London 2012 and the Bhopal Disaster

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

As the 2012 London Olympics approach, a furore has erupted surrounding the £7m sponsorship of the games by the controversial Dow Chemical Company, which is connected with the world’s worst industrial catastrophe, in the Indian city of Bhopal. Lingering effects of the disaster continue to kill and maim people trapped by poverty.

The company has been commissioned to produce a specialized decorative wrap for the Olympic stadium.  Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, and leading human rights groups including Amnesty International have expressed dismay at the London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG)’s decision and rumours have circulated regarding a possible Indian boycott. In protest to the deal, thousands of survivors of the disaster burned effigies of the chairman of London 2012, Lord Sebastian Coe, on Friday. A larger group of protestors blocked five of Bhopal’s train lines on Saturday 3 December, the 27th anniversary of the disaster, in the face of fierce police beatings.

Gross negligence on the part of the Union Carbide Corporation, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow, culminated in a fatal explosion in a pesticide factory on 2-3 December 1984, releasing 40 tonnes of highly toxic gas which laid waste to one of the poorest regions in India.

As a result of the disaster, over 20,000 people have died, with the toll ever increasing owing to a lack of willingness on the part of those responsible to clean up the polluted site and the absence of compensatory funds for victims’ medical bills. Over 120,000 Bhopalis continue to languish with horrific injuries; methyl isocyanate – the main offending gas – ravaged central nervous systems, eyes, digestive and respiratory tracts, initiated spontaneous abortions in expecting mothers, and caused wave after wave of severe congenital abnormalities in the children of affected parents. The tragedy disfigured both those that clinged on to life on that fateful night, as well as those born decades later. An alarming array of cancers are today rife in the region today, largely owing to continuing wide scale environmental damage. Thousands of tonnes of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals remain abandoned in the old plant, seeping into basins from which locals are forced to extract drinking water.

Ken Livingstone has warned of a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ for the 2012 games over the Dow deal. Stressing that the ‘soul of the London Games’ is at stake, he added weight to calls for an abandonment of the package, which will be discussed at an Olympic Committee meeting on 5 December. Joining Mr Livingstone, 24 MPs, led by Labour’s Barry Gardiner and including former sports minister Tessa Jowell, have signed a petition asking Lord Coe to scrap the deal.

In a statement Barry Gardiner said; “when Dow accepted the award of the Olympic Wrap commission, their UK Managing Director bragged about Dow’s ‘strong commitment to sustainability’. This makes a mockery of the word, and is a stain on the ambitions of the Olympics. In no sense does Dow meet the high ‘environmental, social and ethical’ standards demanded by the Olympics and I urge LOCOG to think again to protect the Olympic legacy for Britain.”

For years both Union Carbide and its parent company have shown callous disregard for victims. Union Carbide famously engaged in a media blitz in the aftermath of the catastrophe denying the toxic effects of the gases, even though internal documents showed that they had labelled them ‘ultra-hazardous’. When they were forced to publicly accept this truth, they continued to deny any wrongdoing on their part. Fantastical conspiracy theories were instead peddled, including the insistence that it was an isolated incident involving a disgruntled former employee. In true Union Carbide fashion, Dow persists in its refusal to release the ingredients of the gas. This information is vital if medical practitioners are to appropriately treat the survivors and new victims of the disaster. .

Dow, backed by Lord Coe, stated in response to the recent uproar that Dow ‘never operated the plant’, having only bought Union Carbide in 2001. This overlooks the basic legal fact that liability transfers; a company cannot simply sell its way out of a mess. Union Carbide’s burden is today ultimately Dow Chemicals’. It certainly seemed to understand this fact when it purchased US companies caught up in asbestos litigation.

