Dow denies succour to Bhopal despite its new-found environmentalism
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Dow denies succour to Bhopal despite its new-found environmentalism

Bhopāl : India | Aug 29, 2012 at 4:38 AM PDT
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Before the commencement of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the gas-affected people of Union Carbide, Bhopal and their several organisations mounted a protracted campaign against the Dow’s sponsorship of it. The Dow funded the £7 million wrap around the Olympic Stadium and also has negotiated a 10-year £100 million sponsorship with the International Olympic Committee. The Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) is now a subsidiary of The Dow Chemicals, the latter having bought it in the late ‘90s.

It is well-known that in December 1984 a lethal gas, methyl isocyanate, leaked out of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal and killed thousands and maimed many more for life. The protesters’ contention was that while the company poured millions in the Olympics it did not sufficiently compensate the victims of the gas leak. It has also refused to clean up the factory site on which its subsidiary had dumped toxic material which polluted the soil, the environment and the ground-water in the area inflicting misery on the people.

While there was muted support for the Bhopal protesters from the Indian politicians those in Britain went after the matter more seriously. Senior Labour Party leaders demanded an audit of Dow’s sponsorship of the Olympics and the Chief of its Ethics Committee, Meredith Alexander, resigned over Dow’s sponsorship. Five different protest groups presented London Olympic Games communications director Jackie Brock Doyle with five boxes of signatures – a 28,000-strong petition on Change.org and a 30,000-strong petition on SumOfUs – calling for a public apology from Games organisers. They also demanded from Dow a financial contribution of £7 million to help remediate the contaminated land and water supply.

The Dow, however, steadfastly denied its responsibility in the tragedy as, it contended, it bought the UCC 15 years after the tragedy and that by then all legal claims were resolved. UCC had paid $470 million as compensation to the Indian Government and that the matter was settled at the highest court of the land which after the settlement had exempted the Indian arm of the Corporation from any further litigation in the matter. It went on to say that the responsibility for the clean-up of the site now lay with the Indian Government. Paul Deighton, Chief Executive of the Games and Sabastian Coe, Chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) found no substance in the protests and the Games went on with the Dow connection.

One cannot really fault the Gas Affected for their persistent campaign against the Dow as they, numbering thousands, continue to suffer the consequences of the lapses of the UCC and its erstwhile Indian subsidiary. Its system of waste disposal has proved to be lethal. Not only it left barrels of wastes in the complex, it dumped toxic wastes around it. These have leached into the soil not only contaminating it, these have also contaminated the sub-soil water which the inhabitants of the nearby settlements use, inter alia, for drinking purposes. A recent test report of the ground water has revealed excessive amounts of dichloro and hexachloro benzene, mercury and lead in the drinking water used by the residents of the adjoining colonies. The complications these could cause in human systems on regular ingestion need hardly be mentioned.

The entire row of the sponsorship of the Games by the Dow brought forth its uncompassionate, uncompromising and indifferent attitude to human misery. It has also displayed its callous indifference to the environment which its subsidiary happened to have fouled up harming the people and their habitat. That would truly be a justifiable conclusion. However, the truth now is different. Of late, Dow has turned a new leaf. Bryan Walsh, a senior writer with the Time magazine, recently reported that the CEO of Dow Chemicals negotiated with the head of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), one of the biggest green groups based in Washington, a collaborative effort to maximise the environmental value of the Corporation’s operations with a view to enabling it to go green. It has announced “a five-year, $10 million collaboration with TNC to eventually tally up the ecosystem costs and benefits of every business decision” and to make environmental factors part of its profit-and-loss statements. The Dow chief Andrew Liveris is reported to have stated “Our planet’s natural resources are more and more under threat” and “protecting nature can be a profitable corporate priority and a smart global business strategy”, a statement , though hardly could ever be expected from him at least in India, should be music to the ears of environmentalists.

The change of heart has not come just like that. It has a lot to do, as Walsh said, with the threat of government action on emissions on which a price has now been fixed, insistent share-holder pressures on green issues and a growing concern over the limits of available natural resources. In a well- researched piece entitled “Three faces of Dow” in Garbage Magazine, supposedly a ground-breaking environmental publication, Art Kleiner, a journalist and author of note, has described three past and present identities of The Dow. “First, there is the ‘traditional’ Dow: the frugal, small-town chemical company founded a century ago... close-knit and egalitarian, where chemistry PhDs stay from college until retirement... and where the toxicology labs date back to the 1930s.” There is also the "antagonistic" Dow – “the Dow of napalm and Agent Orange... the Dow that bitterly fought Oregon housewives and Vietnam veterans over herbicide sprays”. The third is the "learning" Dow, the company with a change of heart about environmentalism. That is where the collaboration with TNC comes in. TNC’s scientists, Walsh says, will advise Dow on how the company’s business decisions impact the environment—and in turn, how the environment affects Dow’s business. The ecosystem will become a new and major component for Dow’s bottom line, putting environmental sustainability on par with business sustainability.

Surprisingly, despite this change of heart The Dow did not budge from its rigid stand that it had nothing to do with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. After all, whatever happened in Bhopal, terminating and disrupting the lives of thousands of locals, was the result of the callousness and indifference of its subsidiary, UCC, currently somewhat like a kid-brother to it. True, a final settlement was reached way back in the 1980s but, like everybody, both Dow and the UCC are aware how and why a shoddy settlement was arrived at with the Indian Government to the great disadvantage of the victims of the gas leak. Its new-found environmentalism has to have elements of Humanism embedded in it. If it had millions to pour into the Olympics The Dow could certainly use a few of them to mitigate the human misery authored by its subsidiary and to restore the destroyed human habitat in Bhopal. That would have been admirable and, perhaps, more ethical act and appropriate way of discharging its corporate social responsibility. That would, perhaps, also have endeared it to Indians who would have become more welcoming and offered it greater opportunities for industry and commerce. Sadly, this never seemed to have occurred to it!

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Union Carbide factory, Bhopal
The factory from where a lethal gas leaked in December 1984 killing and maiming thousands
proloykbagchi is based in Bhopāl, Madhya Pradesh, India, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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