Union Carbide – The Worst Industrial Accident in History

Possibly the strongest piece of case-study evidence supporting the Marxist view of crime

In December 1984, an explosion at a pesticide plant in Bhopal India, then owned by the American multi-national Union Carbide, lead to deadly gas fumes leaking into the surrounding atmosphere and toxic chemicals into the ground. That was more than 25 years, but, according to the Bhopal Medical Appeal (1), a toxic legacy still remains.  In addition to the 3000 people that died almost immediately, over the last two and a half decades, there have been a further 20,000 deaths and 120 000 cases of people suffering from health problems, including severe deformities and blindness, as a result of the toxic seepage into the surrounding area from the plant (2).

Since the disaster, survivors have been plagued with an epidemic of cancers, menstrual disorders and what one doctor described as “monstrous births” and victims of the gas attack eke out a perilous existence – 50,000 Bhopalis can’t work due to their injuries and some can’t even muster the strength to move. The lucky survivors have relatives to look after them; many survivors have no family left.

The plant had actually ceased producing pesticides by the time of the explosion, because Union Carbide had realised that there was not sufficient demand for this product in India. The apparent root cause of the accident was that the plant had not been properly maintained following the ceasing of production, although tons of toxic chemicals still remained on the site. More details of how the accident happened can be found at (1) below

It wasn’t until 1989 that Union Carbide, in a partial settlement with the Indian government, agreed to pay out some $470 million in compensation. The victims weren’t consulted in the settlement discussions, and many felt cheated by their compensation -$300-$500 – or about five years’ worth of medical expenses. Today, those who were awarded compensation are hardly better off than those who weren’t.

In 1991, the local government in Bhopal charged Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s CEO at the time of the disaster, with manslaughter. If tried in India and convicted, he faces a maximum of ten years in prison. But neither the American nor the Indian government seem interested in disturbing him with an extradition,

The Union Carbide Corporation itself was charged with culpable homicide, a criminal charge whose penalty has no upper limit. These charges have never been resolved, as Union Carbide, like its former CEO, has refused to appear before an Indian court.

Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical in 2001. Dow says the legal case was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for 470 million dollars, and that all responsibility for the factory now rests with the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which now owns the site.

To this day, despite requests to appear in court from the Indian government, and despite the compensation which itself may well be regarded by some as an admittal of guilt, the company and its CEO have not faced criminal charges and the owner continues to be profitable on the stock market.

In a rather strange bizarre turn of events, following a wave of publicity around the 25 year anniversary of the Bhopaln disaster, 7 Indian executives were recently found guilty in an Indian court, however, these are not the CEO, it is 25 years too late, one is dead, and they are presently released on bail.

Analysis – so what does the ‘Bhopal-Dow chemical suggest about corporate ethics? – How harmful is this?

If we look at the raw number of deaths and injuries, this is the worst industrial accident of all time; and in terms of immediate harm and suffering to people it ranks considerably higher than September the 11th – with a death toll of roughly 3000, so in terms of sheer numbers the amount of harm is huge.

What the eight Indian employees were found guilty of, and what the CEO would also have gone on trial for,  is neglect – neglecting to adequately maintain the factory once it was not profitable – and it was this neglect that lead to the explosion that caused the 20 000 deaths and 120 000 illnesses. So the company is directly responsible for immense human suffering because of this neglect.

In addition, Union Carbide also remains liable for the environmental devastation its operations have caused. The contamination that Union Carbide left behind continues to spread. Barrels of toxic chemicals still lie open, and people are still forced to drink poisoned water.

What makes this case worse is the actions of the company after the tragedy, which clearly suggest that the profitability of the company always came before the well being of the individuals harmed – the derisory settlement out of court in 1989 suggesting it was liable, without consulting the victims could be regarded as an effort to put an end to the affair – especially as the company is quoted as having said this is the case.

Then there is the fact that the CEO simply went missing for years afterwards and has failed to stand up for criminal trial.

On final analysis, however, the real problem here is the pursuit of the bottom line – it was increased profit that sent the company to India and it is wishing to avoid compensation for the victims – because they can get away with it in India. This is a classic case of a powerful company shafting the powerless, and it continues to this day.

As a brief aside, However, it is important to note that the company did not set out to kill 20 000 people and one can reasonably assume that Union Carbide did not actually want this to happen. Also, it might be argued that, in terms of motive, Union Carbide are not in the same league as mining companies or damn building companies or even Oil companies who displace people from their land without taking steps to compensate those displaced peoples adequately. One couldn’t have reasonably foretold that this would happen.

(1)  http://bhopal.org/index.php?id=22

(2)  See tropic of cancer…

(3)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ehFcv4ywvA&feature=related – follow the ‘short documentary’ series rather than the other documentary series

(4)  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8725140.stm


So I feel sympathy for the victims of Bhopal and (maybe?) cold, bitter hatred for Dow Chemicals – but what can I do?

Quite a lot for this one! – here are some ideas…..

Firstly, you can make a donation to the Bhopal Medical Appeal –  https://www.committedgiving.uk.net/bhopal/public/donor.aspx

Secondly, if you know where your nearest Dow offices are, or if you happen to find out when the next event will be that ‘Dow chemicals’ will be sponsoring or appearing at you might like to try something like this  http://www.youtube.com/BhopalMedicalAppeal (and check out the 12 year old – whose made me question my belief to never have children – because if they turn out like him, perhaps reproducing would be worthwhile after all)

Thirdly, you could watch this film and get inspired- http://theyesmenfixtheworld.com/ – which is about two anti-corporate media activists who stick it to immoral corporations with a sense of humour.  This part of their web site http://challenge.theyesmen.org/ gives you some ideas of how you can hold Corporations to account and undermine their power.