BHOPAL, INDIA, NOV. 14 -- Yaqub Beg is a puller of carts, one of the legion of small, wiry men seen in every Indian city who weave their heavy loads through the maze of people, animals, cars, scooters and bicycles that clog the streets and alleyways.

For a few rupees a load, they keep India's economy running, carry away its garbage and bring home just enough money to keep themselves and their families alive.

For Beg and his family of seven, however, the pulling of carts no longer can provide the meager meals of rice and lentils and the second-hand clothes it once brought -- not since that night almost three years ago when his youngest daughter woke up coughing and he found his two-room hut filled with a stinging, choking fog.

"I got up to get her some water and I saw the house was foggy. I turned on the light, but still I really couldn't see. I also started coughing. I couldn't open my eyes; it was like red chilies were in them. My wife was the same. She couldn't open her eyes for seven days," Beg recalls, also describing the vomiting that followed.

"We still have many of the same problems. We keep on vomiting. I can't work for more than two days at a time and I have to take lighter loads."

The fog that night of Dec. 2-3, 1984, Beg would later learn, came from the giant Union Carbide plant about a mile away from the collection of shacks and alleys that make up Beg's neighborhood of Congress Nagar.

It was not a fog but a lethal gas formed when MIC -- methyl isocyanate -- escaped from tanks in the pesticide plant. By the time the fog cleared a few hours later, hundreds of Bhopal's poor were dead and tens of thousands were sick, many with ailments that affect their lives today.

The Bhopal gas disaster has spawned one of the most complex and unusual legal battles of the Industrial Age. It is testing the liability of the multinational corporation, the ability of governments and legal systems to handle matters of such complexity, and the endurance of those who suffered as they wait and hope for the relief that so many have promised them but that few have delivered so far.

Lawyers for the government of India and Union Carbide are to appear again Wednesday in a special district court in Bhopal to tell Judge M. W. Deo if they have agreed on terms of an out-of-court settlement. If they have not, the judge will have to decide whether to go ahead with the trial or give them yet more time to reach an accord.

"They are very close. Everyone agrees on the need for a settlement and they are not too far apart on the amount," said a Congress Party confidant of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. "It now seems to be a question of the terms for the payments, how much over how long a time."

An official for Union Carbide, based in Danbury, Conn., agreed, but his talk of compromise also had a hard edge:

"To pursue the litigation road would take five, 10, 15 years. How would this help the victims? But if there is not a settlement and the only course open is litigation, Carbide will defend itself to the maximum. But at no point has that been the preference of Carbide."

Whether the two are as close as each side would make it appear remains to be seen. Neither the giant chemical company, for reasons of corporate image, nor India, for political reasons, can afford to be seen as doing anything other than its utmost for the people of Bhopal.

By all accounts, serious negotiations on an out-of-court settlement have been underway since summer, and the two sides are believed to be closing in on a figure that would be no lower than $500 million but more likely would be in the range of $600 million to $650 million spread out over seven to 10 years.

This is well above Carbide's last known offer of about $350 million, although less than the $1 billion that Prime Minister Gandhi is believed to be seeking.

This would be one of the largest court settlements in history, but still far less than the $3.1 billion sought by the Indian government when it took control of the case by passing the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act in 1985.

This has led to an outcry of betrayal by political activists and opposition members of Parliament, as has the suggestion that India would drop criminal proceedings against Carbide personnel as part of the settlement.

Carbide undoubtedly is making the dropping of all charges a condition of settlement. Indian officials intimately familiar with the case insist this is legally possible, although there are some suggestions that this issue, as well as the monetary terms, could be holding up a final settlement.

Yet another group of critics says India would be abandoning the principle of seeking the first major trial of a multinational corporation, a politically potent issue in a Third World country only four decades away from colonial rule.

"New Delhi's decision to reach a settlement represents a political retreat from its earlier commitment to take on the multinational. It seriously compromises and undermines the victims' interests," Praful Bidwai wrote this week on the editorial page of The Times of India, one of the country's most influential newspapers.

"The trial was to show that a {transnational corporation} could not get away with killing 2,850 people and maiming over 200,000 -- not in a country as big and powerful as India with its claim to leadership of the Third World."

