Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Bhopal disaster and beyond

Those of my age and above will remember with horror the news of the 1984 Bhopal disaster.

It seems astonishing that it has taken all of twenty-six years for just seven of those responsible for the industrial disaster in Bhopal to be taken to trial, convicted and sentenced.  And what a sentence.  For those of you unfamiliar with what is still the world’s largest industrial accident, around 3000 people were killed when a cloud of methyl iocyanate gas leaked out of a Union Carbide pesticide plant in central India, and up to another 20,000 died in later years, for which these seven executives have belatedly received just two years in jail, with every expectation they will appeal--“a process that can take years.”

As a family member of of those killed has said, it’s like these executives “have essentially been set free.”

Worse, after years of trying, Union Carbide chairman and CEO at the time Warren Anderson remains free and unencumbered by any hint of justice for his part in his company’s manslaughter—remaining at large with the help, it has to be said, of politicians in both the US and the Indian Governments.

The disaster at Bhopal is still the world’s worst industrial accident, worse even than the mercury poisoning of Minamata, the asbestos poisoning by James Hardie, the ammonium nitrate explosion in Texas City ,the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, and the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea.

Between them they rather put into perspective the Deepwater Horizon disaster still bubbling up into the Gulf of Mexico, don’t they. And sad though every death is, the greatest tragedies are when people are killed, not wetlands, dolphins and sea turtles.

Nonetheless, the disasters of Bhopal and BP (and James Hardie) show that the cosy relationship of big government and big business does not lead to big justice, or provide any guarantee against environmental or human disaster.  BP is one of the most politically active in its industry. The close links of BP to both government and environmental organisations should lead one to wonder whether “BP [has] been too busy spending money to [buy politicians, and to] impress the government and the public with how ‘green’ it is to look after safety adequately.” And Union Carbide and Dow Chemical, its new owners, seem to think its easier to buy regulators and politicians—to hold its operations together “by duct tapes and bribes”—than it is to face justice, or to act justly.

And it’s not like the governments they buy deliver any of that “bought-and-paid for” justice to their constituents either. The Indian Government’s fascistic “Think Big” policy saw them forgo their role as referee and act instead as a player, and a bad one. (“The Indian government had its heavy hand on every aspect of the Bhopal plant, from its design and construction to its eventual operation.”) So, desperate to protect themselves and under pressure from the US Government not to charge Union Carbide’s executives, Rajiv Gandhi’s government instead accepted millions of dollars in out-of-court settlements from Union Carbide as "compensation for the victims.” But while all that money was received by the politicians, very little of that 1989 settlement ever actually reached the survivors. The loop of political corruption closed out those who most needed justice from the disaster, just as that corruption and the politics that caused it helped make the disaster itself happen.

Anti-capitalists will often suggest that we need big government as a “counterweight” to big corporates.  But is that really true? The fact is that stiff regulation protects no-one except those it shouldn’t, and simply invites big corporations to buy their even-bigger regulators.  There really is no greater force for corruption than an equation that puts together a big corporate desperate to escape justice, and a politician in pursuit of power and campaign funds. As PJ O’Rourke once observed, “when buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first thing to be bought and sold are legislators”—some of whom, like Al Gore, take that relationship with them even when they retire from the legislature.

Just one reason that a complete separation of state and economics is called for, lest the poisoners and the parasites make common cause. As they have done all too frequently.


  1. Agree on complete separation of state and economics, but would add a complete separation of executive and judicial branches (i.e. a solid constitution), together with reinstatement of a true and accessible common law legal system.
    This would sort this sorry mess out very quickly. (As en example, BP would be well underway now towards being part owned by its collective victims, as would have been Union Carbide).

  2. (As en example, BP would be well underway now towards being part owned by its collective victims, as would have been Union Carbide).

    Care to elaborate/link?

  3. One thing that supporters of capitalism (I am one) fail to grasp.

    - Big corporates donate money to politicians and politicians can't refuse it. To refuse it, then that politician will never ever get to office. So, a politician will always do some favors in return to whoever funded his campaign. If we say that it is something bad, ie, political donation, because it is vote buying, then why not completely ban political donation instead of having a cap on how much can one donate? But doing that, capitalism supporters, will say, that's suppressing free-speech. You can't have it both ways. You either live with it, be it crony capitalism and accept that's the way it is in the real world or one can keep moaning or contradicting him/herself when big corporates cosy up to politicians. If you don't cosy up, then politicians will start drafting legislation that are not favourable to them.

    - One of John Stossel's show (available on youtube) on crony capitalism, highlighted that Bill Gates never had lobby in Washington before the anti-trust case against him, but now Microsoft has got or funded a lobby group in Washington today. Here is a fact. If Bill Gates doesn't do that, he will see endless anti-trust lawsuits coming from Washington against Microsoft. Bill Gates has done nothing morally wrong, because he got to the top by pure hard work. But politicians always try to act in a manner that look favourable to misguided voters. For example, taking the anti-trust action against Microsoft makes lots of voters jump & down in joy. These idiot voters will keep voting for whoever politician that had spearheaded such anti-trust. So, what Bill Gates should have done? Do nothing and your company ended up being destroyed by politician or cosy up? Well, he chose to cosy up as evident by having a lobby group in Washington. I would do the same thing as Bill Gates if I were him. It is an unintended natural consequence of capitalism. The only thing to stop vote buying is via a gun. See, Stalin, Saddam, Castro didn't need to buy votes at all.

  4. @ FF: I don't agree that business having to lobby and influence gov't is an "unintended natural consequence of capitalism". If a business needs to bribe politicians in self defence, then what you don't have is capitalism, but some corruption of it.

    In a true capitalist society a government is limited to it's core functions of defending your rights. No matter how much money you throw at them, the gov't can't do anything else but that - either for you or against you.

  5. lobbying is a direct result of a mixed economy. When government has the power to regulate economic activity, individuals will seek to influence that power. When government has the power to arbitrarily dictate the actions of individuals, individuals will seek legislation that is favorable to them.

    The logical result is pressure group politics, in which individuals band together to exert influence on legislators. Whether the group is a union, a business, or a special interest, it will claim that the "common good" or "public interest" requires legislation that provides it with special benefits at the expense of those who are not a member of that group. This is true whether the legislation prescribes or proscribes, whether the legislation confers tax benefits, or creates entitlement programs, or attempts to stimulate some industry.

  6. Falafulu, you're getting laissez-faire free markets - the economic bedrock of a free society - mixed up with politics in a democracy, when democracy is a tyranny of the majority, anathema to a free society, or laissez-faire free markets.

    Thus, what you describe is NOT an 'unintended consequence of capitalism'. It's simply not capitalism.

    Or, as you have stated, democracies produce 'crony capitalism', which is just another collectivism: nothing to do with laissez-faire.

    ... ps. Oh. As Mark wisely said. I'll post this anyway to rub the point in.


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