The long-term estimated death toll from the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India is about 15,000 people.
To put that in context, consider that the estimated immediate death toll from the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster is 4,000. The death toll from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear radiation leak in 2011 is zero. And the death toll from the USA’s 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident is also zero.
In the high-tech society we strive to be, it is essential that we learn the causes of disasters so that we can correct our mistakes. Technology lessens many of life’s risks, but handled badly it can add other serious risks.
So Bhopal is rightly a major case to learn from. A hazardous chemical, methyl isocyanate (MIC), used in the making of agricultural pesticides, was spilled and tragically many people died or were maimed.
Unfortunately, most reflections on Bhopal demonstrate a partial understanding or — worse — an ideologically-driven blindness to key parts of the causal story. Many sloppy journalistic accounts run like this: In the name of profit, a large American multinational corporation neglected safety; as a result, many people, especially poorer brown people, were killed and damaged, and the corporate executives involved have never been criminally prosecuted. Such accounts typically end with a call for further reparations and legal action in the name of justice.
Justice is still absolutely needed in the Bhopal case — but what is needed first is professional investigative reporting. So let’s consider eight factors relevant to determining causation and judging responsibility.
1. Union Carbide’s (UCC) presence in India was governed heavily by the Indian government and its aggressive, top-down industrial policy. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Indian National Congress party had long dominated Indian politics and had been pursuing an explicitly socialist economic philosophy.
For example, in 1969 many major banks were nationalized. India’s overall economic performance was consistently very poor, and this contributed to much political unrest. Mrs. Gandhi and her party members frequently asserted that a foreign conspiracy — led by the CIA — was at work to undermine her regime, and they fought the unrest vigorously.
In the decade leading up to the Bhopal disaster, sometimes called India’s “Dark Chapter”, the nation suffered rigged elections, the suppression of newspapers, the arrests and killings of political opponents, rampant cronyism, and further concentrations of power in the hands of the ruling political party.
And from 1975-1977, while planning for the Bhopal plant was underway, martial law was imposed over India — a 21-month suspension of democracy.
2. UCC had been operating in India since 1934 through a subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). In keeping with India’s changing political environment, the new plant to be constructed in Bhopal was to be a new kind of business-government partnership.
When in 1969, UCIL proposed building a new chemical plant to manufacture agricultural pesticides, its initial plan was to import already-combined hazardous chemicals and to process in India only diluted and safer pesticides. Given the overall level of technical competence in India at the time, UCC’s judgment was that importing the chemicals would be both safer and less expensive.
But the Indian government overrode that decision and wanted UCIL to manufacture the pesticides from scratch. The government was pursuing a policy of national self-sufficiency and wanted everything to be “Indianized.” It wanted more foreign high-technology to be brought into India, and it wanted to have more Indians trained in how to use it. In the case of the agricultural pesticides UCIL planned to make, this would require the storage and handling of large amounts of hazardous methyl isocyanate (MIC) at Bhopal.
3. Another complicating factor was that in 1974 the government of India had launched its Foreign Equity Regulation Act. This statute required that no foreign company could own more than 40% of an Indian company. UCC did not want to reduce its share to that low amount.
So a deal was worked out: The government gave UCC an exception and allowed it to own 50.9% of UCIL, and UCC agreed to have UCIL produce MIC in India. Various Indian-government-controlled entities owned the other 49.1% of UCIL.
4. Real estate was also part of the deal: the land that the plant was built upon was owned by the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, and as part of the overall deal, UCIL leased land from the government.
5. For the design of the plant, the parent corporation UCC was allowed to submit generalized guidelines for the design of the safety systems. But again in the name of national self-sufficiency, the Indian government wanted Indian consulting firms do the detailed design and installations.
6. As for who would manage and operate the plant: the various Indian governments — national, state, and local — were also pursuing affirmative action programs. The effect of affirmative action was to replace UCC’s foreign experts in engineering, chemistry, and management with locals. Unsurprisingly, many of the locals were under-educated and under-trained, and many happened to be family members and friends of Indian government officials in charge of regulating the facility.
7. The decision to situate the Bhopal chemical plant in the middle of a residential community and near a major transportation hub was the Indian government’s. The local government also actively encouraged more people to move there. It pursued a re-zoning policy, which included giving thousands of Indians construction loans to incentivize them to build their homes near the chemical plant.
8. By contrast, UCC operated a sister plant in Institute, West Virginia, USA, which also produced MIC. At the American plant, all safety systems were installed, automated, and monitored at the highest level. Failing parts were replaced, regular safety audits were conducted, and the audits’ recommendations were followed. But not in India. In both cases, the same parent company and the same general technology were involved — but one plant ran efficiently and safely while the other was a disaster.
So: Bhopal is a classic case of mixed-economy, business-government partnership. In such a corrupted business-politics environment, disasters are inevitable. And when disasters happen, scapegoats are needed. Who gets thrown to the ideological wolves? And who loses in the cover-your-ass legal scramble?
We must do better than scapegoating and ass-covering. Bhopal is an important case to learn from, but it is absolutely crucial to attend to all of the relevant factors, many of which the standard journalistic accounts omit.
So a series of questions:
* 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?
* Was it the result of the immoral pursuit of profit or immoral racial-ethnic quotas?
* Is capitalism or socialist industrial policy at fault?
In my judgment, all of the major parties involved were and are culpable:
Do we blame the United-States-based UCC executives for being willing to do business in such a corrupted foreign environment? Yes, indeed.
Do we blame the local UCIL management, with its mix of Indian and foreign managers and technicians, for incompetence and negligence? Yes, definitely.
Do we blame the Indian governments for consistently putting politics above safety and economic rationality? Yes, absolutely.
Can we say who is most to blame? Yes, we can: The party with the most power is always most responsible for how that power is used.
Noted political theorist Francis Underwood once said to a billionaire business colleague:
“Add up all your billions together and you get the GDP of Slovakia. I have the federal government of the United States of America. Your money doesn’t intimidate me. The most that you can buy is influence. But I wield Constitutional authority. You may have all the money, Raymond, but I have all the men with guns.”
In any business-government interaction, it is the government that has the power of police and the military at its disposal. In India, the business corporation is responsible for how it used its lesser amount of power — but the various Indian governments were the major powers in the series of “negotiated” compromises and evasions that led to the Bhopal disaster.
In addition to that political lesson, there is a journalistic lesson from Bhopal for citizens and policy analysts in a high-tech world. There are exceptions in the Bhopal journalism, but we need to become more professional about serious investigation and analysis. The stakes are so very high.
[Related: The full archive of my articles in The Good Life series.]