Shruti on Bhopal

If I were to write a post on Bhopal, I would write almost exactly what Shruti has written.

You can, if you wish, paint Bhopal as an example of rapacious profit-seeking corporations putting profits above human lives. You can argue that thatzwhy we need strong regulations. But your argument will run into the problem that Bhopal occurred in 1984, in the India of the license-permit-quota raj.  Not all the permissions that Union Carbide had to seek, not all the inspectors they were forced to bribe, could prevent the disaster from occurring. Once it did occur, the paternalistic State, instead of looking out for its children, sold them out.

So, if the failure of the free market makes the case for regulations, does the failure of regulation make the case for loosening them? Well, that’s not what usually happens.  We’re more likely to hear that Bhopal makes the case for strengthening the regulatory framework.  We don’t need deregulation. We need stronger, more effective regulations, the argument goes.  If we don’t have strong regulations, what is to prevent corporations from creating a Bhopal every other day in pursuit of profits?

Well, strict liability and the tort system, for one. If we could sue the pants off any company that dares to impose harm on third parties, we would see fewer industrial disasters.  If we junk half our regulations and use the resources freed up to modernize our courts so that they deliver verdicts in months rather than decades, we will be much, much better off than we are. Shruti notes in her piece that the Indian government actively worked to minimize the compensation victims could claim from Union Carbide. This phenomenon is familiar, and has a name – regulatory capture.