India’s top court rejects govt plea seeking more compensation for Bhopal gas disaster victims

India’s Supreme Court has dismissed a petition filed by the federal government that sought additional compensation for the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak.

On the intervening night of 2-3 December 1984, about 500,000 people were poisoned and over 5,000 died in one of the world’s worst industrial accidents when 40 tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas billowed out of Union Carbide – now wholly owned by the US multinational Dow Chemical – pesticide plant in the middle of the night in Madhya Pradesh state’s capital Bhopal.

A settlement was signed in 1989 and overseen by the Supreme Court, that saw the company pay out a total of $470m (£367m) in compensation.

On Tuesday a bench of Justices SK Kaul, Sanjiv Khanna, AS Oka, Vikram Nath and JK Maheshwari said that they were shocked that it took the federal government over two decades to decide that the settlement was not sufficient, reported LiveLaw.

“We are unsatisfied with the Union of India for not furnishing any rationale for raking up this issue after two decades,” the court said.

“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,” the court said.

“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 (Union Carbide).”

The government’s curative petition filed in December 2010 stated that the earlier settlement was based on incorrect assumptions on the numbers of deaths, injuries and losses.

The petition said the earlier figures for death was 3,000 and for injury was 70,000, whereas the actual figures for death is 5,295 and 5,27,894 injuries.

Earlier, activists and victims have also pointed to the agreement being inherently unjust because it played down the numbers of dead and injured.

The court said that the $470m settlement “can be set aside only on the ground of fraud. No ground of fraud has been pleaded by the Union of India” in its petition.

It has also directed the government to release 50 crores (£4.9m) lying with the Reserve Bank of India to “satisfy pending claims”.