Bhopal victims skeptical of legal wrangling. Three years after leak, compensation issue seems far from resolved

Whether the Bhopal gas-leak case is settled in or out of court, Quersha Bai says she has little hope of receiving any money. ``So far, I have gotten nothing,'' says the 46-year-old mother of two who lost her husband when lethal methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide Corp. plant in Bhopal, India, in December 1984.

``No matter what happens, I'll only believe there is money when I see it,'' she says.

Three years after the world's worst industrial accident, the legal battle over compensation for the thousands of victims drags on.

On Wednesday, an Indian judge ordered court hearings in the case to resume because the American parent company and the Indian government failed to meet a deadline for reaching an out-of-court settlement. Both sides said, however, that ``serious negotiations'' would continue.

``My heart is bleeding for the gas victims,'' a weary Judge Mahadeo Deo told the crowded Bhopal courtroom. ``I cannot allow things to go on delaying like this.''

A year ago in September, the Indian government filed a lawsuit in Bhopal seeking $3 billion in damages for the victims. About 2,700 people died and more than 200,000 where injured in the incident.

Court observers say the two sides already have hammered out the framework for a $500 million out-of-court agreement, although the government and Union Carbide deny it. The tentative plan, Bhopal press reports say, provides for up to $2,000 annually over a 10-year period to the families to those who died, and smaller amounts to the injured.

However, the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, generally beset by political turmoil and corruption charges, will delay an announcement until mounting uproar over an out-of-court deal subsides, observers predict. An agreement likely will not be unveiled until after Parliament adjourns in December.

In recent weeks, opponents have blasted the government for ``selling out'' to Union Carbide. Many victims say a settlement of $500 million to $600 million is too low. ``Is this all our lives are worth?'' asks Gangu Bai, a Bhopal widow.

Others urge that criminal charges be pursued, to establish a legal precedent of the multinational corporation's liability in the accident.

``There are many shades of public opinion in India. The victims, the poor people at the bottom, want the money now,'' says Maya Daruwalla, a New Delhi attorney who has written extensively on the case. ``But many others want a judgment.''

Legal opinion is divided. But some experts say a settlement now will at least ensure that the victims receive some compensation. Otherwise it could be 10 years before the case makes its way through the ponderous Indian court system.

``There will be tortuous delays if no settlement takes place,'' says prominent lawyer Soli Sorabhjee. ``How can one be definitely sure that there will be a 100 percent victory and confident of receiving a total claim?''

Legal experts say the government decided to pursue a resolution out of court because the case is complex and confused. After three years, India has still not compiled a complete list of victims or set up the legal machinery to gather testimony.

The case has been badly handled from the start, critics say. ``Union Carbide has run legal circles around the Indian government from the beginning,'' one says.

However, sources close to the case say political opposition could still delay and even sidetrack a settlement. Groups representing the Bhopal victims say they will appeal a settlement to the Indian Supreme Court and challenge the government's right to represent them.

Union Carbide, observers say, has been using every legal tactic in the book to delay a judgment, hold onto its money as long as possible, and make a case for settling out of court, observers say. It is estimated that the legal fight already has cost the two sides more than $50 million.

``There's no question that if the litigation continues, it will be costly to Carbide and [India],'' says Union Carbide official Robert Berzok.

Officials say sticky issues remain. For one, Union Carbide wants to be exonerated of any future liability and criminal blame, but that could stir up antigovernment outrage.

How the money will be distributed is also a sensitive matter. Union Carbide has so far donated about $6 million in interim aid, much of which has never reached the victims. Many relief groups and the government of Madhya Pradesh State, where Bhopal is located, have been accused of misappropriating the aid.

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