India court orders direct payments in Bhopal accident

$330 million long held by government to go to thousands of victims


NEW DELHI, India - Ending a long legal struggle for victims of a catastrophic gas leak in Bhopal that killed at least 5,000 people, India's Supreme Court ruled yesterday that $330 million in compensation should be distributed directly to the victims and no longer held by the Indian government.

The leak in 1984 at a plant run by Union Carbide Corp. was one of the worst industrial accidents in history, immediately killing 3,000 people and injuring 105,000. Indian officials are still pursuing criminal charges against the company's then-chairman, Warren Anderson, who is now in his early 80s living a low-profile retirement on Long Island and in Florida.

Victims hailed yesterday's ruling but said the company, now part of Dow Chemical, should be forced to quadruple the amount it has paid in damages. At the time the compensation was paid in 1989, the figure was based on the 3,000 people who perished immediately and the 105,000 injured.

Current estimates of how many people were killed by the leak range from 5,000 to 15,000. Indian officials concluded in 1997 that the number of deaths from gas-related after-effects, such as tuberculosis and other respiratory problems, had surged to 15,310. The number of injured was found to be 578,000. The $330 million in compensation will be split among all 578,000 victims.

"We are fighters and have been fighting this battle for the last 20 years, and are happy to win in the end," Hameeda Bee, a 50-year-old gas victim who lost five family members in the accident, said in a telephone interview. "But the money should be quadrupled."

Company officials have maintained that the leak was caused by sabotage, but no one has ever been charged. Instead, evidence produced at 2002 court hearings on whether to downgrade the charges against Anderson pointed to poor safety procedures and maintenance. The site of the accident, which still has not been cleaned up, may be leaking contaminants into groundwater in Bhopal.

Large, grass-roots citizens groups have emerged in the wake of the disaster, demanding fair treatment in demonstrations in New Delhi and other cities from the company and the Indian government.

Union Carbide paid $470 million in damages in 1989, but the money has remained in the hands of the Indian government. The $330 million the Supreme Court ordered distributed yesterday is the amount the government has not spent, plus accrued interest.

Victims have complained that the government has wasted tens of millions of dollars on grandiose new hospitals, building projects and other boondoggles that have created few benefits for victims. There have been complaints of corruption and fraud, and generous fees for contractors.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.