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Bhopal remembered

It has now been twenty years since the release of chemicals at a Union Carbide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal killed thousands of people, and today I heard that Dow (which took over Union Carbide three years ago) has announced an multi billion aid package.

With all the anti-American and anti-big business stuff in the media it is hard to get at the facts of the case. But the following are the facts as I understand them. If I am mistaken I am open to correction. I have no great love for the business model of ownerless corporations (or rather enterprises where most of the shares are owed by institutions), but some counter balance to the tide of abuse in the media seems to be in order.

Union Carbide built the plant because of the taxes on imports then in place in India, it did not build the plant in order to avoid following American safety standards of production.

Due to the regulations of the “Permit Raj” the plant was under the control of an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide and the American parent company had little control over day to day operation of the plant.

The local State government went back on promises not to allow people to squat near to the plant – this may have increased casualties.

A Union Carbide investigation of the terrible incident reported that it may have been caused by sabotage and that the person responsible for the sabotage may have been a local employee (not an American at all).

Union Carbide paid, in full, the damages awarded by an Indian court.

Union Carbide officials have tried to avoid visiting the site because when the President of the company did so he was arrested, and was only able to return the United States by ‘skipping bail’. It was fear, not cruelty, that kept them away.

After the terrible incident the local State government took over the site and this site is still in a terrible state to this day. It is in the interests of local politicians and officials to blame ‘American big business’ in order to cover up their own failure to clean up the site in the many years they have controlled it.

I repeat that I am open to correction on any of the above. It would not greatly surprise me if Union Carbide were to blame (as I have said I am not a great lover of ownerless corps), but that is not the situation as I understand it.

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14 comments to Bhopal remembered

  • Verity

    Paul – Yours is the first sensible report of the Bhopal explosion I have read. You are correct on all your points. It was at a time when I was travelling to India regularly and I was familiar with the setup around places like that plant.

    The American company did everything it could do to keep people away from the plant. They chased the squatters away, but they kept coming, having heard there might be jobs. Union Carbide put the word out that there were no jobs. There were absolutely no plans for any more jobs. Not even one sweeper more would be hired.

    But the people simply didn’t believe the management of the company. They thought it was a trick, because they weren’t accustomed to openness from management of important companies. They set up a little shanty town. Union Carbide kept shutting it down and sending the people scampering, but by evening they were back, squatting, cooking their dinners in oil over open flames. Other than take power hoses to them, there was absolutely nothing the management could do. These extremely simple people didn’t understand the premise of trespass, and there were far too many of them to arrest.

    When I read about the horror, I felt terribly sorry for all the ignorant little squatters, but they were there at their own insistence. The management had done its best, given that they were in a Third World (at that time) country and the people simply refused to heed warnings.

    I couldn’t believe the stupid contumely that was heaped on Union Carbide after the event (well, yes I could, actually). But these people had been told and told and told that there were no jobs and no plans for more jobs; and that they weren’t allowed to squat anywhere near the premises because it was dangerous.

    I’m sure things are very different now. Television has introduced a raised level of sophistication and knowing to these remote peoples. Today, the policing would be more sophisticated, and I think people would think that warnings about safety were real warnings about safety, not some clever ruse to weed out the frightened, leaving the clever and brave still squatting with purpose.

  • zem

    The Dow aid package is a hoax. The BBC believed it.

  • synSthEtE

    You began your entry with ” If I am mistaken I am open to correction. I have no great love for the business model of ownerless corporations (or rather enterprises where most of the shares are owed by institutions).” At the end of the entry you write “It would not greatly surprise me if Union Carbide were to blame (as I have said I am not a great lover of ownerless corps)”.

    What does your love of one thing or another have to do with getting the facts about this story? How are your feelings about ownerless corps relevant?

  • Verity, where the squatters there solely to find work with UC, or because they needed somewhere to live, or hoped to do business

    I read that whilst UC has alleged sabotage, it has not been willing to try and prove these allegations in court.

  • Interesting post. Thanks Paul.

  • J

    I think most of your statements are correct. You could add the point about the Indian Government’s inability to actually distribute what money was paid in compensation by Union Carbide.

    Also, it’s true that the plant was built to meet (an assumed) local need for fertiliser, rather than to circumvent US safety laws. However, (according to BBC..) the local market never materialised, making the plant something of a waste of effort, and meaning that it fell into poor management and disrepair.

    However, Union Carbide’s assertion that the accident was the result of malicious damage is not verified (as far as I know) by anyone outside of Union Carbide. I don’t think it’s believed by anyone outside of the company either. There is no evidence of either mechanism nor motive. I’ll grant you there’s plenty of opportunity. UC simply assert that an accident was impossible, so it must have been malicious. This is a pity, because while I can forgive accidents, I can’t forgive deeply cynical cover ups and blame dodging.

    In any case, it is undoubtedly true that UC did not follow their own safety guidelines, and that they attempted to avoid responsibility as much as possible.

    The arrest of their CEO was not (in my opinion) an unreasonable action by the Indian authorities at the time, but it was ultimately unhelpful.

    Industrial accidents are an inevitable side effect of industry. I don’t have a problem with them per se. I don’t think that every time someone dies as a result, the board should face a criminal investigation or whatever. The fact that the plant in Bhopal was in disrepair and poorly staffed and managed, with no real response plan to an accident is bad, but even then you can blame the Indian authorities for not inspecting it – or for taking bribes for ignoring what they saw, or for not passing better safety laws or whatever.

    But finally, you can’t escape the appalling reaction of UC to the incident. It’s that I mind most. Even now, the union carbide website has an offensively self-righteous section on Bhopal.

