Dow shalt check facts

The Olympics-Dow controversy is a godsend. It reminds us of the injustice of Bhopal and provides a platform to bust some myths, writes Nityanand Jayaraman.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2012 23:56 IST
Nityanand Jayaraman
Nityanand Jayaraman
Hindustan Times

Karan Thapar’s friend Pertie freaks out whenever I drop in on him. I call him ‘Petrie’, short for petrified. Petrie likes to think he’s a great spin-doctor. But he knows I know that he is just a mediocre hired gun for big business.

I was not surprised that Karan succumbed to the devil’s point of view and defended Dow in this newspaper (Ours to Dow or die, Sunday Sentiments, March 11). He was, after all, the devil’s advocate. But Petrie knew he was not going to have the upper hand in this conversation with me. “So you think Dow has no outstanding liabilities in India, eh Petrie?” I asked innocently.

“Well, uh, umm, Dow was nowhere in the picture when the gas leak happened,” Petrie stuttered.

“Answer my question, Petrified. Don’t feed me Dow’s PR spiel,” I persisted.

“If anything, there is umm... perhaps some moral responsibility,” he admitted, repeating the line he had made to Karan in this paper on Sunday.

I seized the opening. “Moral responsibility, my foot! I’m talking legal responsibility, chump. Did you tell Karan that Union Carbide was a fugitive from justice, an absconder, for nine years when Dow acquired it?”

In February 1992, the Bhopal magistrate proclaimed Union Carbide an absconder for repeatedly failing to honour summons to face trial on charges of culpable homicide. “Technically, that is two outstanding liabilities right there for Dow,” I said.

“How? How?” Petrie’s mouth opened and closed like a fat guppy fish out of water.

“If found guilty, the court is well within its powers to order Carbide to pay billions more as penalty. That is the first liability. And the second liability is when Dow acquired a fugitive, it was legally obliged to produce it in court. By not doing so, Dow is now guilty of sheltering a fugitive. Liability No. 2, QED.” Union Carbide is still wanted in the criminal trial, and the trial is still open. Indeed, the magistrate has moved to summon Dow Chemical in this regard. “The noose is tightening.”

I was enjoying this. Ok. Enough about crimes and all. Let’s change the subject. “Are you potty trained, Petrie?” I asked. He was smart enough to not answer this question. So I continued. “The first rule of potty training is, ‘He who messes up, cleans up’.” Union Carbide provided, owned and profited from the factory that created the toxic wastes that have caused a second disaster in Bhopal. It was Carbide’s American team that designed the waste management system. Right up to the night that the factory had blown up, Carbide had dumped toxic wastes in three football-field-sized ponds. Poison from these wastes have leached into the groundwater that several thousand people are drinking; several hundred children are maimed for life.

The 1989 settlement did not cover liabilities arising out of environmental contamination. As the ‘polluter’, it is Union Carbide that has to pay. Union Carbide is now Dow, and so Dow has to pay. “Even if I accept that Union Carbide is responsible for the clean-up, it is a separate legal entity. The government can’t, won’t make Dow pay for Carbide, right?” Petrie said, not too hopefully.

“Wrong again!” I gloated. “The Union ministry of law has observed that ‘irrespective of the manner in which UCC [Union Carbide Corporation] has been acquired by Dow Chemicals, if there is any legal liability, it would have to be borne by Dow Chemicals’.” Every single liability remains unresolved — criminal; the civil liabilities arising out of environmental contamination, and the compensation claims arising out of the disaster. On the latter, the Government of India has filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court seeking additional funds from Dow Chemical for compensation because the number of deaths and injuries were vastly underestimated in the 1989 calculation. This matter will come up for hearing in the latter half of this year, after the London Olympics.

In a perverse sense, Dow’s sponsorship, its refusal to withdraw, and the grovelling submission of the International Olympics Committee and British prime minister David Cameron to Dow’s point of view have been a godsend.

Regardless of whether or not Dow is kicked out of Olympics, the 2012 London Olympics will have played an important role in educating people about Dow and Bhopal. For the Bhopalis’ own good, I hope that Dow does not withdraw too soon.

I had to admit that I agreed with Petrified on one aspect — that this was about politics. Politics means ‘of, for or relating to citizens’. It is citizens — of Bhopal, London and many other parts of the world — who are raising questions about Bhopal. Students from the Indian Institutes of Technology felt the company was too tainted to be allowed to sponsor events or hire on campus. Anna University’s engineering college stopped entertaining Dow Chemical as a sponsor for its Techfest after learning about Dow’s reputation. These are the citizens, whose politics has managed to keep the memory of Bhopal alive.

Dow, Union Carbide, David Cameron, Manmohan Singh, Sebastian Coe, Petrified and all those who think Bhopal is history would like the world to move on. But as Milan Kundera so beautifully wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” And in this struggle, the Bhopalis have succeeded for 27 years.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and a volunteer with the Bhopal campaign.
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 13, 2012 00:16 IST