On the catastrophic night of 2nd December 1984, in Bhopal, India more than 40 tons of highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from a pesticide production plant immediately killing at least 3,800 people and proceeded to approximately 20,000 deaths in the following two decades.
Multiple social and ethical issues were raised and conflicts to reason who the culprit was had occurred. Should the corporate be blamed for criminal negligence and an act of consequentialism? Or the democratic government for conducting deliberately an act of unethical utilitarianism?
Should we blame corporate sell outs?
Evaluating the series of events that established the stage for the Bhopal tragedy and its aftermath, it becomes obvious that all main stakeholders involved such as Union Carbide Corporation(UCC) and its Indian subsidiary, UCIL and the Government of India(GOI) neglected multiple responsibilities. However, from ethical dilemma perspective, many argue that Corporate Negligence was the major cause for this disaster.
What Ethical codes were broken before the disaster? There were some serious ethical issues prior to the catastrophe happening on the night of the incident. An agreement was signed between GoI and UCIL to build a pesticide manufacturing plant in Bhopal. The area picked to operate wasn’t a perfect location for such a hazardous industry despite of objection by UCC’s engineer Eduardo Munoz who was against the proposed site of the factory and designed capacity. He believed that the location was densely populated, besides that the inadequate plant design would increase hazards and suggested an alternative option. However, UCC officials ignored both warnings which showed the plant design was severely influenced by economic constraints alongside critical gaps on safety.
Since May 1980 when the Bhopal plant produced its first gallons of MIC, the factory had caused death and injury to many due to Improper Safety Management. The audit report which was presented to the UCC officials in 1982, revealed that the Bhopal plant was facing many potential hazards while highlighting extreme concern over the workforce competency and lack of many safety equipments. This was a consequence of UCC’s initiative to minimize costs, firstly by job cutting and sadly eliminating key positions such as maintenance supervisor and drastically shortening the safety training period.
Moreover, brutal style of management was another ethical issue which weakened employee morale. There were serious communication issues between UCC and UCIL such as cross-cultural barriers, hands-off approach to its overseas operation, frozen promotions and forcing workforce to read English manuals. Almost 70% of the plant’s workforce was penalized for declining to abide by the inappropriate safety rules.
As it illustrated in above flowchart, those series of incidents and near misses were clear indications of the potential risks to public life which eventually snowballed into a devastation. However, the UCC top management neglecting the Bhopal plant since it was no longer attractive from the economic outlook. Thus, it followed that the plant should cease operations.
It was UCC management’s burden to act in the best interest of shareholders by cutting cost to improvise their wealth. Therefore, corporate consequentialist ethical behaviour could be justified on consequences when making judgment with trade-offs of money, safety, and risk mitigation.
Shouldn’t the corporate consequentialist behaviour consider the safety of the innocent public and their employees?
OR blame the democratically elected lawmakers?
UCIL and the government practiced an act of utilitarianism by attempting to maximize the happiness of the people employed in the factory through regular employment. However, according to duty and virtue ethics this led to the world’s cruellest criminal negligence offence ever recorded in human’s history. Around 49.1% shares of UCIL were owned by Indian government controlled authorities and public which directly makes the government responsible.
The authorized government body had unethically and deliberately approved an unsafe MIC storage tank design modification. The Chief Minister of state backed UCIL in the decision merely to increase his vote bank. Also the basic safety norms set by the GoI weren’t up to mark because in other plants MIC was stored in smaller tanks without interconnections, unlike in India which was one of the root causes of the tragedy. Evidence containing the major drawbacks found in the audit carried out on UCIL’s production plant were ignored despite of internal whistle-blowing by the safety officer. Also a whistleblowing journalist was threatened by political leaders about cancellation of his publication license if he dared to publicly spoil the image of UCIL by forecasting the tragedy based on the audit report. All these points prove government corruption being another root cause for the disaster.
Furthermore, no minimum qualification standards were set for factory workers in 1984 which legally allowed UCIL to employ unqualified workers to save salary expenses whereas today a diploma in a relevant subject is necessary. Also doctors stated that the state government stopped hospitals giving patients antidote by falsely denying the possibility of cyanide poisoning under UCIL’s lobbyists influence.
In addition, the court’s decision remained pending until 2010 (25 years) to decide upon such a sensitive case which required negligible evidence to be put forward. The traumatised population and humans and animal corpses enveloping the streets were sufficient evidence.
After the court’s decision, 7 Indian officials were convicted for criminal negligence but were imprisoned only for 2 years and fined $2,200 each which was the maximum penalization for the crime. Also a compensation of approximately $470 Million was charged to UCIL making roughly $2,000 per human corpse. This compared to a recent disaster like BP oil spill which killed only 11 people is a very poor compensation since they paid $62.5 Billion for their shortcomings.
Despite of this, the compensation never reached many deserving people because a large chunk of them had corpse identification issues or couldn’t find the corpses of their loved ones in the splatter of poisoned dead bodies scattered all over the city. The government miserably failed in extraditing Warren Anderson (UCC’s CEO) from USA after simple ignorance by USA’s Department of Justice which was unjust for the affected. In addition, UCIL or the state government never apologized for any of the related events.
Should GoI consider utilitarianism for contentment or virtue ethics for a safer lifestyle?
Group 6: Ayman Ghosn, Kourosh N. Tioola, Mohammad Zaki Mohammad, Omang Khurana