Another old defence regurgitated by Dow this past week involves its pointing to Union Carbide’s $470m settlement in 1989, stressing that the matter is now resolved. What it fails to tell us however, is the fact that even those victims lucky enough to receive anything were handed out the equivalent of seven pence per day. Moreover, we aren’t informed that this settlement was imposed upon the people ofBhopal by the state following a backroom deal between Rajiv Gandhi and the then Reagan government, bringing us to another ignoble aspect ofBhopal’s tragedy – that of Indian hypocrisy.

Though government affiliated sources in India have complained about the Dow Olympic deal – Chief Minister of Bhopal, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, has called for an all out boycott whereas the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) have spoken of ‘conveying concern’ to LOCOG – sadly, such opinions are hardly government policy. Even more disappointingly, it is rarer still for such outrage to materialise from upper echelons as a result of the government’s own role in the ongoing tragedy. Indeed it is the very same government that continues to block legal recourse for victims via its rotten judiciary, in what is the longest continuing stretch of cases in Indian history. Though lofty statements are often made in purported solidarity with affected people, the fact remains that to date, the government has refused even to supply clean water to the affected areas, let alone adequately punish individuals directly culpable.

Such hypocrisy has a long tradition. In the aftermath of the disaster, the Indian government saw to it that victims were excluded from the compensation process following highly suspect legal manoeuvring, trampling its very own constitution in the process. Tragically, pieces of legislation such as the Bhopal Gas Leak Processing of Claims Act (1985) snatched away the right of victims to make individual claims. As to why the government behaved in such a way against its own people is no doubt linked to the little known fact that it owned approximately half of Union Carbide’s shares at the time of the explosion; desperate not to be judged a joint tort-feasor, it ran away from the crime scene. It also feared a dip in foreign investment, were it to come down heavily on Union Carbide, a fact compounded in 2010 by leaked emails showing the US Deputy National Security Advisor Michael Froman threatening Indian officials: ‘the US is hearing a lot of noise about the Dow Chemical Issue… I think we want to avoid developments which put a chilling effect on investment’. Such concern for investment is likely the reason for which Tessa Jowwel was last week snubbed during her visit toIndia; perceived a potential trouble maker owing to recent anti-Dow remarks, her platform to speak at an official gathering was withdrawn last minute.

Labour heavyweight Keith Vaz stated on Thursday, “this is not the right kind of sponsorship for the world’s greenest Olympics”. Eyebrows have also been raised by Conservative MP Louise Mensch. Lord Coe however disagrees:  “I absolutely stand by our procurement process and Dow was by a distance the most sustainable solution to our wrap and we are comfortable with that.”

No doubt a huge number of people worldwide would be able to testify as to Dow’s commitment to sustainability: perhaps survivors of the spraying of Dow-manufactured cancer-spreading Agent Orange and flesh-incinerating napalm responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as well as the decimation of massive swathes of forest; families, perhaps, of victims of Saddam’s chemical experiments in Northern Iraq; inmates, possibly, experimented upon by the company in Philadelphia during the 1960s with the deadly chemical dioxin; maybe even those born in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, for which Dow produced several ingredients.

Equally arrogantly, Sebastian Coe has attempted to convey calm by playing down fears of a boycott. After reminding the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that he bears the all-important qualification of being “the grandson of an Indian”, he alleged that the risk of a boycott had never been apparent. This, he thinks, makes everything alright. The biggest tragedy for his Lordship’s ilk no doubt would be a lack of Indian players in the Olympics and the accompanying negative PR. Sadly, his comments have been compounded by statements from the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) confirming that although opposition is rife it won’t be withdrawing from the games; a turn of events that has attracted the ire of campaigners.

The campaign before us however, must go on. As Londoners it is imperative that we make noise about this issue, write to our MPs, and email organisers. We cannot allow London 2012 to be brought in to disrepute by Dow’s blood stained fabric shroud. The spirit of the games cannot be flogged for the sake of a deal bringing in 0.08% of the Olympic budget. Not to project our voices would be to silently condone the death and disability suffered by thousands from theBhopaldisaster so far, and many thousands who face the same fate in the years to come.

This article was first published on The Platform.

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