$700 million for victims of Bhopal gas leak still untouched as anger rises


BHOPAL, India -- Resentment is growing here at the slo pace of compensation to victims of the 1984 gas disaster as nearly $700 million sits in an Indian bank.

In more than one year since the compensation payments began, fewer than 700 people have received funds totaling about $2 million.

The judge who is supervising the operation says that at the current pace, distributing payments to the tens of thousands of victims would take three years or more.

More than 4,000 people, most of them poor, have died since toxic fumes swept out of a pesticide subsidiary of Union Carbide Corp. in December 1984. Many of the victims still live in shacks of cardboard, wood and tarpaulin in the neighborhoods opposite the factory, which is now closed.

The size of the problem is staggering: Of a total of 630,000 claims, only 350,000 are substantiated on the basis of medical records and other documents. The remaining 280,000 failed to appear before officials despite several appeals to do so.

In New York, a federal appeals court has rejected a challenge in the United States to an agreement between India and Union Carbide to compensate gas victims, reaffirming that India and not the United States is the place for the legal battle.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said on Jan. 26 that it did not want to do anything that would frustrate the compensation efforts in India.

The New York court, effectively ending further legal challenges in the United States to the Indian settlement, declared that the victims cannot seek damages in American courts over and above the $470 million settlement approved in India in 1989. Interest has increased that figure to the equivalent of $700 million.

In Bhopal, the 17 special courts looking at compensation demands are first tackling the claims of relatives of those who died in the world's worst industrial tragedy.

Although 4,000 people died, there are as many as 13,000 compensation demands for death. In the last year, only 637 people have been awarded compensation by judges investigating claims for damages caused by death to relatives ,, and heads of families.

Most families received the equivalent of about $3,200 each. Some families that suffered two or three deaths have received more money.

A spokesman for the state government in Madhya Pradesh says 1,576 cases involving death have been decided. Of those, 939 cases were either rejected on the grounds that the lethal gas was not the primary cause of death or the sums being sought were reduced.

The next victims to receive compensation are those who suffered serious injury. Then it will be the turn of those who suffered temporary injury. Those seriously injured are also likely to receive about $3,000 each while the figure will be much lower for those with minor injuries.

The gas leak is blamed for deaths and injuries stemming from a range of ailments including damaged lungs and eyes and psychiatric problems.

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