Monday, 15 July 2013

Remember the Bhopal disaster?

Remember the Bhopal disaster in India? It was the world’s worst industrial disaster, in which more than half-a-million people were exposed to toxic gas released from a Union Carbide plant located in a built-up area. In scale, if not in human toll, it was comparable to BP’s Gulf of Mexico debacle.   Stephen Hicks reviews one of the textbook cases of so-called “market failure” that looks more and more like something else.

The 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, is one of the major business ethics cases of the past generation. [A highly toxic gas escaped from a Union Carbine plant in a built-up area] and many people died. Awful.time_bhopal
    But I am weary of reading the standard journalistic accounts that run like this: In the name of profit, a large American multinational corporation neglected safety; as a result, many people, especially poor people, were killed and maimed, and the corporate executives involved have never been criminally prosecuted.
    Bhopal is an important case to learn from, but it is absolutely crucial to attend to all of the relevant facts, many of which the standard accounts omit.

Hicks offers five immediately relevant facts omitted in the standard accounts,

the most important [being the fact] that Union Carbide’s (UCC) presence in India was governed heavily by the Indian government and its aggressive, top-down industrial policy…

Hicks has the details, but the standard accounts also omit to mention that the decision to use the hazardous chemical MIC was the Indian government’s, not Union Carbide’s; that government directives also required the building of larger rather smaller facilities; that the Indian government was also pursuing an affirmative action programme, replacing Union Carbide’s foreign experts in engineering and agricultural chemistry with locals; and, finally, that the decision to situate the chemical plant in the middle of a residential community was the Indian government’s, not Union Carbide’s, exacerbated by a re-zoning policy that included giving thousands of construction loans to encourage Indians to build their homes near the chemical plant…

What he doesn’t say, but could have, is that it while it’s assumed in all the standard accounts that it was in the selfish interests of Union Carbide to risk lives, in truth it was no more in the long-term self interest of Union Carbide to kill thousands of people than it was for BP to risk ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

 Hicks observes that even twenty-seven years later there are still many questions to be answered about the disaster, but “before jumping to conclusions about culpability, it’s important that we frame the investigative questions accurately… [and] almost 30 years later, I have yet to come across a professional and objective set of answers to those questions.”

As I said myself a few years back when just seven of those responsible for the industrial disaster were finally taken to trial, convicted and sentenced,

the disasters caused by Union Carbine 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 it is 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. [Ditto for James Hardie.]
    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 that1989 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. Hey, it's taken you 30 years, and you've finally found a way to blame the gummint for Bhopal! Way to go Libbos!

    "while it’s assumed in all the standard accounts that it was in the selfish interests of Union Carbide to risk lives, in truth was (sic) no more in the long-term self interest of Union Carbide to kill thousands of people than it was for BP to risk ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico."

    And yet they did. If only they lived in Libboland, where there are no tethers on greed, none of this would have happened! Cast iron logic that.

  2. Holden MacGroin15 Jul 2013, 22:24:00


  3. But Chernobyl was the responsibility of those evil capitalists too! If only they hadn't fought the enlightenment being brought to the world in the form of the Marxist USSR, then the sub-standard technology employed at Chernobyl would have been replaced by the superior technology invented by the New Soviet Man.

    So, you see, it IS all the West's fault. All the time. ad infinitum, ad nauseaum.

    c. andrew

  4. Libertarians love nuclear power. It's good capitalist energy, like coal. Hydro and wind power are commie.

    The New Soviet Man sounds an awful lot like Hank Rearden non? Just sayin'.

  5. This Holden fellow is very youthful in his outlook. I would put his mentality at 15 at most. Everything he generously contributes illustrates the battle of freedom vs coercion. His is a despicable coercion. Everyone a slave. If all his suggestions were taken up, the world would truly resemble a gulag. I mean - he even boasts that wind power is "commie." I hate wind power because it doesn't work -it costs, and only exists due to government-enforcement. And its eco-crucifixes are a permanent reminder of the stupidity of many men like Holden. The United Nations - Holden's bedfellows.

  6. Holden MacGroin16 Jul 2013, 09:06:00


  7. Excellent level of debate here chaps! Everyone is a slave! Windmills are a UN commie conspiracy! Hail the mighty smokestack! Union Carbide executives are unfairly maligned heroes!

  8. Holden MacGroin16 Jul 2013, 19:25:00

    Bait, switch, fail

  9. Coal and nuclear power are not the "libertarian" solutions to energy. Solar power is the libertarian solution. It causes no pollution (property rights violations) and can be installed and utilized by anyone in a decentralized fashion. The problem with stateless nuclear fission is that the hazardous byproducts will vastly outlive the lifespan of any individuals who might enter into contractual agreement over their management.

  10. re: "the Bhopal disaster"

    Go back to the time it happened. Vola, Reason Magazine within a few months had the story of how the Indian Government was the architect of the disaster not Union Carbide. Thanks Peter Cresswell for the article reprising the story before it falls into the memory hole again.

    re: "Solar power is the libertarian solution. It causes no pollution (property rights violations) and can be installed and utilized by anyone in a decentralized fashion." metz

    Solar Power is a terrible polluter, vast areas of land are needed, if one tries to scale it up as the source is so dilute, varies diurnally and is subject to weather and latitudinal effects degrading production. Current solar cells also are prone to failure as it has been found they age at an accelerated rate in deployment contrary to their predicted life span.

    re: "...nuclear fission [produces] hazardous byproducts [that] will vastly outlive the lifespan of any individuals...." metz

    Modern reactor designs and the Thorium reactor offer a means to "burn" the so called dangerous nuclear waste. There will be virtually no High Level Waste and that waste that remains will probably be useful in the future as technology advances.

    Dan Kurt

  11. Joe Bhopal said:

    Yes, the Indian Government has a case to answer and nobody suggests otherwise but please let's not forget that Union Carbide Corporation (yes, that's the American one) ALWAYS retained a controlling interest in the Bhopal plant.

    As such, common sense dictates, even if international jurisdiction issues disagree, that UCC should be the first entity to face prosecution.

    After the disaster, UCC elected India as the proper forum to hear the Bhopal case and, whatever happened with RG and the civil settlement, the fact remains that UCC were also CRIMINALLY charged (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) in 1987 but, after over 25 years, still refuse to answer the charges. UCC and ex-CEO Warren Anderson have been ‘proclaimed absconders’ since 1992.

    Dow Chemical (UCC’s current owner) for its part has, since 2005, refused to accept a summons addressed to its Michigan HQ, requesting an explanation as to why it will not produce UCC to the criminal courts.

    The US Govt will not extradite despite the facts that: UCC itself elected India as the correct forum to hear the Bhopal case; and that India and the US maintain an extradition treaty.

    Compare this with the US stance on whistleblower Edward Norton.

    Personally, I believe that UCC/ Dow's stance, allied with the US Govt's unwillingness to cooperate- especially when compared to how quickly BP were (correctly) prosecuted for the Deepwater Horizon Disaster is the reason why the story tends to focus on those parties and not the Indian Govt.

    Oh, and did I mention the pressure the US puts on India regarding 'chilling effects' on investment whenever the Bhopal case is raised...

  12. Robert James Bidinotto also wrote about this in The Intellectual Activist.


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