Bhopal Tragedy-A Case of Government Failure

There is tragedy in the world because men contrive, out of nothings, tragedies that are totally unnecessary—which means that men are frivolous. —Henry de Montherlant, La Rose de Sable, 1932

People across the ideological spectrum have been repeatedly pointing out that the 26 year old Bhopal gas tragedy trial was a travesty of justice. The people of India put their trust in the Government, and the Government has betrayed that trust. The punishment handed out to the officials of Union Carbide for negligence, in the worst Industrial catastrophe ever which affected around five hundred thousand people and killed 15,000-20,000, was two years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees each. It is not surprising. When the Government administers justice, people are treated in the worst manner possible.

What is even more striking is the fact that the Government continually failed in taking measures to prevent the disaster, and its actions aggravated the pain after it had happened. Objections were voiced against Union Carbide planning which used deadly chemicals, but no action was taken. Concerns were raised against establishing a plant in the vicinity of the railway station, but Union Carbide got its way. It is worth noting that the Government allowed Union Carbide to set up its plant when 125,000 people, nearly 20% of Bhopal’s population lived within a few miles of the plant.  In 1979, an American team emphasized the need to inform people in the locality and evacuate them if a spill happens. The local officials didn’t even know of these recommendations and they didn’t take any move to put such a plan in operation. A worker died and many were injured in 1981, when they were cleaning a pipe which released Methyl Isocyanate (MIC).

The Bhopal plant had a manual backup system, which required an employee to prevent chemicals leaking when a pump fails by manually starting the backup pump. Plants in western countries use an automatic backup system which is much safer and efficient. It was not changed in the name of creating more employment. Leaky pipes were patched instead of being replaced, and under qualified employees were hired for important positions. Raj Kumar Keswani, a Journalist in Bhopal warned the people of the poor safety record of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. The Government regulators turned a blind eye when all this happened. Raj Kumar Keswani wrote as late as 1984 that a huge disaster is imminent.

Even after the disaster had happened, many perished as gas masks weren’t accessible, and because they weren’t educated to hold wet clothes on their face. There weren’t enough medical facilities in the city to treat most people. At first, the Government blocked the technical team of experts who came in to remove the MIC left in the plant and deal with the disaster in a better manner. The Government blamed the Union Carbide for violating safety norms, but didn’t say a word about its own failure in ensuring that the safety norms are followed. The fact that Union Carbide did everything they can to take care of the victims for the next sixteen years, through aid, medical supplies, funds for medical experts and employee relief funds too was ignored by the Government and most commentators.

A disaster of such a large scale wouldn’t have happened in a free market economy where Insurance companies are free to enforce contracts through business boycotts. At present, they are prevented from doing so as victims of crimes have a legal recourse in case of the likelihood of crimes, and they are likely to deal with criminals without any qualms. In a free society Union Carbide would not even have been allowed to acquire land in such a hugely populated area. The company insuring Union Carbide would have made sure that the essential safety norms are followed. The authorities at the Insurance Company wouldn’t have slept peacefully when many were warning of the imminent danger. They wouldn’t have ignored the minor accidents and leaks which happened prior to it. We wouldn’t have to count on their moral incentive to do so. It would be in their very financial self interest to make sure that everything is working perfectly.

The citizens of India are, not surprisingly, in anger over the mild punishment. However, such indignation wouldn’t change the fact that they are at least partly responsible for increasing the likelihood of such injustice. If we were free, and in case such an accident happens, the Insurance Company would have compensated the victims justly, taking profit-loss calculations into account. At present, the Government has no means of reaching an amount of just compensation and proportional punishment even if the officials comprising it were angels (which is impossible). They would have to be omniscient to do so, which is another impossibility. If the Insurance Company sets the punishment too low, no one would deal with its clients, and if it sets too high, no one would become its clients. In both cases, the Company would go out of business. There would be tremendous financial pressure to set the compensation properly.

Even the disaster would have taken few lives if we had the prosperity economic freedom would bring in. Most people who lived in inexpensive kutcha structures died immediately, when people who lived in pucca structures didn’t. Kutcha houses use the least expensive materials in roofs, floors and walls when Pucca houses use materials which are more expensive. Even when we take the death tolls in manmade disasters, poverty is the biggest enemy of mankind.

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