If govt feels victims are entitled, pay them, SC tells Centre

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday told the Central government it was not prohibited from granting relief to the Bhopal gas tragedy victims, and it cannot absolve from itself from the welfare state principle saying that its stand was that it “take it from them (successor firms of Union Carbide Corporation) (and) “as and when taken from them”, it will pay.

A five-judge constitution bench headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and comprising Justices Sanjeev Khanna, Abhay S. Oka, Vikram Nath and J.K. Maheshwari, grilled Attorney General R Venkataramani, representing the Centre, as to how could it file a curative petition without filing the review.

The bench told the AG that the central government was not prohibited from granting relief to the Bhopal gas tragedy victims.

It said: “Their (successor firms of Union Carbide Corporation) argument is that you are opening the whole thing. You said we are not opening the whole thing… you are saying accept more liability. If they are willing, then no problem, but they are saying ‘No you chose to enter into a settlement, not under any duress or pressure that is nobody’s case, can’t be’.”

The bench further added that if the government feels victims are entitled to be paid more, “please pay them… the question is what we should do in curative petition… Pay them, most welcome to do”.

The bench told the AG as a welfare society “if you are so concerned you want to pay more; you should have paid more”.

As the AG replied that if Union of India was delinquent, then all these questions would have been answered, but somebody else is delinquent, the bench said: “No, absolutely no… you as a welfare state adopt a different principle whatsoever, whether you are liable or not.”

Justice Kaul said, “I am saying, is it I don’t want to pay but I can get it from…..”. The AG then said the question is who should back the liability to pay.

The bench said: “Have you paid them extra, you want to absolve yourself from the welfare state principle, and want to say I will take it from them, as and when taken from them, I will pay.”

Venkataramani said in 2010, the government paid the ex-gratia and “we accepted that the government of India should discharge its responsibility”. He contended the welfare state issue is not connected with the liability in the present matter.

During the daylong hearing, the bench shot a volley of questions at the AG in connection with the re-opening of the settlement. The bench said that “tomorrow the government might say that the air travelled much more beyond Bhopal, and it would like to give benefit to people at the peripheral areas”, as it emphasised that there should be some directness with the liability.

The bench asked the AG, how could the government file the curative without review and ask the court not to look at it so technically, but there are rules.

It further added that it is easy to get emotive on the issue, but it cannot play to the gallery and stressed that how could the government rescind the settlement arrived with the Union Carbide Corporation.

The bench said, “How do we reopen everything… different dispensations remained in different times. Everybody had their own perspective, how this issue has to be addressed, how this tragedy has to be addressed.”

The AG said the concerns of the state government and the central government over a long period of time was how do they really address this question that one, who has a just claim is not arbitrarily excluded and added that 36 wards were severely affected by the gas leak.

The bench said a minister talks about the entire Bhopal and says give everybody. “Somebody will say let us not confine to Bhopal alone, we should trace out where air went,” it told the AG.

The top court is hearing a curative petition filed by the Centre in December 2010 for enhanced compensation for the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy. On Tuesday, the apex court had pulled up the Centre for pursuing its curative plea seeking an additional Rs 7,844 crore from successor firms of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) for giving compensation to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

The hearing in the matter will continue on Thursday.

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