The World’s Worst Industrial Tragedy: Blame Game of an Unethical Dilemma, 1984-2010

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.

group6pic1

 

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.

Nonetheless for further cost reduction, the main safety systems were shut down and other units were kept in poor condition with negligible maintenance.

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.

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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

 

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20 thoughts on “The World’s Worst Industrial Tragedy: Blame Game of an Unethical Dilemma, 1984-2010

  1. Hi Omang,

    I read this this piece, it is well-argued for the most part and is quite impassioned in tone, which is nice. I do have some minor quibbles, however:

    1. “However, according to duty and virtue ethics this led to the world’s cruellest criminal negligence offence ever recorded in human’s history.” There’s Chernobyl, There’s the Hindenberg. There’re quite a few other instances, but I won’t belabour the point. Using such extreme hyperbole in what is otherwise a technical report seems rather unwarranted.

    2. While comparing compensation money between this and the BP spill, you forget to take into account the differences in the legal systems in both cases. Even basic tort laws in India take into account our lower purchasing power parity.

    3. “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.” Name said journalist. Unnamed sources/anecdotes weaken your argument somewhat.

    4. While you call it a flow chart, it does not adhere to standard syntax (oval-shaped for start/stop, rhombus for yes/no decisions, rectangular for particular steps being executed, et cetera), which confuses someone trying to trace the logical threads of your argument.

    5. Last but not least, I did enjoy the piece very much. However, I expected to get an engineering perspective, not a legal/journalistic one (for which I could have gone elsewhere). Would it not be possible to actually explain the actual content of the neglected audit and describe it for us laymen?

    Great work overall though, it was a fun read.

    Best,
    Anshu

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your thoughts Anshu.

      1. The theme of the article was professional ethics. Thus this piece of writing is driven by keeping the Ethical Cycle in mind.

      2. There was a difference in law of both nations and that can be a possible gap left uncovered by the law of the democratic nation.

      3. The journalists name is Mr. Rajkumar Keswani. We would have mentioned it had we not been constrained with a word limit of 1000 words.

      4. The flow chart is present to explain a sequence of facts which had no if or for loops like in computer programing.
      The message is ironical since it is called a flowchart but if you observe it has NO LOGIC in the decions being made.
      I am glad you pointed this out. It feels like a stone out of my heart to have expressed this viewpoint 🙂

      5. As I stated before we were constrained with a 1000 wrords limit and the theme was Ethical cycle.
      Although I can point out in the article that 3 out of 4 safety systems were out of order and the 4th one was ineffective. The active systems water jet had a limit of 100 feet but the chimney was 120 feet tall thus that also failed. Another one was active but its indicator displayed a wrong reading which fooled the workers due to non-maintainance of UCIL officials cost saving obsession and ignorance.
      The Audit stated that the MIC storage tank design is substandard but it was ignored by the government and UCIL both and was given a green signal.

      It was nice to know you enjoyed reading our blog !! Please let us also know the answer to our questions who you feel was responsible 🙂

      Omang Khurana

      Like

    1. I know.. the government has certainly hidden the number to creat lesser opposition among the crowd and have claimed lesser number of deaths. It is unfortunate that we need a strong evidence behind every fact stated. Since that is not the case in comments I appreciate your comment and quote what I was willing to say.

      However I would like to know who you think is responsible .. UCIL or Government ?

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  2. I believe the the government’s officials corruption and greed was the basis on which Union Carbide was able to successfully kill so many.

    I really like the flowchart presentation.

    Warren Anderson and co. Were merely doing business to earn their profits but but being aware of the consequences they should not have proceeded forward.

    It was alarming to have seen such a long period to see a decision but India currently has merely one judge for 100,000 people to make decisions. This the major cause of delays in decisions and the judicial system was unable to be fair to thd sufferers.

    The reported stats used for each instance are correct. However in reality there were more deaths. But journalism needs proof and the real number is hidden.

    I appreciate your writing skills. Very good consideration of professional ethics especially utilitarianism being aptly explained.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hello everyone.

    I being a resident of Bhopal can say that this was a horrific incident that had taken place and my parents were just lucky to stay outside the city at the time of the incident.

    I personally believe the government could have exercised its right to cease their operations in the country. Despite of knowing that, they didn’t. The courts decision was totally depressing.

    Till date a person might faint if they enter that area. Purely pathetic.

