Ethics, as the distinction between right and wrong, is a subject that several individuals tend to ignore. The course of actions that people and organizations take can be supported by very many reasons.
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However, in most situations, the desire to gain wealth or power can influence individuals or organizations to do very unethical things. The catastrophe that took place in 1984 at the pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, is a case in which the governments of the United States and India violated several ethical practices that eventually led to the world’s worst industrial disaster.
The Bhopal disaster happened on December 3, 1984 in which about forty tons of vaporous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other toxic chemicals from the factory were released into the atmosphere and resulted in the death and injuries of several residents of the nearby town.
Although estimates vary on the extent of damage caused to the residents, Eckerman estimates that “over 500,000 persons were exposed to the gases; between 3,000 and 10,000 people died within the first weeks; and between 100,000 and 200,000 may have permanent injuries” (2005, p.9).
The disaster raised serious ethical questions concerning the business practices of the American multinational company, the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and its Indian subsidiary, the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), which owned significant amount of shares in the plant. What the incident made painfully clear appertains to the moral conventions that the governments of the host and the parent country failed to adhere to (Cragg, 2005, p.11).
The UCIL plant was established in 1969 as part of the local government’s Green Revolution initiative efforts aimed at realizing self-sufficiency in the production of crops. The use of pesticide increased in India in the 1960s and it was regarded as an essential factor in increasing its agricultural productivity.
Consequently, the decision to produce pesticides locally, instead of importing them, was based on the above considerations. However, the government of India sanctioned the UCIL to set up the plant in Bhopal despite the fact that the country lacked adequate technology to maintain the production of such lethal chemicals. In a bid to spur economic growth, the Indian government ignored the safety and health considerations that were to be adhered to before establishing such a manufacturing plant.
The American international corporation, UCC, opted to establish the plant in India so as to gain a competitive advantage in the market. This is because as an emerging country in economic development, India provided low-cost labor, easier connection with consumers in other countries, and reduced costs of transacting business.
Once UCC established the plant in India, it had little incentive to reduce environmental and human risks associated with pesticide production (Cassels, 1993). More so, this problem was compounded by the negligence of the Indian government to institute stringent regulations that can guard this malpractice. The Indian government was only looking for economic gains, not the other risks that were involved.
On the other hand, as an American Company, the United States government failed to enact stringent checks and balances that could monitor the operations of UCC internationally. Its unethical practice was mainly motivated by the urge to establish stronger relations with the Indian sub-continent, while neglecting the fact that human life is more important than the so-called ‘good relations’ are.
The Bhopal disaster has several unethical contributing factors that both the governments of the United States and India consistently ignored even after they were made aware of them. Prior to the hazardous gas leak, the plant stored MIC (methyl isocyanate) in large containers and filled them above the recommended levels, little maintenance was done to the plant to ensure its efficiency, several safety systems were not functioning properly, and some safety devices were switched off periodically to save money (Weir, 1987).
Aware of these breaches to good industrial practices, the Indian government disregarded calls for putting these actions in check. Worse still, several slums mushroomed near the Bhopal facility, and the residents disregarded repeated warnings by the local media to vacate the place because of the danger that they were exposed to in case of an emergency. Interestingly, the local officials of the government failed to endorse the reports dismissing them as sensational.
In addition, the residents failed to act to these reports because the government had failed to educate them on the risks that they were exposed to. Ironically, the American multinational corporation, UCC, spurred by the desire to gain a competitive advantage, attempted to hide its deplorable safety and maintenance records, non-existent catastrophe plans, and other malpractices in the Bhopal facility.
Prior to the incident, the work conditions at the plant were in a bad state. Instead of providing the employees with good working conditions, UCC implemented a number of cost-cutting strategies that affected the employees and their conditions of working.
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These strategies for reducing expenses resulted in reduced quality control and loose adherence to regulations of safety of the employees. For example, replacing old pipes was forbidden, no training was given to the employees, and they were compelled to use English instruction booklets although they did not understand the language fully.
These unethical practices made several of the skilled employees to look for opportunities in other places. Although the employees made numerous complaints through their union, no one heeded to their cries and some of them were even fired or fined. In all these, the government of India supported the factory because it feared that some of its citizens could lose their jobs and eventually its tax collection could reduce. However, a catastrophe, which was being brewed by these unethical practices, was looming.
Investigations after the Bhopal tragedy have revealed a number of equipment and safety violations. During the 1998 civil court cases in India, it was revealed that contrary to the UCC factories in the U.S., the factories in India lacked major preparations for tackling emergencies and there was no attempt by the management to institute such measures. For example, there was no notification given to local authorities about the amounts or the hazards of the substances that were being used and produced at the Bhopal facility.
Other investigations revealed that the MIC unit had malfunctioned four years prior to the incident, there was limited number of manual back up systems, steam boiler used for cleaning the pipes was not working, and carbon steel that is prone to corrosion was used at the plant. The MIC plant was built according to the instructions that were given by the Indian government. More so, the authorities neglected several previous warnings and accidents that were pointing to an impending disaster.
For example, in 1976, two trade unions raised alarms about the level of pollution in the factory and in early 1982, a MIC leak affected eighteen employees. Instead of enforcing stringent rules to curb this, the Indian government still relaxed its rules concerning the unethical practices of UCC within its territory. This makes the Indian government to be indirectly responsible for the catastrophe that affected the lives of many people in the area.
It is astonishing to note that in spite of the serious health problems and deaths that took place due to the disaster, the governments of the U.S. and India have not established efficient systems for caring for and compensating the people affected. Instead of pushing for quick compensation of the victims, the two governments are accusing one another of responsibility.
In some instances, UCC has failed to compensate the victims saying that the company is not under the jurisdiction of the Indian laws. As much as some progress is being made to compensate the victims adequately, this process could have been more efficient if the two governments had instituted better systems for tackling such emergencies. This negligence by the two governments seems to be supporting UCC’s unethical practices.
In conclusion, the governments of the United States and India, through neglecting some essential ethical business practices, are indirectly responsible for the occurrence of the Bhopal disaster.
Instead of instituting adequate checks and balances to monitor the operations of UCC internationally, the U.S. government forfeited this significant role. On the other hand, aware of the various contributing factors that were pointing to an imminent disaster, the Indian government failed to institute appropriate measures that could have prevented the disaster from taking place.
Cassels, J. (1993). The Uncertain Promise Of Law: Lessons From Bhopal. Toronto: University Of Toronto Press.
Cragg, W. (2005). Ethics codes, corporations and the challenge of globalization. Cheltenham: Elgar.
Eckerman, I. (2005). The Bhopal saga: causes and consequences of the world’s largest industrial disaster. Hyderabad: Universities Press.
Weir, D. (1987). The Bhopal Syndrome: Pesticides, Environment, And Health. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.