According to rights activists, 100,000 residents living in the vicinity of the plant suffered chronic illnesses, and thousands of children were born with deformities and still carry the scars of the disaster.

Long trial

Mohan Tiwari, the chief judicial magistrate, pronounced the verdict in a packed court room after a trial that had dragged on for 23 years.

Keshub Mahindra, currently the chairman of India's top utility vehicle and tractor maker Mahindra & Mahindra, was the highest ranking person convicted for causing death by negligence and culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

list of guilty:

  Keshub Mahendra, ex-chairman
  Vijay Gokhle, ex-managing director
  Kishore Kamdar, ex-vice president
  J Mukund, ex-works manager
  S P Choudhary - ex-production manager
  KV Shetty - ex-plant superintendent
  SI Qureshi - ex-production assistant
  RB Roychoudhary - ex-assistant works manager (died in the process of trial)

Mahindra was chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd (Ucil), a unit of Union Carbide, at the time of the accident.

An eighth accused, the ex-assistant works manager, died during the course of the trial.

Those convicted can appeal to a higher court, a process that in India can take years.

However, there was no word on Warren Anderson, the then chairman of UCIL, who was declared an absconder after he did not subject himself to the trial in the case that began 23 years ago.

The verdict applied only to Indian officials of the former Union Carbide's Indian arm while separate cases have been filed against the company and its overseas officials.

Union Carbide had settled its liabilities to the Indian government in 1989 before being bought over by Dow Chemical.

Narayanan Madhavan, an editor with the Hindustan Times daily, welcomed the verdict despite the long delay.

"It is good in a sense that it is establishes a sort of landmark precedent for future action on corporate accountability," he said.

"Activists have accused the public prosecutors of being not strong enough. On the other hand there is a technical issue of how much one can charge somebody of negligence. Of course there is the issue of comparing the safety standards applied in the US and those in India.

"In terms of the corporate accountability issue, the verdict is considered one step forward."

'Big joke'

Rachna Dhingra, a Bhopal rights activist, however, said the ruling would mean little to the gas victims.

"It is actually going to be nothing. What is it? We are looking at maximum punishment of two years or a fine. If that's not the biggest joke, then I don't know what is.

"There's nothing to be happy about," she said.

Bhopal victims have received less than half a million dollars in compensation.

Dhingra said $470 million has been distributed to half a million victims, "which means each victim got around $1,000 for lifetime injury".