It is more than 25 years now since the world's worst industrial disaster, the massive gas leak at Bhopal in which thousands died. But it is only now that a court has secured the first – and in all likelihood, the last – convictions. Eight former managers at the plant have been found guilty of causing death by negligence; one of them posthumously. Each was sentenced to two years in prison and fined the equivalent of $2,000.
It is shamefully obvious that both the charges, which were scaled down over the years, and the penalties, are derisory. This was a huge chemical disaster. The thousands killed and injured at the time constitute only a small proportion of those affected. Thousands more suffered, and still suffer, from chronic illnesses. The high incidence of birth defects is evidence that the effects of the disaster are passing into the next generation; the land where the plant stood is blighted. Two years' imprisonment and a fine a quarter of a century on bear scant relation to the toll.
It is, or should be, shamefully obvious, too, that those who have been tried and convicted are some way down the pecking order of responsibility for what happened – and they are all Indian nationals. The US chairman of Union Carbide at the time was charged, but never faced the court. This leaves the deeply unpleasant impression that rich, white industrialists can ruin a much poorer land with impunity, leaving their native employees to carry the can. Union Carbide got away with paying relatively modest compensation to the Indian government, which funded a hospital and paid $1,000 to each survivor in full and final settlement.
Yet things are not quite so simple. Had those most affected not been at the very bottom of India's social scale, the Indian government might well have fought harder for decent compensation. The time taken between charges and convictions is an indictment of India's bureaucracy and its protracted approach to justice. And the unfolding oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is already demonstrating the complexities of establishing legal culpability, where the company, its executives, its on-site workers, its sub-contractors and the state regulators all have a role.
The very least that anyone is entitled to expect is that the damage is, so far as possible, repaired; those who suffer losses are fairly compensated and those responsible are found and brought to justice. Where international conglomerates are concerned, however, criss-crossing interests and jurisdictions still leave glaring gaps.