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:
1. The most important is that Union Carbide’s (UCC) presence in India was governed heavily by the Indian government and its aggressive, top-down industrial policy.
2. The decision to use the hazardous chemical MIC was the Indian government’s, not UCC’s. UCC’s initial plan was to import already-combined chemicals and to process diluted and safer pesticides. But the Indian government was pursuing a policy of national self-sufficiency, requiring that everything be “Indianized.” MIC could have been imported much less expensively, as UCC initially planned, but UCC was required by the government to manufacture pesticides from scratch. This in turn required the storage and handling of large amounts of hazardous MIC.
3. The government directives also required the building of larger facilities. As the parent corporation, UCC was allowed to submit generalized guidelines for the design of the safety systems. But in the name of national self-sufficiency, the Indian government required that Indian consulting firms do the detailed design and installation of the safety systems.
4. The Indian government was also pursuing an affirmative action program. The effect of affirmative action was to replace UCC’s foreign experts in engineering and agricultural chemistry with locals. Not surprisingly, many of the locals were under-educated, and many happened to be friends and family members of Indian politicians in charge of regulating the facility.
5. Finally, the decision to situate the chemical plant in the middle of a residential community was the Indian government’s, not UCC’s. The local Bhopal government was pursuing a re-zoning policy, which included giving thousands of Indians construction loans to encourage them to build their homes near the chemical plant.
So before jumping to conclusions about culpability, it’s important that we frame the investigative questions accurately:
To what extent was Bhopal a corporate failure and to what extent was it a government failure? Does the Bhopal disaster indict business executives or government bureaucrats — the pursuit of profit or racial quotas? Is capitalism or statist industrial policy at fault?
Almost 30 years later, I have yet to come across a professional and objective set of answers to those questions. I look forward to it, especially as the stakes are so very high.
 Jennifer Rosenberg, “1984 - Huge Poison Gas Leak in Bhopal, India.” About.com. Viewed July 14, 2013.
 I discuss these elements in my review in Teaching Philosophy of Kevin Gibson’s Ethics and Business (Cambridge, 2007).
 Update: Edward Fox, in the comments below, links to journalist Robert Bidinotto’s damning reports in The Intellectual Activist (1985) and The Wall Street Journal (1986). Bidinotto’s summary here.
Tags: affirmative action, Bhopal, bureaucracy, chemical disaster, chemical spill, cronyism, India, Indian government policy, Industrial Policy, MIC chemical, Mixed Economy, Regulation ethics, safety, Third Way politics, Union Carbide