New Delhi: Fourteen years after it had diluted charges in the Bhopal gas leak case, the Supreme Court on Tuesday decided to re-examine its own judgement that led to lighter punishment of two years imprisonment for the accused including former Union Carbide India Chairman Keshub Mahindra.
The court sought response from the seven accused on the CBI plea seeking restoration of the stringent charge of culpable homicide, which attracts a maximum punishment of 10 years' jail term, against them for the world's worst industrial disaster that left over 15,000 people dead and thousands maimed.
In chamber proceedings, a bench comprising Chief Justice S H Kapadia and Justices Altamas Kabir and R V Raveendran, issued notices on the curative petition filed by CBI seeking recall of the apex court's 1996 judgement that had diluted the offence.
The curative petition was filed after a nationwide outrage over the trial court judgement in the 26-year-old case following which the Centre appointed a Group of Ministers (GoM) to recommend steps including ways to get the punishment enhanced.
The charge under section 304 part-II was diluted to section 304A by a bench comprising the then Chief Justice A M Ahmadi and Justice S B Majmudar on the plea of the accused in the 1984 gas disaster case.
Today's decision of the court was communicated to the Attorney General G E Vahanvati and the matter will be heard after the completion of process of service of the notice.
The CBI has sought reconsideration of the September 13, 1996 apex court judgement which had whittled down the charge to 'causing death due to rash and negligent ' against Mahindra and six others.
Besides Mahindra, Vijay Gokhale, the then Managing Director of UCIL, Kishore Kamdar, then Vice President, J N Mukund, then Works Manager, S P Choudhary, then Production Manager, K V Shetty, then Plant Superintendent and S I Quereshi, then Production Assistant were convicted and sentenced to two years' jail term by a trial court in Bhopal on June 7 this year.
The trial court verdict had sparked an outrage with activists and political parties seeking an appeal against it, maintaining the accused had been tried under a less stringent provision of law.
All the accused were tried as per the 1996 judgement of the apex court under section 304A of Indian Penal Code which attracts a maximum punishment of two years' imprisonment for causing death by a rash and negligent act.
The CBI, which described the case as one of the rarest of rare cases, had urged the apex court to invoke its inherent power in public interest to address and remedy errors apparent on the face of record in the 1996 judgement.
The apex court had on March 10, 1997 also dismissed the petition filed by an NGO, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti, seeking a review of the 1996 judgement diluting the charge.
After the public outrage against the trial court verdict, the GoM (Group of Ministers) of the Centre on Bhopal gas tragedy recommended on June 20 that CBI file the curative petition. It also decided to fix criminal liability against former UCC CEO Warren Anderson and seek his extradition from the US.
In the curative petition, the CBI said the 1996 verdict suffered from serious errors as the charges under Section 304 Part II of IPC against the accused were quashed by the apex court without any consideration of the material placed by the prosecution at that stage.
"Besides, in the course of trial, categorical evidence has now come to light, which unequivocally points to the commission of offences under Section 304 Part II of the IPC by the respondents/accused persons," the curative petition said.
"This curative petition is an attempt by the state to set right this gross miscarriage and perpetuation of irremediable injustice being suffered by the victims in particular, the society at large, and the nation as a whole," CBI said.
The agency relied on the August 1, 1995, judgement of the Madhya Pradesh High Court and the final verdict delivered by the trial court on June 7 to buttress the point that the accused should have been prosecuted under the original charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
The agency said there were sufficient material to indicate that the accused were having knowledge with regard to the consequence of their act.
It claimed the accused had knowledge about the inherent defects in the operation and maintenance of the plant and no action was taken to rectify them.
The agency has sought condoning of delay in filing the curative petition in public interest.
The CBI said that even the trial court had made the observation that there was utter disregard to the safety standards and safety procedures in the plant.
The Supreme Court's decision was welcomed by Gas Pidit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, an outfit fighting for justice to survivors of the worst industrial disaster. Founder of the outfit Abdul Jabbar and an activist Satinath Sarangi expressed the hope that justice would be delivered soon.
Attorney General G E Vahanvati said his sincere efforts would be to get the petition heard by the apex court.
"If the charges are not framed under 304 part II as we think they should be, then perhaps the consequences for Warren Anderson will also be quite serious. First of all, we have to get the curative petition heard," Vahanvati who had settled the curative petition said.
S R Mohanty, Principal Secretary, Madhya Pradesh government, said "as far as curative petition is concerned, yes, we are happy that CBI took it up and the SC had issued notice. This opens the possibility of meeting the ends of justice."
"This is vindication of the action of the state government. Soon after the June 7, 2010 verdict, the state government set up a committee of experts which suggested that we should approach the Supreme Court to ensure that a curative petition was filed so that the apparent unfairness in the quantum of punishment which has been handed out can be relooked at," he said.
Sunita Narain, Chairman of Centre for Science and Environment, said the apex court's decision has assured that "we are perhaps on the road to justice". "We should applaud the Supreme Court for showing that there is a possibility of doing justice in this country. It shows that perhaps we are on the road to justice finally," Narain said.
"It's very big step. The case is reopened. It's a very big battle. We are beginning to smell justice for once," the environmentalist said. PTI