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India's Bhopal Victims Lose Out in Legal Wrangling

IN the shanty towns around the Union Carbide plant, closed since a gas leak almost five years ago, victims wonder if they will ever be compensated. A $470 million settlement reached last February by the American company and the Indian government is snagged in legal challenges in New Delhi. There are more than 25 lawsuits seeking to overturn the Indian Supreme Court decree that approved the agreement.

Legal and political observers here expect the Supreme Court to clear the settlement within the next two months. The court will also set down the rules for distributing the money, which could begin before the end of the year, officials of Madhya Pradesh state say.

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In Bhopal, the government is slowly sifting through more than 600,000 claims, anticipating the eventual clearance. But victims worry that fraud and official corruption will absorb much of the money before it reaches those for whom it is intended.

``My husband is dead and my family is sick,'' says Gangu Bee, a mother of four. ``We hear of this money. But when will it be given to us in Bhopal?''

In this central Indian city of 900,000, the lives of tens of thousands of people were shattered when methyl isocyanate gas escaped from the Union Carbide plant in December 1984. More than 3,400 people have died as a result of the accident.

More than 200,000 have been medically diagnosed as having permanent damage to eyes and lungs. Patients are treated in an array of new hospitals and clinics, many of them set up just to treat gas victims. On average, one death from the effects of the gas occurs every day.

The agreement that ended the bitter legal fight between the government and Union Carbide has been denounced by lawyers, social activists, and newspapers as inadequate to help the victims over the next decades.

This political uproar in Bhopal is complicating the enormous task of disbursing the compensation. Street demonstrations by victims are frequent.

``There could be a lot of trouble in this town once the distribution starts. There will be a lot of bitterness by people who say we didn't get enough,'' predicts a state official involved in relief.

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About 250,000 of the total damage claims have been winnowed out because claimants failed to undergo medical tests, relief officials say.

Even so, officials estimate that settling the claims could take two years or more and cost almost $5 million to administer. The central and state governments plan to set up 56 special courts to disburse the money, designate seven judges to hear appeals from the disgruntled, and establish an independent watchdog agency. However, many victims say that fraud and official bungling could make the distribution of compensation chaotic.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the money pumped into the city by the government and Union Carbide became a windfall for everyone but the victims. Lawyers, doctors, officials, politicians, and self-styled social workers all reaped the benefits.

``The needy will get some money,'' says a medical official. ``But there will be many undeserving people who get part of the compensation, too.''

Manipulation already is happening in the medical evaluation of claims, activists and other observers charge. Instead of computerized evaluations, the government is relying on the opinions of young doctors to categorize the victims.

In August, the government reported to the Supreme Court that only 19 of more than 120,000 claimants reviewed had been found to be permanently disabled. Activists charged that the government was trying to play down the extent of injuries because of the low settlement. Earlier estimates projected that 10,000 people had been totally and permanently disabled.

``The present stand taken by the government is arbitrariness bordering on cruelty,'' says Abdul Jabbar Khan, who heads a political organization for victims.

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