NEW DELHI, NOV. 18 -- Attorneys for Union Carbide Corp. and the government of India told a district court in Bhopal today that they had not yet reached agreement on a settlement of claims stemming from the poisonous gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in December 1984.
Judge M.A. Deo, expressing disappointment at the failure to reach an accord, said he would press ahead with the trial of the Indian government's $3.1 billion lawsuit on behalf of the tens of thousands of victims. He set Nov. 27 for a court session to establish a schedule for pretrial hearings.
More than 2,800 people are believed to have died as a result of the release of methyl isocyanate on the night of Dec. 2, 1984. Between 20,000 and 50,000 others are believed to have suffered long-term damage.
About 524,000 people have filed claims for compensation. Unsettled issues between the two sides are believed to include the number of legitimate claimants, the severity of injuries and the amount of compensation to be paid to various categories of claimants.
Negotiators are believed to have narrowed the total amount of compensation to between $500 million and $650 million, although the exact amount and the number of years over which payment is to be made apparently are unresolved.
Deo has pressured both sides to settle the dispute. "I really feel sorry for the loss of time so far, and repeat that redress to the gas victims is of paramount consideration for which all concerned must work with their best efforts and intentions," he said.
According to observers present in the court, Indian Attorney General K. Parasaran said that "protecting the interests of the victims is the primary aim of the government and no effort will be spared."
But Parasaran said the government -- which has felt increasing political pressure on the issue -- could not "rush into any settlement."
Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state, was virtually shut down by a political strike today called to protest the reported terms of a negotiated settlement.
The government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came under pressure in parliament today on the issue of a negotiated settlement and promised a full statement on government policy on Monday.
A.N. Biwan, representing the Danbury, Conn.-based multinational company, told the court that it is "working seriously on a settlement." But company officials later stressed that if the issue goes to full trial, it likely will be a drawn-out procedure lasting several years, probably delaying any compensation for gas victims.
A trial on corporate liability would be a ground-breaking case that multinational corporations would watch closely.