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Olympic sponsor Dow Chemical can’t dodge responsibility for Bhopal victims

By Marianne Landzettel
May 1st 2012


With less than 100 days to go until the opening of the London games the Olympic stadium is nearing completion. Triangle by triangle the blue and white wrapping is coming up, the fabric produced by the official Olympic sponsor, Dow Chemical. On April, 20th, campaigners unwrapped a huge banner outside the stadium showing some of the legacy Dow Chemical doesn’t want anyone to see – like the victims of the 1984 poison gas accident in Bhopal, caused by Union Carbide which today is 100% owned by Dow Chemical.

Sanjay Verma cuts a lonely figure standing in front of the banner and the stadium as a backdrop. “I’ve come from Bhopal to London to ask the organizers of the Olympics to kick Dow Chemical out of the Olympics”, he says. Sanjay was six months old when the accident happened. His sister wrapped him in a blanket and ran for their lives. That night, says Sanjay, almost all his family died. He and his sisters are today the only survivors of a family of ten. One other brother who initially survived took his own life when he developed a psychiatric disorder as result of inhaling the gas.

Union Carbide has paid 470 million $ compensation to the victims since the accident – this amounts to no more than a few pence a day per survivor. Not enough to live on, not enough for medical care. Conservative estimates say 20,000 people died in the days immediately after the toxic gas cloud escaped from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. People in the bustees next to the plant woke up from an intense smell like burnt chillies. For many it was far too late too flee and many of those who did manage to escape have serious health issues: an estimated 100,000 people suffer from chronic illnesses. Their number is still growing, says Sanjay Verma. “The Bhopal disaster is not something that happened in 1984. It is ongoing. People are still dying, the water is being contaminated by the toxic waste lying in and around the site.”

Campaigners say that as the 100% owner of Union Carbide Dow Chemical must pay adequate compensation to the victims, clean up the site of the plant in Bhopal and pay for medical care. Eight million £ – the price for the wrapping of the Olympic stadium Dow Chemical supplies as part of its sponsorship deal – would have been a start.

Dow Chemical says it has no responsibility for what happened in Bhopal as it bought Union Carbide only in 2001 – long after compensation issues had been settled in Indian courts.

“Dow had has no connection with the Bhopal tragedy”, agrees the President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge.

Not just activists beg to differ. In January Meredith Alexander resigned from her post as member of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 over a statement that “essentially portrays Dow as a responsible company”. In the article “Why I resigned over Bhopal”, published in The Guardian, she writes: “I had been providing information about Bhopal to commission members and I was stunned that it publicly repeated Dow’s line that it bears no responsibility for Bhopal.”

In a similar vein MPs from across the political spectrum have signed a letter to Lord Coe, the head of the organising committee for the London games, LOCOG, calling for the revision of its decision to award Dow Chemical the tender for the Olympic wrap “in light of its appalling human rights record in regard to the victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster”.

But Lord Coe has not been swayed. He declared: “I am the grandson of an Indian so I’m not completely unaware of this as an issue. But I am satisfied that at no time did Dow operate, own or were involved with the plant at the time of the disaster or the time of the full and final settlement.” (The Guardian, 15.11.2011).

This assessment may yet prove to be untrue. Court documents from the US provide evidence that Dow Chemical might have a legal obligation towards the Bhopal victims after all. Emails and other documents show that Union Carbide used a network of intermediaries to continue trading in India after the accident without the company’s name being apparent. Any products clearly labelled as ‘produced by Union Carbide’ would have been seized by the Indian courts in an attempt to make the company face trial. The documents also show that after the take over in 2001 Dow Chemical continued the practice and thereby helped Union Carbide to avoid a criminal trial in India. Criminal proceedings could not just bring closure to the people in Bhopal, a criminal conviction would mean the promulgation of large fines which could be used for the rehabilitation of the victims.

The Indian Supreme Court is to review the case for a third time later this year. Dow Chemical says the US court documents have been cited out of context. (Also see:

Tim Edwards from the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal says activists have been trying to discuss the Dow Chemical sponsorship deal with LOCOG since the company was awarded the tender last year, but so far LOCOG has not responded. The Dow Chemical wrap for the stadium will be up in time for the games, what remains to be done is to make the link between the official Olympic sponsor, Dow Chemical, LOCOG, Bhopal and other disasters – e.g. Dow Chemical was responsible for mixing white phosphor into napalm before it was used in the Vietnam war. “A company that is responsible for disability around the world”, says Tim Edwards, “has been brought by LOCOG into London’s Paralympic Games as a sponsor. It’s a travesty and a farce. LOCOG needs to annul this sponsorship and LOCOG needs to distance itself from the Dow Chemical company.”

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