A Lasting Legacy of Bhopal's Leak

A decade later, the Union Carbide chemical disaster in India has left many victims embittered over official inaction and corruption

DESERTED and rusting, the chemical factory responsible for the world's worst industrial accident is today an unremarkable site, easily missed amid the urban clutter of this city of 1.2 million people. On the walls of the factory entrance, however, is a stark reminder of the tragedy. Someone has painted a skull and bones, and written, in English: ''Killer Carbide.''

Ten years after a toxic gas leak killed at least 2,500 people, many of the victims still have medical problems and few have received any compensation. Analysts blame corruption, official indifference, and the notoriously sluggish Indian court system for the long delay. ''Nothing has improved,'' says Sahna Karnik, leader of a victims' rights group. ''There is no compensation, no jobs, and the company is not punished.''

Government officials, on the other hand, argue that the magnitude of the case, with thousands of claims, overwhelmed the local courts. Constant legal appeals and the need to ferret out fraudulent claims made quick compensation impossible, they say.

Union Carbide, the US firm that owned the pesticide plant, agreed in 1989 to pay $470 million in damages.

The Bhopal disaster raised questions about the ethical practises of multinational companies operating in developing countries. Critics have accused Union Carbide of employing safety standards at its Bhopal plant that were more lax than at a similar plant it owned in West Virginia. Carbide officials, however, insist they have always used ''one worldwide safety standard.''

The Bhopal disaster prodded the US chemical industry to improve its safety and environmental standards. Over the past five years the industry claims to have reduced toxic emissions by 38 percent. Executives say they are also making a greater effort to involve local communities in decisionmaking. ''Prior to Bhopal, the industry had done a pretty good job of talking but not a good job of listening,'' says Matthew Weinstock, spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturer's Association in Washington.

Many environmental groups believe the industry has not gone far enough to improve its safety standards. Greenpeace, for instance, is calling for a worldwide ban on ''killer chemicals,'' substances already prohibited in one or more countries.

Nevertheless, in 1992, India's Supreme Court reinstated charges of criminal negligence against Warren Anderson, former chairman of Union Carbide, and eight other company executives. So far, however, the Indian government, wary of scaring off potential foreign investors, has been reluctant to actively prosecute such a controversial case. ''The goverment is hardly doing anything to pursue the criminal cases,'' says Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer representing Bhopal victims.

Carbide claims the gas leak was caused by a disgruntled Indian employee, and it maintains that the $470 million settlement was adequate. ''It was the Supreme Court of India that said the settlement was 'just, equitable, and reasonable', '' says Robert Berzok, a company spokesman.

Other relief efforts, the company claims, were rejected by the people of Bhopal. ''We funded an effort to provide rehabilitation but buildings that were put up were leveled,'' says Mr. Berzok. In September, the company finally sold its Indian subsidiary to a Calcutta-based company for $93 million. A portion of that money -- $19 million -- will go toward building a 500-bed hospital in Bhopal.

In recent years, the target of the gas victims' anger has shifted from the United States chemical company to their own government. ''Union Carbide didn't just suddenly invade Bhopal,'' says Sheila Devi, who lives on in one of the slums that border the abandoned factory. ''It's the Indian government that allowed Union Carbide to set up its plant here.''

Some critics charge that Indian politicians have ignored the gas victims. ''The gas victims of Bhopal are too poor, too powerless, and they don't form anyone's constituency,'' says Praful Bidwai, a columnist of the The Times of India. ''Politically, they don't matter.''

After the disaster, however, the government established an entire ministry devoted to helping the victims. It has built housing for relatives of victims, set up small-scale factories that employ victims, and while court cases dragged on, provided ''interim relief'' that amounted to $6.25 per month.

More recently, the government set up 36 courts in Bhopal, exclusively for hearing cases related to the gas disaster and deciding how to distribute the Union Carbide money. So, far, however, less than one-fifth of the 600,000 cases before the courts have been settled, and many people are growing impatient.

''What we are witnessing in Bhopal should be a black chapter in the history of the Indian judiciary,'' says Abdul Jabbar, head of an umbrella group of victims' rights associations. ''Everybody is exploiting the gas victims, whether it is the state govenment, or the claims courts, or the judges, or the doctors.''

Government officials point out that the settlement money had been tied up in legal appeals until just two years ago. In addition, they now face the difficult task of distinguishing genuine gas victims from bogus ones. ''It's our job to weed out the false claims, '' says Abdul Quereshi, Bhopal's Welfare Commissioner. ''Unscrupulous elements are everywhere in society, and Bhopal is no exception.''

Further complicating the court's task, officials say, is the fact that few medical records were kept during the chaotic days following the gas disaster.

Mr. Qureshi, however, promises that everyone will eventually get a fair hearing, although he concedes that the court system has been overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases. ''It was such a mass disaster,'' he says. ''We had no precedent.''

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