Few places are better situated for one to sit and ponder the concept of accountability more than Bhopal, India. Scene of the 1984 Union Carbide industrial disaster that instantly killed almost 4,000 sleeping residents (and continued to kill, disfigure and debilitate thousands more), this thriving town of over one million people has a collective history that includes both the tragedy of the deadly gas leak as well as the atrocity of a 30+year legal battle to decide who should be held accountable. Driving past the abandoned site last week, which was locked up but never cleaned up, the rusted tanks and teetering towers stand to argue that we all are.
Union Carbide was an American company, now part of Dow Chemicals, that produced a commonly used pesticide. At the time of the tragedy, this plant was owned and operated by an Indian company, Union Carbide India Limited, which was also later sold and repackaged as a part of a new company, Eveready Industries India Limited. Rivaling reports put the causes of the gas leak at everything from blatant neglect to employee sabotage. To the companies involved and the legal teams that represent them, the question of who was accountable was slowly worked out in the Supreme Court of India, with settlements dispersed in 1991 and 2007, with some small amounts of it actually reaching the families of victims. Remediation work was undertaken ten years following the leak, but ended once the company was sold. None of that much impresses the local residents of Bhopal, particularly those who lived through the tragedy and chaos that followed, who can still see the rusting ruins of this plant from their window.
What does being accountable mean?
Accountability is a slippery word. The meaning shifts and spins, like a back tire on loose gravel, depending on who uses it and what direction it’s headed. Is accountability about finding who is responsible for undertaking certain actions or is it used to identify whom to blame? In education, we see this word a lot, particularly around how to evaluate the effectiveness of an educator. What definition are we using in this case? How does that definition shapes the way we talk about educational policy? Does it support action or punish inaction, and does this distinction matter?
Policy versus implementation
For the last two months, I’ve spent a great deal of time here in India looking at changes to educational policy at the national level. With a newly revised plan for increasing skill development, vocational classes are to be implemented in secondary and post-secondary schools to help address the skills gap and propel India forward while helping students earn livelihoods and develop communities. Lots of glossy brochures help illustrate how ministries and public-private partnerships have been working with industry and educators to make this happen, but I’m struggling to meet with schools and educators to see how this ultimately looks in the classroom. Accountability in terms of curriculum development flows from the top to the bottom, with the idea that student performance on exit exams can help establish accountability of implementation from the bottom to the top.
Comparing the ways in which both the US and India hope to tackle post-secondary workforce readiness and career education has been an interesting study. Both democracies, there are a lot of similarities (and a couple of dramatic differences) between how the US and India are using educational policy reform to connect kids with meaningful employment opportunities after graduation. In the end, however, policy alone does nothing.
We learn by doing.
This is true of all learning and well modeled in the practicums and labs of vocational education classrooms. Policy, like curriculum standards, outline what is to be done but alone is not the same as “doing.” Theory is not practice.
Oftentimes, policy becomes the paper we hide behind which allows us to say we are addressing a problem, without the responsibility of implementation. Well-written policy will include stakeholders, organizational charts and timelines that can just as easily hide the route of accountability as point the way towards it.
More than words.
Sitting on the couch with Bhopal natives one evening, the conversation led to the aftermath of the Union Carbide disaster. In the immediate chaos that followed the towns’ evacuation, there are haunting memories our hosts still live with that the physical remains of the plant make tangible.
“After the 911 tragedy, many people were killed,” Sony had stated as we sipped tea in her living room, “but there’s a building there now. A tower or memorial, right?”
Actions, rather than policy, are at the heart of accountability. Regardless of whom is to blame.