BHOPAL, India — Sunil Verma just wants to be left by himself. He doesn't trust strangers. Companionship is a creeping terror.
Almost 17 years ago, a toxic cloud drifted from the Union Carbide pesticide plant here, turning the air lethal and the leaves black. It killed seven members of Verma's family, including his parents, and he still lives in fear of demons he cannot see.
"I hear sounds in my mind," Verma said through an interpreter. "I only feel like staying in a lonely room. I can't stand going into a crowd."
Verma is a patient at a clinic for survivors opened five years ago by a charity called the Sabhavna Trust. Up to 100 patients come to the two-story building every day for treatment of chronic lung ailments, eye problems, psychiatric disorders and other illnesses common among Bhopal victims.
Satinath Sarangi, a metallurgical engineer who manages the trust, rushed to Bhopal after hearing the first radio reports about the disaster in 1984. He made Bhopal his adopted home, its survivors his extended family and, through it all, became a determined campaigner against economic globalization.
He sees Bhopal not as a tragedy in one act but part of a dangerous trend that continues to play itself out across the developing world.
"We call it the curtain-raiser," Sarangi said.
To Sarangi, and the like-minded who protest with him in the streets of richer nations, the lessons of Bhopal have been lost on governments of the developing world. Those countries are paying a high price, he says, as they try to balance the need for jobs against the pressures of foreign investment, often in hazardous industries considered too dirty--and risky--for more developed nations.
While Bhopal's survivors try to live with the medical fallout of a long-ago disaster, thousands of them also are fighting in U.S. and Indian courts for damages.
Tribunals set up by India's government to settle claims are attempting to close the books on Bhopal this year, amid widespread accusations of corruption. Victims complain that compensation payments, averaging about $580 each, cannot even cover loans many took out to pay medical bills, funeral costs and other expenses.
Tribunal authorities say they were inundated with false claims. But activists suspect India's government is keeping payouts to the bare minimum so that foreign investors will see that cheap labor comes with a bonus: low liability for industrial accidents.
As if that weren't enough, no one has yet decided who will clean up toxic waste that environmental groups say is still seeping into drinking water from the ghostly ruins of the abandoned pesticide plant. And even now, no one is certain whether the disaster was caused by negligence or, as Union Carbide insists, was an act of sabotage by an unhappy worker.
A new day had just begun on Dec. 3, 1984, when a runaway reaction overheated a holding tank of highly toxic methyl isocyanate. It spewed out a poisonous cloud that the moist night air transformed into a swirling chemical vapor of at least 65 gases, including hydrogen cyanide.
The cloud of toxins crept close to the ground and enshrouded people as they lay in their beds or tried to outrun the gas, burning their eyes, throats and lungs.
Verma was sleeping on the floor with four brothers, four sisters and their mother and father when the gas seeped into every corner of their crowded slum around 1 a.m.
Within hours, at least 2,000 people were dead. Nearly 600,000 have received compensation for injuries, either from the initial leak or its aftereffects.
Years later, the official death toll is more than 5,000, but activists say the number of deaths from gas-related illnesses is closer to 20,000. And a few hundred thousand survivors are still fighting the noxious legacy of the world's worst industrial disaster.
They are trying to sue Union Carbide in the United States despite the company's $470-million out-of-court settlement with the Indian government in February 1989.
India's Supreme Court said the settlement was better than the victims could have received under local law. But by keeping the claims out of U.S. courts, the deal also forced the tens of thousands of unsatisfied claimants to search for justice in the crooked maze of India's judicial system.
More than 1 million people, almost double Bhopal's estimated population at the time of the gas leak, filed claims with the local tribunals created by the federal government to decide compensation. The tribunals rejected almost half. The average payout to almost 560,000 survivors who received settlements as of June 1 was $580, official figures show.
That's much less than a year's starting salary for the lowliest of government workers, the messenger who delivers everything from memos to tea and is officially known as a peon. India's government set compensation limits based on incomes from the 1980s, even though the first payments were not made until almost a decade after the leak.