The call for the removal of DOW Chemical’s sponsorship from the London Olympics, by the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy, is not just about denied justice but also about the denial of responsibility by the company
By Ramlath Kavil and Supriya Madangarli
The Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting event, has courted controversies from its inception. An event that took off as a religious celebration in ancient Greece, has in modern times witnessed everything: bribing, bullying, doping, sexism, racism, political manipulation — you name it, the Games would claim it.
The latest controversy arose when the International Olympic Committee took on the Dow Chemical Company as World-Wide Partner for the Olympics and for the Olympic Movement. Dow Chemical, the world’s second-largest chemical manufacturer, also paid a whopping £7 million for a decorative wrap for the London Olympic Stadium.
Ever since the details of the agreement surfaced, the survivors of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, along with social activists, environmentalists, athletes and human rights groups including Amnesty International and the Indian Olympic Association, have been demanding that Dow be dropped as the main sponsor from the 2012 Olympics. Adding weight to the protest, Meredith Alexander, member of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, resigned earlier this year. She demanded that Dow take responsibility for one of the worst corporate and human rights violations of her generation.
Twenty-eight years after the lethal gas leak at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticides plant that may have killed more than 20,000 (and counting) people and injured half a million, Bhopal is still an open wound in India. Mothers are still delivering babies with severe deformities, the young and old have been fighting chronic health problems ranging from psychological and neurological disabilities, to vision and breathing related disorders. A curative petition is still pending in the court and no final compensation has been made.
In 2002, a Dow Chemical spokesperson reportedly stated the 1989 compensation that amounted to $500 per person should be good enough for an Indian, a statement which the company later retracted. One of these “Indians” is Halimanbi, who was named Sinhourwali (the lioness) by her colleagues for her unrelenting fiery participation in the struggle for justice. Today, in her late 70s, she has lost the vision in her eyes, but not any of her passion. Sitting in a 60-square-foot “home” with a mud floor and broken aluminum sheets for a roof, beside a few empty vessels and a broken-down cupboard, Sinhourwali stares sightlessly as her hands grope for her supari box. Her husband, Abdul Hamid, drags himself beside her and picks up the box and places it in her hands.
“We will win, there is no other way,” she says, “we have fought for so long; we will win!”
The compensation she had received, that was deemed “good enough,” has been long spent — on expensive medical bills, and for their daily bread. The sole earner of the family, Abdul Hamid could no longer work the rickshaw he owned. Sinhourwali is, however, hopeful for the future, that justice will be rendered, and the accused given due punishment. She still awaits a final settlement, so that she and her husband can live their declining years in peace.
At the Chingari Trust run by Bhopal gas tragedy survivors Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, more than 300 children attend the special school for victims of groundwater contamination. These children are from the communities based in the two- to three-kilometre radius of the UCIL factory premises. The children suffer from developmental delays, stunted growth, hearing disorders, congenital disorders, birth defects. Nearly all of them are under the age of 12.
One of them is Meenakshi. Born five years ago, her body has refused to catch up with her mind. She suffers from stunted growth. As she putters about the yard, one of the mothers asks softly, Has this happened elsewhere, or is it only us?
The activists attribute the groundwater contamination to leakage from the solar evaporation ponds that were used for dumping toxic waste in the Union Carbide factory grounds. The leakage caused by tears in the liner of the ponds meant that poisonous waste containing heavy metals, benzene, mercury and lead slowly seeped into the groundwater tables — the same groundwater that the residents in nearly 20 colonies around the factory use for their household needs. The water was so contaminated the tube wells in the vicinity of the factory had to be abandoned way back in 1982.
Evidence of the groundwater contamination was first published in a report by Greenpeace in 1999, the same year Dow had begun the process to acquire the Union Carbide Corporation, which was completed in 2001. Since then there have been more than a dozen tests conducted by the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPCB) testifying to the fact. A fact-finding mission (1999-2004) has informed of the presence of toxins in vegetables and breast milk — lead, mercury, nickel and pesticides were found. Mercury, one of the most toxic chemical compounds, was up to six million times higher than expected levels. The groundwater contamination has reached colonies even three kilometres away from the plant.
Activists allege the grounds and structure of the factory are still contaminated, even as children from nearby slums sneak in to use the grounds for playing cricket, to scavenge for metal parts to be sold as scrap — some even use it as an open toilet. Today, the gaunt, savaged factory premises, now controlled by the Madhya Pradesh government, still house the pesticide plants, standing tall as reminder of the continuing tragedy.
Despite the growing resentment, both Dow and the Olympic committee are still adamant about not withdrawing Dow sponsorship. While Dow had to remove its logo from the wrap due to the protests, the decorative wrap-up of denial continues in the case of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The question remains: Would a 900-metre-long and 20-metre-wide sheet of fabric be large enough to cover the chemical giant’s frayed image?
This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen