The Bhopal compensation case became entangled in legalities Thursday when India's Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition challenging the government's authority to reach a settlement with Union Carbide.
The court also agreed to hear four other petitions that called for either an increase in compensation or asked for court guidance on how relief should be distributed among victims of the world's deadliest industrial disaster.
The decision came two weeks after the Supreme Court announced a settlement with Union Carbide.
In February, the American company agreed to pay damages of $470 million to victims of the Dec. 3, 1984, leak of methyl isocyanate from the pesticide plant operated by Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary in Bhopal.
Union Carbide has already deposited the money with the court.
The key petition filed Thursday challenged the Indian government's authority to represent the 3,300 people who died in the tragedy or the estimated 20,000 others injured by the deadly gas.
Under a 1985 act, the Indian government was given sole authority to represent all victims of the tragedy after hundreds of Indian and U.S. lawyers said they would represent victims in separate cases.
"I have a very strong case," said Charanlal Sahu, a Bhopal attorney who said he and his family were affected by exposure to the gas. "The act goes against the Indian Constitution. The victims have no confidence in the ability of the Union of India."
"You can't snatch away an individual's fundamental right to be heard in a court of law," he said. "But the Indian government, by a stroke of a pen, became the sole representative of all the victims."
Chief Justice R. S. Pathak said he would hear Sahu's case.
"There is urgency in the matter. . . . It is a case involving the country's constitution," Pathak said.
A court official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said four other petitions from two gas victims' associations and two human rights lawyers may come up for hearings today.
"We do not want to delay the matter any more," the official said.
But Sahu said that if the court agrees to give the petitions a full hearing, it will take at least six months to reach any decisions.