Tucked away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of Bhopal’s busy main roads and markets, and within a stone’s throw of the abandoned Union Carbide complex, is an oasis of calm and healing. The Sambhavna Clinic, which is funded by UK-based charity The Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA), is the only facility in Bhopal which offers effective and free healthcare to the thousands who still live in the toxic shadow of the world’s most infamous pesticide factory.
In the crowded waiting room of the clinic, where patients seated on benches look out onto lush herb gardens and a pond filled with turtles and fish, there is a message carved into a large wooden beam that reads: ‘A heart-felt thank you to the thousands of British people who made this clinic a reality…’
For Brits – who often visit the clinic while travelling through India – it’s impossible to read this sign without feeling somewhat patriotic and proud. The BMA is a small charity based in Brighton and through the kind support of their donors – who are, as the sign states, mostly British – they are able to help Indian doctors and therapists save lives on a daily basis.
How perversely ironic it is then, that Britain would now undermine this excellent charitable work by engaging in a ludicrously ill-advised sponsorship agreement with one of the world’s most unethical and controversial companies. Via the misguided Olympic organizing committee and the ignorance of Lord Sebastian Coe, we are on track to insult a billion Indians by embracing Dow Chemicals as an official London 2012 sponsor.
It is now estimated that between 9,000 and 15,000 Bhopalis were killed within three days of the initial gas-leak in 1984. The first incident, caused by cost-cutting measures and a dramatic decline in safety standards implemented by Carbide’s American management, is infamous. Less well known is the fact that some 120,000 or more are still living with agonizing chronic health problems caused by 27 years of ground-water and soil pollution; a result of dumped toxic waste contaminating communities around the factory.
A global toxic hotspot
Total deaths are estimated at around 25,000 and still rising. Greenpeace and the Indian Centre for Science & Environment state the area around the factory is so saturated with dumped chemicals and heavy metals that they have labelled Bhopal a ‘global toxic hotspot’; the disaster is ranked alongside Chernobyl as one of the world’s most terrible industrial catastrophes. This unresolved legacy of pain is now the official property of Dow Chemicals. Is it a legacy we want our Olympics to be associated with? Does Britain want this irresponsible company wrapping their stadium in their branding?
Much attention in the media is currently being given to the fact that Dow never owned or operated the factory in Bhopal. This is correct, but they acquired Union Carbide in a lucrative takeover back in 2001 and have legally inherited their liabilities as well as their assets. This is basic corporate law and a acquisitions and takeovers 101: you cannot acquire a company’s wealth without inheriting its debt. Dow essentially admitted this themselves when they paid off an outstanding lawsuit against Union Carbide soon after acquiring the company, settling with former UCC asbestos workers in Texas for a whopping $2.2 billion. However, Dow has consistently argued that it isn’t liable for Bhopal, without giving any satisfactory reasons as to why.
Even if the thousands of dead and dying in Bhopal were not the issue here, Dow Chemicals would still have to answer for other crimes, such as their awful environmental record and the heart-breaking legacy of Agent Orange and Napalm in southeast Asia. Dow became a major provider of Agent Orange to the US military when many other companies ceased production in the face of overwhelmingly negative public opinion. They have, however, alongside Monsanto Company, continually avoided any kind of legal liability for these crimes.
The Dow Chemical company claim to be a responsible ‘global corporate citizen’ and committed to ‘environmental sustainability’ but in reality they are a rogue corporation that cannot be held accountable to national or international law – apart from in the US; where their reputation is seemingly more of an issue to them than human rights or the environment.
The Dow subsidiary Union Carbide have created, via their negligent waste disposal methods, a brand new tragedy in Bhopal that has slowly developed over time. Neither company has ever paid out a single dollar for this ongoing environmental damage and as Dow now operates Union Carbide as a full subsidiary, the liability belongs to them. They must clean up Bhopal.
By arranging and endorsing Dow’s involvement with London 2012, Lord Sebastian Coe and the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) have demonstrated their complete ignorance of the situation in Bhopal – and indeed their own policies on ethical and sustainable sponsors.
If Dow cannot face up to their legal and moral responsibilities, and will not spend a single dollar on their liabilities in Bhopal, do they have a right to splash their money and branding around at the London Olympics? With a powerful opposition movement growing – including motions in the UK and Scottish parliament, mass media coverage and a petition that has attracted thousands of signatures – it’s becoming clear that whatever happens in this fight, this has been a spectacular PR disaster for Dow Chemicals.