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India Reviews Tougher Laws For Industrial Disasters

The Indian government is looking at the need for tougher laws to deal with industrial disasters, amid outrage in India about punishment meted out for the 1984 deadly gas leak in Bhopal from a Union Carbide-owned chemical plant. Thousands of people were killed after inhaling the poisonous gas, while tens of thousands were left coping with serious health ailments.

In the days since a local court handed out two-year prison terms to seven former Indian employees of Union Carbide, many searching questions have been raised about the verdict.

Angry survivors, activists and the media are asking why it took nearly 26 years to get the first convictions in the disaster.

Rachna Dhingra represents the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, which has been working to rehabilitate and get justice for the victims of the gas leak. She blames the government and a slow moving judiciary for the long wait.

"It has gone from one court to another and there has been no will actually to strengthen the case… there has been lack of political will," said Dhingra.

Campaigners have slammed the verdict, calling the two-year prison term for the former top managers "too light." However, lawyers point out that this was the maximum sentence the local court could have handed out for the offense for which the men were tried.

The managers of Union Carbide, who have been granted bail, were originally charged with culpable homicide, which could have resulted in a harsher sentence. But, in 1996, the supreme court reduced the charges to criminal negligence, citing existing laws.

Facing a barrage of criticism for failing to get adequate justice for the tens of thousands of victims of the Bhopal gas leak, the government has said it needs to revisit laws pertaining to the kind of industrial disaster witnessed in Bhopal.

A spokesperson for the ruling Congress Party, Jayanti Natarajan, says a group of nine senior ministers will examine the issue.

"An empowered group of ministers has been set up to study whether any changes in the law are necessary. We are all outraged that the punishment is something that is equal to a traffic accident. We are all aware of that," said Natarajan.

Law Minister Veerappa Moily says India does not have a law to deal with a mass disaster. He has spoken of the need for fast-track courts for such cases and a specific law for such mishaps.

What exactly caused the gas leak is still unclear. Union Carbide blamed it on sabotage by a disgruntled employee. The prosecution argued that it was caused by a design defect in the plant and negligent operational practices. Critics have charged that the company got away with just paying $470 million in compensation.

The government has responded by saying the case against the American head of Union Carbide at the time of the leak is still open. Warren Anderson faces manslaughter charges in India, but the United States has rejected efforts to extradite him.

Acknowledging the huge anger among the victims and survivors of the disaster, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, where Bhopal is located, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, promises to appeal the verdict.

He says the state government will go to a higher court to get a tougher sentence and secure justice for the victims.

Survivors of the tragedy and activists fear that such an appeal is again likely to get entangled in India's slow moving judicial system. However, they are not giving up their quest for justice.

Satinath Sarangi, a prominent activist working with the victims of the gas leak, says the fight could be led by the generation born in the aftermath of the disaster.

"As the young people in Bhopal, the children of survivors have said, that now they will take it along and they will fight till complete justice is done," said Sarangi.

Activists and many politicians say it is important for India to strengthen laws and systems to handle any future mishap, because many foreign corporations are establishing plants and factories in the country to benefit from its booming economy.

They are also urging the government to look closely at proposed legislation which would cap the liabilities of foreign companies planning to establish civil nuclear plants in India to $110 million.

Critics and opposition parties say the government must draw lessons from the Bhopal disaster and modify the controversial Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill to ensure that India will be able to hold private companies responsible for any mishap. The government says there is no connection between the two issues.