NEW DELHI | India’s highest court on Tuesday reopened the Bhopal gas-leak case in response to a government petition seeking harsher punishment for the former Union Carbide India Ltd. executives who were convicted in June of negligence in the 1984 accident.
The Indian Supreme Court said it would review its 1996 decision to reduce the charges in the case from culpable homicide to negligence after the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s federal investigative agency, petitioned the court.
In June, seven former chemical company executives were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for their roles in the world’s worst industrial accident, which killed 15,000 people and injured 500,00 in and around Bhopal. The relatively light sentences sparked a national outcry for justice.
Many survivors, their families and victim rights advocates clamored for stiffer penalties (up to 10 years in prison) and more compensation, as well as the extradition and prosecution of Union Carbide Corp.’s former chief executive, Warren Anderson.
India’s government ruled that Union Carbide was not responsible for the actions of its subsidiary in the Bhopal disaster. In 1989, Union Carbide paid India $470 million as a settlement, and the corporation was purchased by Dow Chemical Co. in 2001.
Facing a widespread public outcry, India has sought a claim of 15 billion rupees (about $325 million) from Dow Chemical for the Bhopal case. Dow has refused to pay, saying it cannot be held liable for a company it did not own at the time of the accident.
“The case that was reopened is not related to Union Carbide Corp. or Warren Anderson directly, but it is significant since it can prove that these officials of Union Carbide had prior knowledge of the nature of the factory from which the toxic gas leaked,” said Rachna Dhingra, an activist with Bhopal Group for Information and Action, a victim rights organization.
“The Supreme Court admitted that there was miscarriage of justice in 1996,” she told The Washington Times.
Pressure has been mounting on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to demand compensation from Dow Chemical and to press the Obama administration into extraditing Mr. Anderson, who is believed to be residing in New York.
In August, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram admitted in Parliament that politicians had let down the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak.
“Government’s response to Bhopal was most unsatisfactory, especially the compensation issue. And then, intervention by the judiciary complicated and delayed proceedings,” he said.
The home minister said the Ministry of External Affairs would continue to press for Mr. Anderson’s extradition.
Fallout from the Bhopal case contributed to a long stalemate over legislation that would limit how much foreign companies would pay to the victims of a nuclear accident. The bill was approved in the lower house of the Indian parliament last week after lawmakers agreed to cap a company’s liability at $320 million.