India’s Supreme Court refuses to give extra compensation in Bhopal gas tragedy

A gas leak from the Union Carbide factory on the night of December 2-3 1984 killed more than 3,000 people and affected 1.02 lakh more.

India’s Supreme Court has given a verdict on the government’s curative plea (filed in December 2010) seeking an additional ₹7,844 crore from successor firms of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) for giving extra compensation to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

The court observed that the central government cannot reopen a settlement arrived at with the company after over 30 years. 

Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, who headed the five-judge Constitution bench, said:

“Courts are not averse to extending the envelope to exercise jurisdiction. But it all depends on the jurisdiction you are dealing with.”

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He added:

“If I am sitting in Article 226 jurisdiction, I would certainly not hesitate to mould the relief wherever required. In a suit, I will be more constrained and here we are in curative. There is ‘maryada’ in the jurisdiction. We as judges are bound by ‘Maryada’ (limit) of jurisdiction.” 

The Supreme Court bench, comprising Justices Sanjeev Khanna, Abhay S Oka, Vikram Nath and JK Maheshwari, presented its disinclination about reopening the issue.

They told Attorney General R Venkataramani:

“The court is not going to step into something which is not permissible and open the pandora box. There was a settlement which was arrived at between the parties and the court has approved it.”   

The AG said the fiduciary relationship concept has grown over a period of time and has been expanded by courts.

“What is worrying in this case is that a lot of issues and questions have remained unanswered. By this curative petition, our endeavour is to elicit such answers.”

The AG clarified to the bench that the government is not seeking to challenge the settlement already arrived at but wants more compensation for the victims of the tragedy.  

Justice Khanna also told the AG that the incident happened in 1984 and the settlement was arrived at in 1989.

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The AG highlighted that between 1992 and 2004, ₹ 1,549 crore was disbursed by the Reserve Bank of India and around ₹ 1,517 crore was paid after 2004 as compensation.

Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for UCC, told the bench that the settlement which was arrived at had no reopener clause in it.

The UCC, owned by Dow Chemicals, gave a compensation of USD 470 million (Rs 715 crore at the time of settlement in 1989) after the toxic methyl isocyanate gas leak from the Union Carbide factory on the night of December 2-3 1984. This gas leak killed more than 3,000 people and affected 1.02 lakh more.

The courts in Bhopal had issued non-bailable warrants against the prime accused UCC chairman Warren Anderson in 1992 and 2009. He died in September 2014 and did not appear for any trial.