Dow Chemical Corporation has, for the first time, been summoned before an Indian criminal court seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the deadly 1984 Bhopal gas leak.
The US chemicals giant is ordered to appear before the court in Bhopal and explain why Union Carbide, the company that ran the plant, has never turned up to answer charges of culpable homicide. Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001.
Campaigners for the victims of the world's worst industrial accident hailed the Indian court's decision as a "break-through" and a significant move towards piercing the "corporate veil" which has been used by Union Carbide to avoid criminal proceedings. A "notice" has been issued by Anil Kumar Gupta, the chief judicial magistrate at Bhopal, for Dow to appear before his court.
Raj Sharma, a lawyer for the victims, said: "This is a significant step forward towards finally compelling Union Carbide to address its unresolved criminal liability for the Bhopal disaster. Now, it is time for Dow Chemical and Union Carbide to defend their repeated public protestations of innocence before a court of law."
However a Dow spokesman, Scot Wheeler, insisted that, despite the court notice, "as of this time, The Dow Chemical Company has not been served in relation to this legal proceeding".
In the early hours of 3 December 1984, 40 tonnes of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate gas escaped from the Union Carbide plant. According to official figures, nearly 3,000 people died on that night and there have since been nearly 15,000 deaths related to the accident.
Attempts to bring criminal charges have been hampered by the refusal of Union Carbide, and its former chairman Warren Anderson, to appear in the court. The US Union Carbide business claimed after the accident that its majority-owned Indian venture was independent. Since Dow acquired 100 per cent of Union Carbide three years ago, Dow, in turn, has claimed that Union Carbide is a separate legal entity.