Over a quarter of a century after tens of thousands of people were killed in one of the world's most notorious industrial accidents, activists in Bhopal reacted angrily when a court handed down jail terms of just two years to former officials who oversaw the pesticide plant that leaked clouds of poisonous gas.
Around 8,000 people died within hours of 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas being accidentally pumped into the air in the central Indian city in 1984. Perhaps double that perished in the subsequent months and years from a variety of diseases caused by the leak.
Children there continue to be born with an unusually high incidence of abnormalities.
Yesterday a court in Bhopal convicted seven former employees of an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide, the US-based company that built and operated the pesticide plant. The officials, all of them Indian, were found guilty of death by negligence and sentenced to two years, but were released on bail pending an appeal.
They were the first criminal convictions brought in association with the tragedy. Having fought for more than 25 years, survivors and activists said the sentences were insufficient. They condemned an earlier court decision to reduce the charges from “culpable homicide” and criticised the Indian government for not doing more to hold senior US officials to account.
“It's terrible,” said Rachna Dhingra, of the Bhopal Group for Infor
mation and Action. “This is what comes after 25,000 deaths. This is an open invitation to multinational corporations to come and pollute and then leave without (responsibility).”
It was five past midnight on December 3, 1984 when toxic chemicals poured into the air after water entered a holding tank and triggered a violent reaction. While the precise details of what went wrong are still disputed, there is convincing evidence that lack of maintenance and corrosion were factors. The plant had no adequate plan for dealing with such a disaster.
Within minutes the gas engulfed the impoverished shanty communities next to the plant. Thousands of people died in their sleep, while at hospitals and clinics corpses piled up. Mass burials and cremations were organised.
The struggle for justice over the incident has been twisting and arduous, even by the slow standards of India's legal system.
In 1989 the federal government brokered a deal whereby Union Carbide paid $470m (£313m) in a “full and final” settlement that saw victims receive around $550 each.
Last night Amnesty International called on the Indian government to pursue legal action against Union Carbide officials in the US.