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Dow was not responsible for Bhopal

Dow chemical The row over Dow chemical sponsorship of the London Olympics 2012 has, of late, assumed larger proportions. While the Indian government 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 300,000 members of VAVA and three million victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam which to drop Dow Chemical as a sponsor.

The Indian Government’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 many 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 (1961-1971) 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 the official World-Wide Partner for Olympics and for the Olympic Movement upto 2020. According to 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 after 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. Rashida Bi of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh said that her organisation had requested the Prime Minister and the IOC Chairman three months ago to register the country's opposition in the matter but her request 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 Satinath Sarangi of Bhopal Group for Information and Action. 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 of Bhopal gas disaster survivors. Even the Ministry of External Affairs in a letter to the Prime Minister's Office said that the company's sponsorship was a very sensitive issue and that 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. According to him, its links with the company that was responsible for the gas leak in Bhopal came long after the 1984 tragedy. He further said, “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, Sebastian 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. One buys assets and not liabilities; 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 apathy and neglect of its subsidiary’s. But, legally that would cut no ice and, hence the song and dance about removal of Dow as a sponsor appears misplaced.

So, one does not quite understand why the company is being targeted. The facts being what they are, it can in no way be held responsible for the plight of the gas-leak survivors. If any entity that needs to be blamed it is the Indian National Congress that was governing during the crucial period at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh in the capital of which the gas-leak occurred. From fishing out a proposal kept on the ice for five years for establishment 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; to ignoring repeated alarms raised in the local press about its shoddy maintenance; to pegging the number of deaths at only 15000 when they were many more and are now proposed to be revised to 25000; to assuring Warren Anderson, Chairman of the UCC that he wouldn’t be arrested and then smuggling him out of India after being arrested and charged with manslaughter; to finalising settlement for a mere $470 million in 1989 after having lodged a claim for $3 billion towards compensation for the dead and surviving, simultaneously extinguishing the rights of the suffering survivors to pursue their claims for compensation; to restraining the Central Bureau of Investigation from appealing against the ruling of the Supreme Court given in 1996 that reduced the charges against management of the UCC factory as only acts of criminal negligence; to stopping remediation of the factory site by UCCs successor company and taking it back against the prevailing law exposing surviving shanty-dwellers to consequential environmental hazards it was the Congress that was responsible ruling, as it did, right through these years both at the Centre and in the state.

Even the current Congress-led 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 saying “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.

Objectively speaking, VAVA’s protests are more justifiable as Dow played a direct contributory role to deaths of millions and destruction of the country’s ecology during a decade-long Viet Nam War. In case of Bhopal, however, it is our own politicians who did us in. Hence, why blame Dow?

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