SC expresses concern over non-payment of compensation to victims of Bhopal gas tragedy

The five judge bench while considering centre’s plea seeking additional compensation from Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), expressed concern with regards to the undisbursed dues of Rs 50 crore.
Survivors and victims' families of 'Bhopal Gas Tragedy' in Madhya Pradesh during a protest. (File Photo| PTI)
Survivors and victims' families of 'Bhopal Gas Tragedy' in Madhya Pradesh during a protest. (File Photo| PTI)

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed its displeasure over Centre's failure in providing compensation to the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy till now. 

The five judge bench while considering centre’s plea seeking additional compensation from Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) (now Dow Chemical Company), expressed concern with regards to the undisbursed dues of Rs 50 crore which were lying with the centre out of the $470 million paid by the company. 

“We were told that ₹50 crore of the settlement amount is lying undisbursed… Have you not exhausted the settlement amount? How is ₹50 crore lying undisbursed? This means that people are not getting the money… Are you responsible for the money not going to the people?" A five judge bench headed by Justice SK Kaul remarked. He also said, “There are many slippery areas if you say, open the settlement.”

Remarking that the centre without seeking review of its earlier order had opted to directly file a curative plea in 2010 for enhancement of the final settlement paid by UCC, the bench asked centre how it could ask for additional compensation (over Rs 7400 crore) when UCC had already paid Rs 470 million dollar.

Further asking centre as to how could it reopen the settlement, the bench said, “Settlement has arrived at particular stage of time, can we say 10 years hence or 30 years hence open the settlement on the basis of some fresh documents? why did you settle then? One of the parties to the settlement was the Union of India no less, not a weak party… Let's say, on the other hand, a situation arises that the actual scenario is less horrific than made out to be… Can the other side (UCC) come out and say that an excess amount was paid in the settlement and they want the money back? Can we permit that?" 

Referring to SCs 1991 decision wherein the top court had refused to reopen the settlement, Justice Oka said that the same had clarified that any shortfall in the additional compensation to be paid to the victims by the centre. 

Stressing on increase in the number of claimants since 1991, Attorney General (AG) for India R Venkataramani argued that an extraordinary situation was presented by the tragedy. “There’s always situations court has added to settlement if justice of cause demands. We are asking for settlement to be annulled. Amount made over to us was under settlement, figure on number of deaths for temporary damage etc, the figures have gone way more than that,” the AG added. 

Appearing for UCC, Senior Advocate Harish Salve said that UCC wasn’t willing to pay a farthing more if SC sets aside the settlement that was arrived in 1989.  “My client is not willing to pay a farthing more. They say this is what they settled for, and if you (government) don't want the settlement, let the law take its course. That is our submission," Salve said.

“There is settlement. There is no re-opener clause in a settlement. There’s jurisdictional factor where curative jurisdiction was unknown when all this started, a suit was filed by Ggent which was arrived was based on “consent decree” which was sourced from a suit. He also added that the liability of UCC for the tragedy was not established. 

Centre in the plea that was filed in 2010 following a public outcry against the perceived laxity of sentences against the accused’s tried for the gas release had sought for enhancing the 1989 settlement agreement which was negotiated by the UOI with UCC and Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) and SC’s judgement approving the negotiation. 

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