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The Bhopal disaster

Photo: AP Photo/Prakash Hatvalne

Court rulings come slowly in India, a country known for its bureaucratic justice system. It has been nearly 26 years since toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, initially killing more than 3,000 people and sickening hundreds of thousands more. On Monday, an Indian court convicted seven former top employees at the U.S. company’s Indian subsidiary for playing a part in the disaster. Each of the employees was sentenced to just two years in prison, according to the BBC, sparking outrage across the country.

Here are five things you need to know about the incident and its fallout, nearly three decades later:

The chemical

Methyl isocyanate is a colorless liquid used to produce pesticides. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, inhaling the chemical causes “tract irritation, difficulty breathing, blindness, nausea, gastritis, sweating, fever, chills, and liver and kidney damage.” Most of the immediate deaths in the Bhopal disaster were due to the build-up of fluids in the victims’ lungs. Exposure to methyl isocyanate also causes long-term damages to the lungs and the eyes.

The ruling

Activists and victims of the Bhopal disaster have protested the ruling, saying the Indian justice system took too long to arrive at an unsatisfying decision. In a statement, Audrey Gaughran, a director of Amnesty International, said, “Twenty-five years is an unacceptable length of time for the survivors of the disaster and families of the dead to have waited for a criminal trial to reach a conclusion.” The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal also wrote on its website that the trial took too long, and placed the blame for the disaster on U.S. executives.

The payout

In 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million to the victims of the disaster and their families. That figure is less than 16 percent of the $3 billion dollars that the Indian government originally demanded in a lawsuit against the company. In Monday’s ruling, the seven convicted former employees were ordered to pay fines of 100,000 rupees (a little over $2,000) each.

The fugitive

While seven top Indian employees of Union Carbide were held accountable in the ruling, Warren Anderson, the CEO of the company at the time of the disaster, managed to elude the court system — literally. According to The Times of India, an Indian court declared Anderson “an absconder and a fugitive from justice” after he fled on bail to the U.S. to avoid prosecution. Anderson, now 89, lives in a million-dollar house on Long Island and refuses to return to India to face criminal charges.

The aftermath

Although the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal has long since shuttered, the site has not been properly cleaned or dismantled (Union Carbide became a part of Dow Chemical Company in 2001). According to the BCC documentary “The Curse of Bhopal,” large parts of the factory remain intact, and toxic chemicals continue to leak into the population’s water supply. The Indian government estimates that the Bhopal disaster has been responsible for as many as 15,000 deaths to date.

For more on the Bhopal disaster and its aftermath, see this and other segments from Worldfocus: