Union Carbide’s Bhopal tragedy – a disaster with international ramifications involving a prized multinational company.

The Company

Union Carbide Corporation, USA, needs no introduction. It is a widely known chemical giant in a vast number of fields - from consumer items like Eveready batteries to Agro Chemicals to Plastics to other industrial chemicals for different applications.

In India Union Carbide, besides manufacturing batteries, was famous for its Agro Chemical Products. It was the largest private sector pesticides company in the country in the late 80s. The parent company had a 51% equity share holding in the Indian company. Its total sales in India in 1984 were around Rs 2240 million and its profits were around Rs 80 million. It employed 8500 employees in 16 offices and 11 plants all over India, and one R&D center also at Bhopal along with the agro-chemicals plant. It had completed 50 years of operations in India in June 1984. It was a company known for its leadership, inovativeness, productivity, and sensitivity in all its business areas and operations.

What happened to it in December 1984 is history has gone down in the history of the whole chemical industry's history, never to be forgotten. And an example for all industrial manufacturing industries all over the world.

Communication and Image Problem: A Holocaust
In the early hours of 3rd December, 1984, as the city of Bhopal (population of 1 million), in the State of Madhya Pradesh in central India, slept, one of the most tragic industrial disasters took place at the Union Carbides agro-chemicals plant located in the city.

An estimated 30 tons of highly toxic and poisonous gas, methyl isocynate (MIC), beating all the safety systems of the plant escaped into the air raining death and destruction over several parts of the city.

Unfortunately the MIC leaked from the plant for reasons not entirely determined. But the damage inflicted was disastrous and a holocaust. It was a cold night in Bhopal, and there was a dense cloud cover over the city, which prevented the deadly gas from escaping into the sky. The gas hovered the densely populated parts of the city and near the plant. As a result, it was estimated that over 2000 people died on inhaling the gas, and over 200,000 suffered injuries - some serious and permanent like blindness, lung infection, etc. Even livestock were killed and crops damaged around the city. In fact there was mayhem for two days with no one knowing what was happening and what was to be done. There was absolute chaos and panic. There was a virtual exodus from Bhopal, there were mass burials of the gas victims, and the city was transformed into a "city of death."

Communication and Image - Worldwide ramifications
Never had industry taken such a toll of human life, as a result of an accident or negligence, or inadequate safety measures of a company as this. Also even lack of capabilities to control such a leak before it takes on serious proportions. This event was indeed totally unprecedented on every count.

The gas leak at the company's plant created a tremendous uproar not only in India, but every part of the world. It was described as the world's worst industrial accidents, and a runaway disaster. In every media it was headline news and the company was branded as a "killer company" overnight and vehemently attacked by media, politicians, NGOs, opinion leaders and governments. A hoard of American lawyers descended upon Bhopal offering their services to the injured and next of kin of those dead, and a number of suits were filed in courts against the company, amounting to amounts that were mind-boggling by Indian standards. Union Carbide India's image was completely tarnished and destroyed. The magnitude of the tragedy and the negative publicity was so overwhelming that even Warren Anderson, the then worldwide Chairman of Union Carbide Corporation, in a statement expressed anguish and said, "We entered December with one of the best safety records in the safest of industries. We end the year implicated in what people are calling history's worst industrial disaster!"

Inevitably the Indian Government at the Central and State level came on to the scene and quickly took over the investigations on the cause of the disaster with the help of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and passed an ordinance assuming full charge and exclusive right to file and pursue claims of the victims both within India and abroad. Concurrently, the Bhopal Poisonous Gas Leakage (1984) Enquiry Commission was appointed by the M.P. State Government and it soon commenced its hearings.

Meanwhile Warren Anderson, chairman UCC, voluntarily came down to India along with a technical and medical team to assist the Indian authorities. He along with the Chairman and the Managing Director of the Indian Company reached Bhopal on December 7, but no sooner did they land at the airport they were put under arrest. The plant management was already under arrest from December 3. They were, however, after a few days released on bail and personal guarantees to be available when investigation was on.

In the meanwhile, millions of words had been written in the print media all over the country, speculating on the causes of the catastrophe and reconstructing the tragedy on the basis of the limited amount of information and evidence available. And not surprisingly either, the overwhelming consensus of opinion was the UCIL, and the parent company which supplied the design for the Bhopal plant and commissioned it under the supervision of its technical personnel, were guilty of gross negligence in falling to keep the plant in good condition and falling in maintenance, and repairs.

The UCIL's Bhopal Plant was totally sealed and not allowed to be operated. On July 11, 1985, the plant was officially shut down by the Company and its employees (1800 in number) were either accommodated elsewhere within the company, or given appropriated compensation and allowed to leave the company.

In the wake of these damaging accusations and actions from different quarters, the employee morale in the company was very low and there was a great deal of anxiety about the future. Prior to December 3, 1984, a Carbider was considered to be an individual who worked in a good company - a good company with impeccable reputation, reliable products, and good business ethics. But overnight they were made to feel that they were a group of villains. That for employees, and their families, was cause for terrible stress. A second source of stress for them were reports that the compensation payable by the company was going to be in billion of dollars, and the employees started wondering if the company would go bankrupt.

As is obvious, the company was having to pay a very heavy price for an accident and its future in India was at stake. One fateful day had shattered a corporate reputation built over a period of 50 long years and created a bitter memory which will possibly take many years to erase.

Company view and PR reaction to the situation
For Union Carbide India the Bhopal incident became a major exercise in 'disaster and crisis management'. From handling and containing the accident, providing relief to those affected, facing the wrath of the opinion leaders and the Government, to protect its image, right up to keeping up the morale of its employees.

According to a report released by Union Carbide Corporation, based on the limited information and limited access to data and people, the main cause of the gas leak was the ingress of water into the tank that resulted in a runaway reaction. It, however, was not able to check out and explain how the water had entered the tank. As the situation became so grim and so fast the company did not get an opportunity to conduct any investigations, and therefore, were unable to comment on the operating procedures and standards. In actual situation, as maintained by the company, it was an accident. But because of its serious and damaging fallout it was greatly blown up and made to become a political issue with the Government and people taking an anti-company stand as well as demanding heavy compensation from the company.

The past 50-year impeccable record of business ethics, quality products, excellent safety systems and results, notwithstanding the company's contributions to the Nation's interests in defense supplies, exports, family welfare, and donations in times of calamities, among other things, were completely forgotten by all! Instead a rigid and an anti-Carbide, anti-MNC, attitude had set it. Vested interests at the same time had a field a day in instigating authorities to punish the 'corporate villain' with stern action.

The company had to brave all the hostile attitude and action patiently. It decided to adopt the route of a subtle, low-key, and opinion molding communication policy and public relations strategy. Coming out openly with loud statements and countering negative publicity head-on was decided against. The only public statement made by the company was by its Chairman, immediately after the tragedy, expressing the Company's grief and sorrow at the terrible disaster.

The company also was compelled to, and did, maintain strict silence about the accident for a variety of reasons. Among them was the fact that the investigation had been taken up by the CBI and the company was not permitted to conduct any interrogations or investigations, the Chairman and Managing Director along with managerial personnel faced criminal charges and the whole matter was subjudice, the spontaneous anger of the people was too strong to do anything and would have led to unnecessary confrontations.

The company prudently kept silent, and in retrospect the strategy seemed correct. But silence in the media, or in public, did not imply that the company did nothing to alleviate the sufferings of people affected and that they were more spectators to what was happening. The company on its own took some immediate and positive actions on different fronts to provide concrete help and relief. The action plan covered the affected public, the government, and UCIL's own employees.

As soon as the first news of the accident trickled in, senior personnel of UCIL at Bhopal and Bombay mobilized themselves provide succour and relief to the victims. On the morning of December 3, over 6000 citizens came to the plant dispensary for treatment. They were given emergency attention by the company's medial staff. The company's ambulance was pressed into service to transport affected people to the plant dispensary and to government hospitals. The company assisted in setting up medical camps attended to by physicians summoned from the nearby areas, as the government hospitals were full and were not able to cope with the numbers. An organization run by the wives of the employees distributed woollen blankets, garments, and food items like milk which were needed most, through relief agencies.

On December 4th, Union Carbide's top management met the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and expressed their sincere grief and offered their full cooperation for the relief activities. By then the company had already airlifted much needed emergency supplies for medical aid and other relief materials worth Rs. 1,20,000 to Bhopal. Union Carbide Corporations officials in Hong Kong and USA had also been alerted for possible help and assistance. Warren Anderson, UCC's Chairman, came down to India along with a technical team to personally assist in and assess the situation (but was arrested along with UCIL's Chairman and Managing Director).

As such the public had little knowledge about the prompt relief measure and activities undertaken by Union Carbide India and Union Carbide Corporation, USA. The company also offered Rs. 10 million to the Chief Minister's Relief Fund, and UCC donated US $ 1 million to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund.

It was quite natural that the prime concern of the management at that point was to see that the plant posed no further hazards. Their next move was therefore, to safely dispose off the balance stocks of MIC. For this purpose UCC sent a technical team from USA consisting of top engineers and specialist. A medical team was also sent and its included eminent experts. In almost all the 107 countries where UCC operates provisional mechanisms were set up to support relief operations at Bhopal. At the corporate headquarters in Danbury, USA, a relief trust was set up by UCC employees.

The tragedy had, indeed, stunned the company. But it did not deter its determination to extend prompt support to the affected people, the government and other relief agencies who had also got into action. The morale of the UCIL's employees at the time of the accident was very low, and there was a great deal of anxiety about the future. But with the company's prompt action at Bhopal and internal communications from top management to the employees the morale was restored. While the employees were appalled at the scale of disaster and the suffering it caused, they began to believe that the company had the capability to handle the situation, make a fair settlement to the victims, and to overcome the effects of this great tragedy.

Subsequent action by the Company
Once couple of weeks had passed by, and Union Carbide had recovered from the initial stunning effect of the tragedy, all efforts by the company were mustered and channelised to effectively help in relief measures, and safeguard its own interests at the same time.

Among the first things that were done was that company employees at various locations were informed about the facts of the incident through a series of specially prepared video cassettes containing messages from the Managing Director, and the Chairman and President of UCC, with truth countering rumors that were being spread. What was the company's stand, the legal aspects and status on litigations. The Company's own action and help to the affected people, the monetary offers to government and the response it received, and whatever other information that was important for the employees to know, understand, and having the correct perspective.

A special issue of UCIL's House Magazine, 'Hexagon' was brought out highlighting the facts and various relief measures undertaken at Bhopal. This issue was followed by serialized features and articles on the developments in the matter, and the company's positive actions at various points of time. Also, inspite of various restrictions placed by the government, the company kept a regular dialogue going with the concerned authorities, and continued its efforts to relieve the misery and sufferings of the unfortunate through medical and other aid.

As public trust was formed by the employees of UCIL, called the "Carbide Employees Sponsored Relief Fund". It was founded through personal contributions of employees, past and present, shareholders, distributors, business associates, and other well-wishers. The objective of the Trust was to provide relief which was in addition to the various relief activities undertaken by the State and Central Government, as well as by the Union carbide as a corporate body worldwide. The trustees of this Trust were some well-known dignitaries of Bhopal, the Chief Secretary in the State Government a journalist and an eminent lawyer, along with three company management representatives.

The relief program of the Trust, as planned, and implemented, was in two stages. The first stage included:

1.    Supply of medicines and medical equipment.

2.    Arrangements for medical treatment to affected people.

3.    Financial support to orphanages.

4.    Donation of 'earning aids', like sewing/knitting machines, etc. which will enable some   of the affected segments of the community to earn a livelihood.

The second stage was long-term in nature and attempted to provide:

1.    Vocational training to destitutes.

2.    Educational scholarship to poor students.

3.    Donations to hospitals, maternity homes, sanatoriums, and other health and research institutions.

As part of future relief programs, the Trust also would pool in the combined efforts of Union Carbide, State Government Agencies, and professional institutions, to implement several long-term projects which would serve the best interest of the community in Bhopal. Under these plans the Trust would look into the following areas:

1.    An orphanage for the affected children.

2.    Medical relief through setting up either a polyclinic, or medical center, with appropriate research facilities.

3.    Urban renewal programs.

The Carbide Employees Trust very quickly started operating self-employment work centers where a number of women and children were trained (for six months) to make small scale items like leather bags and wallets, and sewing clothes. They were even paid a stipend of Rs. 200 per month during this training period. The company in some cases supplied the raw materials and sewing machines, and then paid the ladies on piece rate for whatever they produced.

The Trust assisted people in obtaining small loans from financial institutions (where the Trust stood as guarantor) for individuals to get them to be gainfully self-employed. Many people benefited from this - a person who lost his pair of bullocks, was able to get another pair, a lady who lost her husband was able to get a small shop, a barber who lost his kit in the chaos was helped in buying a new one, and so on. About 70 scholarships to students of the local railway college were also given.

The company submitted written proposals to the State Government relating to means for providing alternative jobs to its own employees affected by the closure of the plant, making available the company's dispensary as a medical treatment center, and various means for rehabilitating affected people. Through the Trust the company also donated special diagnostic and treatment equipment to three local hospitals.

At this stage, media - the press in particular - continued to be hostile. But the company did its share by adopting an open-door policy, and talking to the representatives when approached. Initially, the Press stayed away, but subsequently they all came. Once the ice was broken the dialogue between the company and Press became quite frequent - however, within limits as the whole issue was in court and subjudice.

Impact of Company's actions
Quite clearly the dependents of the dead, and living victims of the Bhopal gas leak tragedy were largely among the poor and could not survive the period of prolonged litigation that the Union and State Governments initiated, hence Union Carbide in no uncertain terms did its best to provide help and relief. The company's intentions were obvious in the Managing Director's words when he said, "Our moral responsibility goes beyond the issue of compensation. We must work with utmost dedication for a long-term program as a Company and as individuals to help rehabilitate the affected people of Bhopal". Thereafter, UCIL demonstrated its faith in, and concern for the people by sincere and positive action, and thus survived what would have been a sure 'death' for it in the circumstances.

The net results of all that the Company did was that, besides providing genuine relief to the people of Bhopal, it also managed to keep its employees on its side, regained their confidence, and improved their morale. The majority of the company's shareholders sympathized with the affected, as well as offered their full support to the company and its management to overcome the difficult situation they were in. Even other Indian companies and business houses, after making their own assessment's based on the information available, and Union Carbide's mature response and public relations, were quite open to the fact that the incident was an accident and not a case of negligence and ignoring of safety systems.