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Bhopal: criminal, immoral, or the cost of business as usual?

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Beloved, our people drink up the filthy water

Heroines and heroes take deep breaths of killing air

Our guts and lungs are filled with bitter chemistry,

Poison, pain and cancers we lock inside our bodies,

Accumulating toxic wealth, letting no one share it.

Law, progress, justice, these are the names of our diseases. 

                                                               (Prem Nizar Hameed)

The legal proceedings that have followed the mass killings and environmental destruction, UCC (Union Carbide) and Warren Andersen’s status as absconders from justice, and the re-opening of the out-of-court settlement, are all clear indicators of illegality in the production and wake of the events of December 1984. In our earlier articles, we have demonstrated that, sociologically at least, we can re-cast these events as criminal. Moreover, the enduring harms to which Prem Nizar Hameed points, above, are indications that UCC, UCIL and Dow should all be objects of moral condemnation – while Dow’s efforts to ingratiate themselves with the international community as sponsors of the 2012 London Olympics must continue to be resisted.

Whether we effectively label Bhopal as crime, or harm, or both, for much economic discourse, what happened at Bhopal is simply a cost of doing business – negative externalities, borne by people or environments, for which the latter can be compensated, thus forcing (some of) the costs back onto the corporation which produced them. Neo-classical, and, above all, neo-liberal economists, believe that, in principle and in the name of efficiency, all relations involved in the production, distribution and use of goods and services should be organised in and through a ‘competitive market system’ - a ‘supply-demand-price mechanism’ (Neale 1971: 96).

For such economists, there are two major factors which inhibit this ‘pure’ form of capitalism. First, there are inevitably ‘market failures,’ these are sometimes because the potential market is relatively limited compared to the high sunk costs required to produce goods for it and another reason for market failure is that many human beings, much of the time, are fools or knaves.  Any suspicion that trading partners are inept or venal justifies surveillance and disciplinary practices which may constitute a significant additional transaction cost.  This may be reduced if authoritarian relations in hierarchical organisations replace sets of market relations. Second, there are externalities. Trading partners in one market may inflict collateral benefits or damages on actors in other markets without compensation (Blum 1998: 4). In this case, then, the major focus is not on the costs and benefits accrued by contracting parties involved in a particular private economic exchange, but rather on their effects on other sets of private economic exchanges.

In the case of negative externalities, simple consensual solutions may be arrived at by negotiations between the parties, or failing that through negotiations subject to civil law, even tort law.  A typical example of a positive externality is that a landowner planting a forest upstream may improve the quality of the water on somebody else’s land downstream. A typical example of a negative externality is the polluting side effects of an industrial production process. Both negative and positive externalities are construed on the basis of markets in property rights in the assumption that everything has a price.  

When faced with negative externalities, most people desire compensation of some kind; delayed trains, uneven pavements, and low flying aircraft, for example, may be irksome, but they are (generally) little more than nuisances and do not threaten the life, limb or the general health of oneself or one’s family, friends, colleagues, communities. In such cases, monetary compensation is often enough for inconveniences caused. However, when life, limb and general health are involved, people are not concerned only with compensation but often also with punitive damages as a potential deterrent to potentially harmful conduct. They also demand something intangible, not reducible to these former, phenomena, which they often term ‘justice’. By contrast, corporations routinely take risks, knowing these will may or are likely to endanger the lives of others, calculating the potential costs of doing so and protecting themselves from these by insurance cover – then, under the cover of ‘commercial secrecy’, hide the dangers that they face from the likely victims.

UCC/UCE and UCIL assumed that assigning a price to things, to life and limb, to relationships, left it legally protected because (a little) money can compensate victims for any loss - or should do so. This assumption informed Union Carbide’s way of doing business, its reckless exposure of workers to unsafe working conditions associated with the use and production of toxic chemicals, and its indifference to the risks to the nearby communities kept ignorant of what was being done on their doorsteps. It decided it was cost effective to put these particular people at risk - after all, the cost of compensation depends on the particular economic value given different lives.

The people of Bhopal have since shown that to help survivors and their families live with as much dignity as can be salvaged, to provide medical care and employment, to rebuild shattered communities, they need real compensation, not a sum that values their lives as worth one twentieth or less of those in the West. But this is no admission that any amount of compensation can make up for the loss of a mother, a son, a friend, or a trusted work colleague. For many of the victims in Bhopal, much remains to be done: the guilty must be brought to justice, imprisoned for life and punitive damages imposed; Dow and its shareholders must be made to clean up the toxic mess left behind in Bhopal; offers of no-fault cleanups, as suggested by Tata and its Indian and international corporate allies, need to be resisted. Then, perhaps then, may there be some smallest indication of justice being done. More generally, of course, corporate charters need to be rescinded and dissolved: for this is the only basis on which they, and we too, might look forward to NO MORE BHOPALS..


Frank Pearce, Professor of Sociology, Queen's University, Canada, and Steve TombsProfessor of Sociology, Liverpool John Moores University.

For Part 1 of this series, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power: the Continuing Disaster at Bhopal.

For Part 2, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 2: Explaining the Disaster at Bhopal

For Part 3, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 3: Was the disaster at Bhopal "unforeseeable"?

For Part 4, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 4: the Bhopal 'settlement'.

For the Bibliography and any references cited in this series of articles, click on The Bhopal Disaster: Pearce & Tombs' bibliography

For info on the Pearce and Tombs 'column' here on CrimeTalk, click on Crimes of the Powerful and Insurgent Resistance.

The series makes use of ch. 6 of Frank Pearce and Steve Tombs' Toxic Capitalism: Corporate Crime in the Chemical Industry, 1998, Ashgate: Aldershot; paperback version, 1999, Canadian Scholars Press, Toronto. See also: Tombs, S. and Whyte, D. (2007) Safety Crimes. Cullompton: Willan. Support CrimeTalk by buying these books through our Shop.

A FREE pdf copy of Toxic Capitalism can be downloaded at Frank Pearce's website here.

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