Thursday, 3 December 2009

Context: Bhopal

I started to write a post about the Royal Bank of Scotland and the prospect of a fight between the Board and the Government with regard to bonus payments. Two things stopped me. The first was that Peninsulawyer had already written a better post that I was going to (here). The second, however, was the anniversary of a man-made disaster - the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal. The BBC have a good summary of the story here - I've used their graphic below.

It's a dreadful story of corporate incompetence and lack of care which led to the deaths of a huge number of innocent locals. The contrast in the numbers associated with this event are staggering. Seven thousand dead; over six hundred thousand affected. What is worse, however, is the number associated with the "pay off" from Union Carbide - $470 million. It sounds like a lot of money, doesn't it. I suspect that's the point. Divide it amongst the families of 7,000 victims and 600,000 other affected people, however, and it is insignificant.

Imagine this disaster happening to a town on the outskirts of London. Firstly, of course, the chances of a rather wild chemical plant being sited near to wealthy people is not high - Union Carbide didn't choose Bhopal because it was handy, after all. Let's get past that point and imagine that a chemical plant near London suffers the same sort of problem - i.e. incompetence, poor management and an almost total disregard for the safety of people living nearby. Can you imagine a payment of only $470 million? No - of course not. Can you imagine  that no-one would ever be prosecuted for the disaster? No - of course not. There would be massive payments, and a fund established for future problems. Western lawyers working for rich insurance companies would not led anyone off with a "full and final" settlement in 1989, when the effects are still being felt in Bhopal. It is a scandal that there are - statements from the Indian Government notwithstanding - still health problems in the area. It is a scandal that there has never been a criminal prosecution.

In this context, the idea that some bankers might be paid a lot of money rather pales into insignificance for me. Perhaps they will read the news and donate half (say) to the families still living in Bhopal? No, probably not...

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