Spokesmen for Union Carbide say they believe that somewhere between 1,300 and 2,200 people died from the release of gas. Another 20,000 or so may have been seriously affected, they say.

Political activists and some doctors who were present in Bhopal the night of the leak say the number of dead and seriously affected must be several times higher.

Indian medical and government officials in Bhopal place the number of certified deaths from the leak at 2,850 and believe the number will increase to about 3,000 as medical records are more thoroughly reviewed. More systematic medical examinations also are increasing the estimates of seriously affected cases.

"We now feel the seriously affected cannot be less than 50,000," said S. Sathyam, official in charge of the Bhopal gas tragedy relief and rehabilitation department of the Madhya Pradesh state government.

Medical tests are showing serious signs of lung deterioration in people who previously were thought to have fully recovered, he said. Other tests, according to recent Indian publications, are showing evidence of toxicity in the bloodstreams of victims that support the contention of lingering problems, and the danger of their being passed to succeeding generations.

In all, about 524,000 people have filed claims for compensation, a number dismissed by Union Carbide officials as ridiculous. "After all, there were only 700,000 people in Bhopal at the time," said one company official.

Indian medical experts say the vast majority of the claimants likely will be placed in a category of least-seriously affected -- showing symptoms for only a few days and then medically sound.

"But no claim can go unrewarded," said one official involved in establishing criteria for compensation in the event of a settlement or court judgment. "We don't have documentary evidence from day one. If he says he has troubles, we have to accept that."

Accepting those numbers means that even a $650 million settlement will stretch only so far, even applying Indian standards of compensation, which are far lower than what an American or Western European court might award, given the vast disparities in the economies.

Sathyam says that in addition to the 524,000 personal injury claims, there are 2,800 claims for cattle loss, 4,600 from businesses, an anticipated 3,000 for deaths and 92 from voluntary organizations, public sector companies and governments.

The state government also has carried out an ambitious relief program over the past three years and has mapped out an equally energetic rehabilitation effort that will last another five. It is submitting a plan to the central government in New Delhi within the next month that will total more than $200 million.

Many of these programs remain on paper or mired in charges of corruption, drawing expressions of resentment from a number of political activists drawn to Bhopal since the leak.

Others, however, have led to an unusual array of slum programs for India, ranging from street paving and provision of latrines to new schools, to medical and social service facilities. As one official noted, "It has been one of the few times where they come to us offering money rather than us going to them to plead for it."

"We haven't decided whether we will or whether we will not file a claim," Sathyam says. "But I can assure you the public sector will not siphon out a large chunk" of any settlement.

Other officials are not so sure that cutting up the pie will be an easy process.

"There will be civil war when this happens," said one official only half-jokingly. "God help the person who has to adjudicate. Everyone will say he is the worst affected. What we are scared of is the aftermath."

It such problems that some say is behind the failure to reach a settlement so far. While Gandhi is portrayed by confidants as now recognizing the near futility of pursuing a trial, he also must be sure that his political timing is right when a settlement is reached.

"This is not the most confident of governments right now," said one Delhi political insider, referring to the host of problems the Gandhi government has faced in recent months.

The fact that Parliament is in session for the next several weeks works against a quick settlement, as it could provide Gandhi's political foes with a new target while they all are gathered together.

For Yaqub Beg and his family, all this talk of political risks, multinational liability and criminal charges means little.

"We are not the right people to fight for anything. We only fight to survive," said Yaqub Beg. "Since many thousands are involved, whatever will happen to them will happen to us."

For them, there is only a vision of money that will relieve their daily crises and pressures. "First, I will look after the children," Beg said. "What can I do while I am suffering from all these diseases? First, I will look after them. Also, we will go for proper medical treatment."

Dr. N. P. Misra, chief of medicine at Hamida hospital, also has seen the suffering. It was his hospital to which many of the thousands came when the gas first descended, and which has treated more than 75,000 of the victims.

"Whatever it is, it should come sooner rather than later," he says. "It shouldn't be 20 years later when all the victims are dead. Their heirs will just drink it away. Even if it is less, it should be sooner."

Special correspondent Nilova Roy in New Delhi and researcher William Hifner in Washington contributed to this report.