The legal system of India is "inadequate" to handle the lawsuits filed against Union Carbide Corp. over the Bhopal poison gas disaster because the courts there are plagued with delays of "gigantic proportions," according to a motion filed yesterday by U.S. lawyers representing the Indian government.

The problems its own courts would have in handling the massive litigation were advanced by the Indian government to bolster its case to have more than 120 Bhopal lawsuits tried in the U.S. courts. Carbide, whose Indian subsidiary was the scene of the leak that killed more than 2,000 people last Dec. 3, has asked U.S. District Judge John Keenan to dismiss all the lawsuits and ship them back to India.

In challenging Carbide's motion yesterday, the Indian government's lawyers said the country's courts were suffering from a growing backlog of more than 10 million cases, with more than 40,000 civil cases and 44,000 criminal cases pending before the Supreme Court of India alone. In addition, India has too few judges, lawyers who are not trained for mass disaster litigation and rules of evidence that do not allow discovery and other weapons used by U.S. lawyers, they said.

"India's legal system has yet to emerge from the vestiges of colonial rule after only four decades of independence," the brief stated.

Asked about the government's arguments yesterday, Bud Holman, Carbide's chief lawyer called them "absurd." The only reason India is pressing for the lawsuits to be heard in the United States is because the government and other survivors would be able to collect more money in compensation from U.S. juries, he said.

The government's brief, which was also filed on behalf of U.S. lawyers representing individual Indian victims, also contends that the case should be heard in the U.S. courts because of evidence showing the Bhopal plant was designed and closely supervised by Carbide officials in Danbury, Conn. The plant was owned by Union Carbide India Ltd., which was 50.9 percent owned by the U.S. corporate parent. The rest was owned by Indian investors.

Keenan scheduled oral arguments on the motion for Jan. 3 and a decision is expected several months after that.