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Olympics & Bhopal Tragedy: CONG, NOT DOW TO BLAME?, by Proloy Bagchi, 1 Feb, 2012 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 1 February 2012

Olympics & Bhopal Tragedy


By Proloy Bagchi


The row over Dow chemical sponsorship of the London Olympics 2012 has, of late, assumed larger proportions. While the Manmohan Singh Government Centre has asked the Indian Olympic Association to lodge a protest with the London Organising Committee for Olympic Games (LOCOG) 2012 for allowing Dow Chemical as a sponsor, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) has also asked LOCOG on behalf of its 300,000 members and three million victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam to drop Dow Chemical as a sponsor.


New Delhi’s protest was based on the linkage of Dow Chemical to the Union Carbide Corporation from the erstwhile Bhopal factory of which a lethal gas escaped in December 1984 killing and maiming thousands. The VAVA, however, has protested for the reason that Dow was one of the companies which supplied toxic chemicals, collectively called Agent Orange, for use by the US military in the Vietnam War devastating the country’s ecology and environment, leaving millions dead and suffering.


The Dow Chemical Company (TDCC) signed an agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2010 under which the former was declared its official world-wide partner and for the Olympic Movement up to 2020. As per the agreement, Dow is also supposed to partner the National Olympic Committees across the globe. For the 2012 Games, Dow is footing the bill for a temporary decorative wrap over London's Olympic Stadium. It, however, removed its logo from the wrap following widespread protests and demonstrations against its association with the Games. 


The company's sponsorship deal has led to outrage among victims of the Bhopal tragedy. The Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh's Rashida Bi said her organisation had requested the Prime Minister and the IOC Chairman three months ago to register the country's opposition in the matter but it went unheeded. "It is unfortunate that lawmakers in England are protesting against Dow's sponsorship of 2012 London Olympics but no step is being taken by the Centre or the IOC," said Bhopal Group for Information and Action's Satinath Sarangi.


Some of the former Indian Olympians branded the Dow sponsorship as “offensive to the spirit of the Olympic Games” in a press conference held jointly by organisations fighting for relief for the Bhopal disaster survivors. Even the Ministry of External Affairs in a letter to the Prime Minister's Office stated that the company's sponsorship was a very sensitive issue and there was strong public opinion against it. 


TDCC is in the eye of the storm as the offending factory of Bhopal was owned by the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which is now its wholly-owned subsidiary. The process of acquisition commenced in 1999 and TDCC acquired UCC as a sequel to a transaction that closed in 2001 for $11.6 billion. Sebastian Coe, Chairman of LOCOG, has, therefore, defended the association of Dow with the 2012 Games stating that its links with the company that was responsible for the Bhopal gas leak came long after the 1984 tragedy.


He further stated:  “Dow were never the operators or the owners of that chemical plant in 1984, nor were they the operators or the owners of the plant in 1989 when the final settlement was agreed... Dow became the major shareholders in that company only in 2001, some 17 years after the tragedy. And the final settlement was upheld on two separate occasions by the Indian Supreme Court.”


From all appearances, Coe is right. Clearly, Dow became the owner of the UCC in 2001 when the latter had no liabilities relating to the Gas Tragedy of 1984 – all its obligations having been discharged. Had the liabilities persisted Dow might have refrained from acquiring UCC. Thus, legally speaking, Dow wouldn’t seem to be involved anyway with the Gas Tragedy. Its ethical liability also would seem to be extremely tenuous.


Many, obviously, are accusing it of spending billions on supporting the Olympic Movement during the next decade yet turning a blind eye to the plight of the victims of its lately acquired subsidiary’s apathy and neglect. But, legally that would cut no ice and, hence the song and dance about removal of Dow as a sponsor appears misplaced.

The recent resignation of Meredith Alexander, a prominent environmentalist, from membership of the independent watchdog set up to monitor sustainability of the London Olympics has created a flutter among the protesters. Alexander resigned over the controversial deal with Dow which, according to her, had links with Union Carbide, the company responsible for the Bhopal gas disaster. But this was promptly squelched by a release by the LOCOG which asserted that the deal with Dow was on. Obviously, Coe’s contention carried little weight with LOCOG.

The facts being what they are, Dow can in no way be held responsible for the plight of the gas victims. The only entity that needs to be blamed for it is the Congress, which was at the helm during the relevant period both at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh, in whose capital the gas-leak occurred. The reasons are many and worth considering:

From fishing out a proposal kept on ice for five years for erection of the chemical plant with obsolete technology in the ‘70s to allowing its erection in Bhopal and encouraging building of shanties around it for political gains; for ignoring alarms raised in the local media about the factory’s shoddy maintenance; for  understating the number of deaths to only 15000 which is now proposed to be revised to 25000; for assuring Warren Anderson, UCC Chairman against his arrest and then smuggling him out of India after being arrested and charged with manslaughter; for finalising a settlement for a mere $470 million in 1989 towards compensation for the dead and surviving after having lodged a claim for $3 billion, simultaneously extinguishing the rights of the suffering survivors to pursue their claims for compensation; for stopping remediation of the factory site by UCCs successor company Eveready and taking it back against the prevailing law exposing surviving shanty-dwellers to consequential environmental hazards.

Indeed, it was the Congress that was responsible, ruling, as it did, both at the Centre and the State, right through these years with most of its decisions being political. Even the current Congress-led UPA government at the Centre decided against becoming a party in the ongoing compensation case of the gas victims in US courts, with the Law Minister stating: “Our courts are competent and capable of resolving (the matter)”, as if he didn’t know that orders of Indian courts wouldn’t be enforceable in the US.

Besides, the same government allowed the Bhopal Memorial Hospital, a top-class facility created for the benefit of gas-leak survivors, to go to seed with many of its departments virtually shut down having been starved of men and equipment. Congress’s has been a long saga of serving the cause of the UCC and apathy towards its victims. If our own politicians do us in why blame others? Why blame Dow? ---INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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