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Our's to Dow or die!

columns Updated: Jul 23, 2012 23:57 IST
Karan Thapar

I've begun to dread phone calls from Pertie. He has an uncanny knack of raising awkward subjects on which his invariably turns out to be the right view. I'm usually on the losing side. Last week was no different.

"Is India justified in demanding Dow Chemicals be dropped as a sponsor of the London Olympics?" I knew it wasn't an innocent question but still fell into the trap.

"Why not? After all, when Dow bought Union Carbide it also acquired its liabilities and perhaps the most important is responsibility for what happened in Bhopal in 1984. Now, if Dow won't acknowledge that, is it fitting it should be an Olympic sponsor?"

"Hang on. Check your facts. Given that the Indian Supreme Court in 1989 negotiated a full and final settlement, which the government readily accepted and which was twice upheld on appeal, the question of legal responsibility has been settled once and for all. So what responsibility are you talking about?"

"What about the fact that the settlement turned out to be grossly inadeq-uate? And what about the environmental damage that needs rectification? If that's not Dow's responsibility, who's is it?"

"The Indian government's! And do you know why?" Pertie paused for me to say something but I decided silence was the better part of valour. Before long he continued.

"Because the Supreme Court in the 1991 appeal ruled that if the settlement proved inadequate it would be the responsibility of the government to make up the shortfall. That's the legal position. And, very clearly, no responsibility devolves on Dow."

I must say the facts had me stumped. Pertie knew them pat. So, drawing a deep breath, I tried a new tactic. "What about moral responsibility? As Union Carbide's successor company, Dow can't escape from that."

"Now this is an interesting one. First, moral responsibility is an undefined and vague concept. Second, it has to be accepted. It can't be enforced. Third, in the absence of any legal culpability I'm not sure what it amounts to."

"Oh come," I spoke up, suddenly sensing a chink in his armour. "Moral responsibility flows from ethics and fair play. And, remember that's what the Olympics is all about. The charter specifically says so."

"Not so fast, old chap." Pertie was not be put off his stride so easily. "Again, check the facts. Dow bought Union Carbide in 1999, 15 years after the Bhopal tragedy. Second, in 1994 Union Carbide sold Union Carbide India to an Indian company then called Mcleod Russel and now called Eveready. So if there is any moral responsibility, hasn't it been inherited by Eveready? How does it get passed on to Dow?"

Once again, he had the clinching answer. Pertie had anticipated my questions and his ripostes were ready.

"In which case what do you make of the brouhaha that's going on?" It was a weak way of deflecting the subject and it played straight into his hands.

"This is nothing but politics. Once the Bhopal NGOs raised the issue, the government had to play along. Not to do so would have made them look callous. And in Britain its Labour MPs stirring the pot to keep Cameron on edge. Expediency in either case."

"So will India end up boycotting the games if Dow continues as a sponsor?"

"I doubt it." This time Pertie sounded calm and very certain. "That would annoy Indian athletes and spoil relations with Britain. Twenty eight years after Bhopal they definitely won't go that far!"

Views expressed by the author are personal