibility was placed on the Union of India, being a welfare state, to make good the deficiency( in the compensation) and to take out the relevant insurance policy. Surprisingly, we are informed that no such insurance policy was taken out. This is gross negligence on the part of Union and in breach of the judgment of this Court. The Union cannot be negligent on this aspect and then seek a prayer from this Court to fix such responsibility on the UCC.”

On January 12 this year, the bench had reserved its judgment in the case. However, comments made by the judges during the hearing had suggested that the court was unhappy with the Centre’s petition. “The settlement was arrived at a particular stage of time. 10-20 years later can we open it up again on the basis of some fresh documents? It was by two parties. One of them is the Union of India, not a weak party. What has been troubling us is the scope of this after the period of time. Maybe you are right that settlement was not the best. But can we reopen it?” the judges had said.

The Union government, in a curative plea, had contended that the 1989 settlement does not cover the required compensation amount, and so sought an additional Rs 7,400 crore from Union Carbide. This, the government has argued, is because new data has revealed the true extent of human suffering caused by the gas leak.

The pesticide company, however, has refused to release any additional money. “My client is not willing to pay a farthing more. They say this is what they settled for, and if you (government) don’t want the settlement, let the law take its course. That is our submission,” senior advocate Harish Salve said on behalf of Union Carbide, according to The Hindu.

Writing in The Wire, N.D. Jayaprakash explained why the settlement amount was found to be grossly inadequate, and why even now the government does not really have the full picture on the effects of the tragedy:

“…each gas victim received less than one-fifth of the compensation that he or she should have received as per the terms of the settlement. This is because the settlement fund, which was quantified on the assumption that there were only 105,000 gas victims, was actually disbursed among five times that many (573,000+) gas victims, i.e., to 468,000+ additional gas victims, who were not recognised as gas victims at the time of the settlement.

…The government of India has also been lax in carrying out medical surveillance of the gas exposed population of Bhopal since 1991.

However, it is an admitted fact that every day on an average about 4,000 gas victims visit six hospitals and 18 clinics run by the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief & Rehabilitation Department (BGTRRD) of the state government.

In addition, on an average, every day, over 2,000 gas victims visit Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre and its eight units. By what stretch of imagination can these gas victims, who continue to visit gas relief hospitals and clinics (on more than 2,000,000 occasions every year even during the last two decades) for treatment of gas-related ailments, be classified as suffering from just “minor injuries” and as remaining just “temporarily injured” even 38 years after the disaster?”