An American President (depending on your politics it could be any American President since Eisenhower) visits a class of 9 year-olds. The class is discussing the meaning of the word tragedy.
The President asks ‘Can anyone give me an example of the word ‘tragedy’. Peter says ‘My friend ran into the road and was killed by a passing car – that is a tragedy’. ‘No’, says the President, ‘that is an accident’. Jane says ‘There is a chemical leak at a factory and 2500 people are killed – that is a tragedy’. ‘No’, says the President, ‘I would call that a devastating loss’.
William says ‘The Presidential plane is blown out of the sky by a ground-to-air missile fired by a rogue American soldier, and you are on board – that would be a tragedy’.
‘Brilliant’, says the President. ‘That definition is perfect. Why is it a tragedy’? The child replies ‘Because it certainly wouldn’t be a devastating loss, and it is unlikely to have been an accident’.
However you might define the word tragedy, I am with Jane. News that the Bhopal Union Carbide factory tragedy in India is again hitting the headlines is unsurprising. Although the incident happened exactly 30 years ago, on the evening of December 2/3rd 1984, it was of such enormity that it has rarely been out of the news.
The scandal of Bhopal is that the misery goes on. Chemicals which leeched into the ground and into the water supply during the disaster caused illness and genetic mutations in horrific numbers which go on to this day. A 2014 report claims that ‘an estimated 120,000 to 150,000 survivors still struggle with serious medical conditions including nerve damage, growth problems, gynecological disorders, respiratory issues, birth defects, and elevated rates of cancer and tuberculosis’ (source Wiki). The factory site itself, now owned by the State, has never been cleared, and there are no reports that it will be any time soon. Although Union Carbide made a compensation settlement 5 years after the event which was favourably regarded at the time by the Indian Supreme Court, there is a widespread feeling now that they paid only a derisory amount given the extent of the misery and human damage which was caused. Victims who were injured got an average $400 each; for a death the payout was a measly $1000.
There is however hope that maybe some remedial action in the form of additional compensation is likely soon. Union Carbide was acquired by Dow Chemicals in 2001, and recently Dow shareholders have been putting pressure on Dow management to reassess their financial responsibilities and negotiate further compensation for the victims. The view of these shareholders is that Dow is suffering in the Indian market as a result of the bad publicity attached to Bhopal, and they need to address the causes of this not for philanthropic reasons, but rather because it is the right thing to do commercially.
Good negotiators know that a workable deal is one which all the subscribing parties will honour in the long term. Whether the 1989 settlement made by Union Carbide was seen as a good deal at the time is irrelevant. That deal is now seen as unjust, and is having long term negative effects on Dow Chemicals’ business, and maybe not just in India but amongst buyers around the world who are moved by the plight of the victims. For the sake of improving their PR, as well as because it is the right thing to do, Dow directors need to listen to the increasing clamour and take action.