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By Jyoti Singh

Equivalent citations: 1990 AIR 273, 1989 SCC (2) 540

Petitioner: Union Carbide Corporation

Respondent: Union of India, Etc

Date of Judgment: 04/05/1989

Bench: Pathak, R.S. (Cj), Venkataramiah, E.S. (J), Misra Rangnath, Venkatachalliah, M.N. (J), Ojha, N.D. (J)

Facts of the case: In the year 1934, Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) was incorporated in India. It basically manufactured batteries, chemicals, pesticides, etc. In 1970, it established a pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. On the night of 2-3rd December 1984, highly poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the plant. Although no official death count was undertaken, it is estimated that while the fatalities were about 20,000, the number of people who suffered irreparable physical damage was about 60,000.

The Union of India and Parens Patriae: The Government of India enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 which gave the government the exclusive right to represent the victims by invoking the doctrine of Parens Patriae which allowed the government to protect its people and act on behalf of them in representative capacity. This move was widely criticized as it was seen as an effort to avoid liability which the state would incur if it did not act as the respondent.

Arguments of Petitioner and Respondent: Exercising the position under the Bhopal Act, the Central Government filed a complaint before the Southern District Court in New York arguing that the Indian Judiciary was ill-equipped to handle such complex litigation and did not have much expertise over the law of torts. Further, it was also argued that the delay in the Indian legal system would impede the effective disposal of Justice. However, these arguments of the government were dismissed and Judge John Keenan claimed the doctrine of forum non-conveniens based on which a court can refuse jurisdiction over the fact that there is a more appropriate forum available.

Thus, In September 1986, the Union of India instituted proceedings against UCC in a district court in Bhopal claiming compensation from UCC. The District Court awarded a sum of 350 crores. Upon appeal, the Madhya Pradesh HC reduced it to 250 Crore. Again, UCC filed an appeal before the Supreme Court being aggrieved by the High Court.

Judgment: The Supreme Court ordered UCC to pay a compensation of 750 crores “in full settlement of all claims, rights, and liabilities relating to and arising out of Bhopal Gas Tragedy disaster”. All civil proceedings were disposed and all criminal proceedings quashed. Later, several petitions were filed to revive criminal charges.

Analysis: The judgment has been criticized on several grounds, especially for quashing criminal proceedings in the first place. The pertinent delay and lack of responsibility has often raised the question “If lives in India are less valuable than the rest of the world?” primarily because if such a ghastly act had taken place elsewhere, the grievances of the people would have been actually addressed and the state would not have been allowed to escape the liability. However, if we ignore the downside, we’ll notice that several enactments like the Environmental Protection Act, 1986; Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, etc have been enacted to introduce sustainable and responsible development.

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