ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Undoing the Supreme Follies: The Receding Prospects of Justice for Bhopal

Justice is at a dead end for the victims of Bhopal's chemical holocaust. The new political common sense is that this is the outcome of an intrusion by the judiciary into areas it had no business entering, and a concurrent abdication of responsibility by the executive and legislature. The government has taken the onus of tidying up the mess, but this job is unlikely to be easy, given that it needs the judicial imprimatur at every step. If it plays true to form, the judiciary is likely to be more concerned with defending its dubious track record than with upholding the cause of justice.

Bhopal has etched itself in public memory as a term that sums up several themes: criminal negligence, the collapse of supposedly fail-safe technological systems and thousands left dead. To that could be added more unsavoury dimensions: a failure of accountability, the denial of a fair opportunity for the victims and survivors to put their lives back on track and indeed, a collapse of the system of law and justice in a welter of self-serving and mutually contradictory judicial pronouncements. Apart from the wounds, the physical disabilities and the psychological scars which continue to take a heavy toll, Bhopal leaves an e nduring legacy of disregard for human life, fallible political institutions, and judicial ineptitude.

Responding to a debate in Parliament during its recent monsoon session, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram admitted to a “deep sense of guilt” at how the process of justice for Bhopal had run aground, since the executive branch of government and the legislature had failed to exercise the “vigil and the supervision that the situation warranted”. The “elected political class” of India, he said, “had let down the victims of Bhopal” and this abdication had been enabled, indeed facilitated by the intrusive attentions of the judiciary. For years together, said Chidambaram, the executive and the legislature sat back as the judiciary took on virtually the entire onus of righting the wrongs of Bhopal. This was a grievous error, in fact a thorough miscarriage of the process of governance, in Chidambaram’s retrospective assessment.

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