    Like

  4. This is certainly a very nice presentation with accurately presented data .. the cost of the human life ($2K) is considered very cheap in this case. Something that is invaluable was measured in materialistic manner is pretty unethical and its not only the UCIL or the Indian state government. It is also the the USA DoJ that has been insensitive to the innocent public.

    BP had to pay a lot because it was environmental pollution and to cover up for others business losses but human life was neglected there also.

    No short term happiness is greater than the cost of life in my opinion and if that is what the government wanted as stated ( I feel is true) then this incident was done by UCIL with governments backing (root cause).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can totally agree with this opinion of yours. However, the USA DoJ can’t be blamed for the incident but surely their ignorance towards the Indian crowd was unethical for them.

      Like

  5. The ending of the case is more heart breaking than the tragedy itself! I strongly criticize against the legal system and courts of India and America because the criminals have not been punished fairly!

    To begin with, the case presents almost all corners of the case, especially by finding enough evidence to convict almost every stakeholders. But the real question is why everybody did not punished fairly!

    Since UCIL is a half governmental enterprise (49%) and they had taken part in the Bhopal plant, they are convict. I would argue, all head of Indian governmental responsible people should be punished by law since they have ignored their virtue ethics. I would accuses them by not shutting the factory during these 4 years of work! How is that possible 4 years of work, no government safety bodies have written a critique against the factory! If there had been a governmental organisation who check safety of factories in India, they are responsible too.

    The other party (UCC) is one of the main responsible too, they have ignored all cross cultural misunderstanding, and they still run the factory since they knew repetitive not safety case has recorded. I do not even know how UCC still working till now for other places! The company has a very bad record in entire history, they have even repeated deadly explosive mistakes like Bhopal in the United State after 2 decades (CSB, 2014). I would argue every governments including my country should take licence back from these criminals, and executing them forever from working! Courts should stop UCC from working forever because they have ignored virtue ethics of human rights.

    Hunar B Aziz,
    CSB. 2014. YouTube in Reflections on Bhopal After Thirty Years. [Online]. [Accessed 9 April 2017]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZirRB32qzU&t=232s

    Like

    1. This incident was so uncalled for and was so unanticipated. The corporate white collars lawyers did their job well by advicing them fleeing the country and remained happy despite of their consequentialism and warren never got punished the government cannot just do a surgical strike for a business failure. I would have suggested the same had I been their lawyer. SOme publications were made forecasting this incident but were crushed because of UCC but was done by the government and evidences exist of chief misister Sharma threatening of the same.

      Like

  6. Hello,

    I read the article as a person who wasn’t familiar with chemical industry but it was well written and well argued.I didn’t know how tragic was this incident.You presented the facts and sequence of events in a professional way which was impressive.

    The other point which I liked about this piece of work, was the authors tried nicely to touch principle of Argumentation by; first providing evidences and secondly finishing article with open ended questions which indirectly convinced readers by their opinions.

    However in regards to roots and causes of this unfortunate incident, I was wondering which ones have more weight on this? Very good comments by other readers and I agree with one of them who mentioned this incident was caused mainly by UCC(UCIL) with governments backing .
    Overall it was nice and educational about professional ethics. In my opinion, authors correctly addressed the consequentialism .

    Like

  7. Hello my dear Omang. Thanks for inviting me to read your article. It is always so good to see you participate wherever you go and come up with amazing unique arguments.

    This article has appealed to me emotionally. Initially I thought; Ofcourse it is the the UCC which came up with all the devilish ideas and knew its consequences but they neglected them. The words consequrncialism and utilitarianism along with virtue ethics are bought to justice in this piece of writing.

    I personally believe the government not being able to bring justice to the dead by not extraditing warren anderson was a huge upset. It was him n his henchmen who set this hovoc into action), his orders and his greed. But any government is not allowed to practice such dreadful utilitarian acts. Democracy died along with the people of that state in India.

    This article has actually stated some facts about the government I never knew about the incident like their share in the business And now I feel convinced to blame the government also.

    All the best,
    Annette 😉

    Like

  8. Very well written. After having being with the Human Resources department of MNC’s like Samsung and Haier, what I can say is that this factory did not have a proper HR department for a fact. There were only 2 people whoe were called HR of the company and they were puppets of the Americans in who literally had no power in decision making. The monitor of the company was totally silent.

    Also, expense cutting was so important because of the bad condition of the business which was a normal business strategy and they anyways had a plan to shut the business down after a comfortable brake even. Unfortunately this tragedy happened before it. There were so many mis communications an so many accidents have even gone unreported.

