In CUR.PET(C.) Nos.345-347 of 2010-SC- “Money was needed in immediate aftermath of tragedy and not after 3 decades”: SC dismisses Govt’s curative petition seeking reconsideration of settlement effected in aftermath of Bhopal Gas Tragedy
Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Sanjiv Khanna, Abhay S. Oka, Vikram Nath & J.K. Maheshwari [14-03-2023]
Read Judgment: UNION OF INDIA & ORS v. M/S. UNION CARBIDE CORPORATION & ORS
New Delhi, March 17, 2023: A sum of Rs 50 crore lying with the RBI shall be utilised by the Union of India to satisfy pending claims, in accordance with the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 and the Scheme framed thereunder, the Supreme Court has held while rejecting Union Govt’s plea for reopening settlement for victims of Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
“It is the Union’s own stand that the Commissioner has adjudicated all claims through procedure established by law where the possibility of appeal was provided. Further, it has been admitted in the proceedings culminating in this Courts order dated 19.07.2004 that the amount of settlement was found to be in surplus of the actual requirement, and thus the claimants had been provided compensation that was more than what was reasonably awardable to them under law. This reinforces the position that the settlement amount was sufficient to compensate the claimants”, the 5-Judge Bench of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Justice Sanjiv Khanna, Justice Abhay S. Oka, Justice Vikram Nath & Justice J.K. Maheshwari asserted.
In order to provide remuneration to victims who suffered in the tragedy occurred in December 1984, due to the escape of deadly chemical fumes from the factory owned and operated by M/s Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in Bhopal, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 was enacted and Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Registration and Processing of Claims) Scheme, 1985, was framed which dealt with the procedure for filing and processing of claims made to the Welfare Commissioner as per Section 6 of the said Act.
A suit was filed by the Union of India against UCC before the District Judge, Bhopal, seeking compensation of approximately US $ 3.3 billion. The District Judge passed an interim order directing UCC to deposit a sum of Rs 350 crore by way of interim compensation. However, in a revision petitions filed by UCC, this amount was reduced to Rs 250 crore by the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
Being aggrieved by this order, both contesting parties i.e. Union of India and UCC, filed SLPs before this Court. UCC agreed to pay a sum of US $ 470 million to the Union of India in settlement of all claims, rights, and liabilities relating to and arising out of the Bhopal Gas disaster.
The next round in the matter related to an endeavor by private parties to open the settlement by filing a review on the powers of this Court to record a settlement.The compensation was deposited within time but subsequently, certain endeavours were made on behalf of victims from time to time to open up the settlement. However, these were opposed by the Union of India and were not successful. The most recent such attempt was Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan & Anr. V. Union of India & Ors.
This petition seeking to reopen the settlement was broadly predicated on account of wrong assumption of facts and data which undergirded the quantum of the settlement. Centre claimed that there was error in computation of death cases, temporary, minor Injury and other cases.
The Bench noticed that except for cases of minor injuries, the settlement amount was actually in excess. As far as the issue of minor injuries was concerned, it appeared from the Union’s own affidavit that in cases of injury, Rs 50,000 to Rs 4 lakh (original and pro rata compensation) and an additional Rs 50,000 were paid in cases of mere presence in the gas affected areas of Bhopal on the fateful night.
It had also been admitted in the said affidavit that the amount of compensation for all categories was allocated on the higher side, and after disbursal of the leftover amount on a pro rata basis, the overall rate of compensation has in fact been doubled. The Bench also noted that as per the Attorney General, a figure of Rs 50 crore remained with the Reserve Bank of India lying undisbursed.
Clarifying that it was the Union’s own stand that the Commissioner had adjudicated all claims through procedure established by law where the possibility of appeal was provided, the bench opined, “ Union of India’s claim for a top up has no foundations in any known legal principle. Either a settlement is valid or it is to be set aside in cases where it is vitiated by fraud. No such fraud has been pleaded by the Union, and their only contention relates to a number of victims, injuries, and costs that were not contemplated at the time the settlement was effected.”
Even assuming that the figures of affected persons turned out to be larger than contemplated earlier, the Bench held that an excess amount of funds remained available to satisfy such claims.
Not only this but the Top Court noted that the Welfare Commissioner had held in its 2009 order that on including the pro rata compensation, nearly 6 times the amount of compensation had been disbursed to victims in comparison with Motor Vehicle Accident claims.
“The money was needed in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and not after three decades”,the Bench said while making it clear that finality was reached at an early stage by way of the settlement and endeavours to reopen the same proved unsuccessful.
Dismissing the petition, the Bench further held, “Private parties who are here before us seek to ride on the coattails of the Union. This is not something we can countenance.”
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