On Bhopal Gas tragedy curative petition: Where did the constitutional sympathy for the victims vanish?

Source– The post is based on the article “Upendra Baxi on SC ruling on Bhopal Gas tragedy curative petition: Where did the constitutional sympathy for the victims vanish?” published in “The Indian Express” on 22nd March 2023. 

Syllabus: GS2- Functioning of judiciary 

Relevance– Judicial decisions on important matters 

News – Recently, the Constitution bench of SC disposed of the curative petition related to Bhopal gas tragedy case. 

What are the issues with the court order on curative petition? 

Language used by the SC– The Court considered it an “incident”. As per SC, the case is declared as justly settled by the Court in the past because it amounts to six times more than the compensation for motor accidents.  

This is nothing when Intergenerational impacts on victims are taken into account.  The original Indian suit was for three billion dollars. But a judicial settlement of $470 million is described consistently as just 

The Court’s frequent references to private parties demote them. This is rarely used in constitutional discourse for petitioners who seek relief from injustice or tyranny. 

Legal reasoning- The Court has justified the 1989 Bhopal judicial settlement order because of certain imperatives. It invoked the enormous suffering of the victims. The court said that, without a settlement, immediate funds would not have been available for the victims.  

It also invoked the inadequate assets of Union Carbide India Limited in India. It said that mere sympathy for the sufferers does not enable us to devise a panacea. 

The Court stated that providing closure to the case was also an important aspect. It is more important in the context of Indian judiciary where delay is almost inevitable.  

The argument of being ever too late to plead a fraud is contrary to legislative and administrative principles. The Court says the sovereign state of India is unable to “furnish any rationale for raking up this issue more than two decades after the incident”.  

But one needs to distinguish between mere “raking up” an issue and a genuine policy shift. The Bhopal catastrophe was a “rarest of rare” case deserving curative judicial sympathy. 

The Court further said that reopening the settlement will open a “Pandora’s box” to the detriment of the beneficiaries. Courts can reopen the settlement amount on the grounds that a fraud has been practised in reaching it. 

The counsel for Union Carbide maintained that the Union of India will have to pay back the entire amount of compensation with interest and begin the suit all over again. But the court did not ask the Union government to pursue it. Bhopal Act has provisions for providing funds for the care and justice of Bhopal tragedy victims. 

Neglecting the constitutional principles– The principle of constitutional sympathy was not invoked. Rather, the “settled principles of law” was preferred. Justice and fairness cannot be achieved in the curative petition by mere reiteration of “settled principles of law”. 

The idea of invocation of power to do complete justice was not used by the court. The Court stated that Article 142 would not be an appropriate course of action or a method to impose a greater liability on UCC. 

The Supreme Court should not have abandoned all obligations of care and justice owed to the victims of Bhopal. Our Constitution insists not just on closure, but on just closure. 

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