  • Verity

    Kit Taylor – No, they didn’t ‘need somewhere to live’. They had their villages to live in. Cooking over little stoves and sleeping on the ground outside a factory is not ‘somewhere to live’. They had heard some stupid rumour that there was work, or they simply thought that because this plant was American, there might be free pickings or handouts or whatever. Who knows how these rumours start and how they develop a life of their own? The thing is, they were continually chased away, but they kept coming back.

    I don’t know anything about UC’s safety record or whether charges of sabotage are true and I’m not interested. But if those people hadn’t been squatting illegally around the walls of the plant, they wouldn’t have died.

  • J


    Although most of the deaths were of people in shanty towns built around the plant:

    1. Many of the deaths, and many more of the chronic illnesses, we suffered by people living in normal villages well established before UC ever came to the area.

    2. Many of the shanty towns had been made legal by the authorities prior to the disaster – so the population were within their rights to live there by the time of the disaster.

    I’m not aware that UC ever tried to close the shanty towns down for safety reasons, but it’s not an unreasonable theory – is there any evidence of this? It is true that workers at the plant warned each other and the general local population of the dangers of the (by now decaying) plant, but I don’t think was sanctioned by UC at all.

  • Verity –
    No, they didn’t ‘need somewhere to live’. They had their villages to live in. Cooking over little stoves and sleeping on the ground outside a factory is not ‘somewhere to live’

    You may not be aware of the Indian rural-urban dynamics. People do not wish to leave their villages but have to move to cities for work and if you ever visit any major city, you would be apalled at the living conditions. That doesn’t justify UC’s negligence. Would it have been OK for few people to die due to chemical leakage instead of the thousands who did, just because they had no place to live?

  • Dr Eric

    The prime cause of the disaster was the leak of toxic vapour. The numbers of people living close by, within the danger zone, were then an amplifying factor, after the event. [And had the plant been sited in the middle of a desert, perhaps there would have been no deaths at all.]

    What we see here, yet again, is the mis-match between the degree of negligence and the harm resulting. ‘A’ drives drunkenly and hits a lamp-post, injuring only himself and denting his car. ‘B’ hits and kills a child. ‘C’, equally drunk, gets home safe nonetheless. Neglect a rusty pipe at Bhopal: death toll in the 10’s of 1,000’s. Equally neglect one equally rusty at the sewage works, sh*t all over town, but no real harm done!

    We see this every day, and woryingly, in some of the outcry against those whose actions, driving particularly, have led to tragedy. Some of them deserve a kicking but I do feel a bit sorry [not totally] for the guy who fell asleep, ran off the road and derailed the train. Everyone was baying for his blood, but again, the harm was out of proportion to the fault and he deserves only to be punished for the fault. [And what about the highway authority who did not set up a barrier at this obviously vulnerable point?]

    It’s hardly to be expected that the tabloids will draw the distinction, but it’s worrying to note that some Courts seem to be missing it too.

    Sorry, this is eventually a bit off the point. Ultimately, I do not think there is any way Union Carbide escape overall responsibility here

  • The Bhopal plant wasn’t actually owned by Union Carbide but by joint venture called Union Carbide India which was majority owned by Indian interest under the auspicion of the Indian government. When the plant was built India was at the height of its experiment in nationalistic socialism and did not allow foreign companies to invest directly in India. The India government not only had the responsibilities of a regulating body for overseeing the plant but also the responsibilities of the majority owner.

    Union Carbide shares blame for designing the plant around an older industrial process that required the storage of large amounts of methyl isocyanate. Such designs had largely been phased out in the developed world although they had been used safely there for decades. One plant using the same process remained in W. Virginia.

    On possible cause of the disaster was poor maintenance caused by jobs awarded and maintained through political patronage, a problem which is very familiar with anyone with 3rd world experience. Poorly trained or phantom employees lead to poor maintenance which leads to failures. Managers can often not correct these problems without running afoul of the workers political patrons.

    Assuming the disaster wasn’t caused by sabotage, I think it quite probable that had the plant operated with more direct control from Union Carbide international the disaster never would have occurred.

  • Verity

    Patrix, Thank you for your little tutorial, but this is what I said above. You have told me nothing I didn’t know, so reading other bloggers’ comments before racing to post your own valuable contribution is a very sound idea.

    Would it have been OK for few people to die due to chemical leakage instead of the thousands who did, just because they had no place to live?

    They had all of India to live in. They didn’t have to continually squat in the surrounds of what they thought was a rich American factory that they unaccountably believed they were going to get something out of. They were deeply ignorant people who couldn’t read and had probably never seen a television in their lives. They were operating out of another age, and they simply refused to leave when they were chased away because they didn’t believe the warnings.

    Wot Shannon Love said.

  • Paul Marks

    Well first I apologize for being just accepting the Dow compensation story – I was dumb.

    On the “made legal” stuff. No I stand with Verity there – I do not accept that government can make theft legal (one of the reasons I am a libertarian), yes I am a natural law man. Historical usurpation I will accept – if you own something I will not jump about and say “it is not yours because your great grandfather was a thief”. But no, you can not steal some land, get the local government to apprive the theft and then pretend you are not a thief.

    As for my comments about not loving ownerless corps – yes, “my bad” (as the modern saying goes), I should not let my feelings influence my thinking. However, the company did get into bed with a government backed local venture (I hate these public-private partnerships, and I have good reason to hate them).

    Shannon Love seems to know a lot (more than I do) – so it is best that I leave the floor.