    Like

  9. Hi Bro !

    The state government of Madhya Pradesh was one of the most corrupted governments in the country back then. They used to give approval to so many unethical acts for only small money like Rs. 1 Lakh or so. This state still has the laziest government till date and had it not been for Indore’s (mini-Mumbai) existence in the state this could not have been even half as rich as it is today. Bhopal is the capital city but is not as advanced as other state capital cities in India (Mumbai or Ahmedabad especially).

    The government and other Indian authorities were not an active member in the business they were like shareholders of the business. Anyhow it was the cowardliness and greed of the government officials that did not make them stop UCIL’s inappropriate storage tank design. But despite of UCC having 51% shares of UCIL, the company required the civil authorities approval which was only unde rthe power of the state’s CPWD (an organisation that is formed by CIVIL, MECHANICAL AND CHEMICAL ENGINEERS).

    And the above justifies the utilitarian act of the government as their own engineers chose to stay silent to keep their senior officials (elected greedy and lazy politicians) happy by keeping people employed near the election time, who in turn were trying to keep the UCC happy.

    Not only their vote bank reduce, their entire population also reduced within a few hours. Luckily India has changed completely after this incident and never ever one such horrific scene ever been created again. That chief minister was also never re-elected again.

    Like

  10. Based on what I know about this incident the government officials had complete information about what was going on in the factory and 3 out of 4 safety systems being shut was a cause of the lenience of the government with the company. The company’s supporters also had tried to spread information that MIC was only a tear gas and was safe and did not keep antidote of it in their factory because the lawful norms did not require it.

    It was also in news that the government also was supporting UCIL’s statement after such a horrible incident and were heavily criticized for it also. After all back in that time globalisation was not so prominent in India and the government had ultimate authority over all such decisions. A sensible business especially a foreigner won’t care about public and its environment but the government should have.

    The people put casted their votes for the wrong people unfortunately. They served as serpents instead of public servants.

    Thank you.

    Like

  11. Good article! I remember this tragic incident when I was in my 20th. I agree with authors, furthermore, the recession of 1970-71 beaten commodities companies like Union Carbide, with the chemicals and plastics markets entering another cycle of overcapacity. The company found itself increasingly strapped for cash. Therefore, UCC cut off costs especially from its CEO whom pushed to increase profits as much as possible with compromising safety, and reducing moral workforce and creating unsafe work environment.
    In addition, corporate worst handling on aftermath incident, such as poor compensation for victims, and no responsibility on clean-up of toxic from environment is needed to be mentioned.
    Overall, Article had some balance and faire argue on both parties, corporate and local governments. I believe both are fully responsible on this tragedy.

    Like

  12. Good article. I would say it was the government because the safety of public was their responsibility which they miserably failed to live up to. Audit reports dont go unnoticed in India so easily untill and unless there is a very big amount of money being paid to the people in control of such decisions. So if they did not stop cruel businessmen from doing such things it was their fault.

    Like

  13. Hello,
    Thank you for your blog! That was very unfortunate incident. For me as an Art student, it was fascinating to learn that in engineering world or industry in general how elements such as human errors or company’s ignorance, or authority ‘s utilitarian bias could end-up with such a disaster.
    I read both views, very good arguments and it was an eye-opening for me. However, it is very difficult for me to distinguishing between them and with confident say that party to be blamed as I believe both were blameworthy.
    Thanks, I learn something new today!

    Like

  14. Hello. I am not a journalist myself but I have been working with the Times of India for the past 33 years handling their advertisements for central India. The journalist that was threatened was Mr. Rajkumar Keswani (very popular now) and was also personally threatened by the CM Arjun Singh to allow Union Carbide continue their operations without restrictions because they were employing a large section of the crowd living nearby the factory. He was the first to expose that 3 out of 4 safety systems in that factory were shut down.
    It is absolutely true that the government officials had interfered with the doctor’s treatment of many patients and I myself remember these articles being published not only by TOI, but other top newspapers of 1984 and 1985 like Nayi Duniya, Hundustan Times etc. Union Carbide and government had claimed MIC to be harmless but evidence was against them.
    Good reporting of professional ethics by the way, which is the theme of this page.

    Like

  15. I forgot to in my previous comment- those safety systems were shout down after the audit reports were dumped by the concerned authorities.

    Thank you.

    Like

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