India to Boycott the 2012 London Olympics over Dow Chemicals' 'Fabric'?

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India to Boycott the 2012 London Olympics over Dow Chemicals' 'Fabric'?
(Photo by David Bebber - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

While Indian newspapers’ front pages and TV channels feed off Anna Hazare’s crusade against corruption, the sports sections are chock-full of analysis, recriminations and reactions to Team India’s pitiful surrender of their No.1 Test ranking to England.

The headliners above have buried another burning issue: The unpalatable association of Dow Chemicals with the London Olympics.

Dow’s Performance Plastics Division will deliver a “fabric wrap” for the main stadium made of “sustainable” resins.

London Olympics chief, Sir Sebastian Coe, described the “wrap” provided by Dow Chemicals as “the icing on the cake”.

He said:

“”The stadium will look spectacular at Games time and having the wrap is the icing on the cake. I’m delighted that Dow as one of the newer worldwide partners of the Olympic movement will be providing it and importantly doing it in a sustainable way.”

The announcement provoked outrage in India.

Dow Chemicals is the owner of Union Carbide, the chemicals company responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. Over 11,000 people lost their lives and another 100,000 to 200,000 people have permanent disabilities caused by a gas leak during this fateful event on December 2-3, 1984.

LOCOG chairman Lord Sebastian Coe meets with Lucy Boulton of Great Britain (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Although a settlement of $470 million USD was reached in 1989, activists believe that the Indian government was backward in its attempts to seek justice and recompense the victims.

The Indian government, under media pressure, have since filed a fresh case in 2010, seeking an additional $1.1 billion from Dow Chemicals.

Activists say that the groundwater around the site is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

Union Carbide was acquired by Dow Chemicals in 2001.

A spokesman for the London Olympics organising committee defended the decision to award the £7 million contract to the chemicals giant in a statement:

“It is a matter of record that the plant at the time of this human tragedy was not owned by Dow Chemical.”

Social activists in India, in a letter to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), have called for a boycott of the London Olympics. A similar letter was sent to the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Should Dow Jones withdraw from the London Olympics?

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Dow Chemicals argue that they are not responsible for any legal liabilities from its takeover of Union Carbide.

Let’s examine the situation from various perspectives.

Dow Chemicals’ Legal Liability

The chemicals company says that the accident occurred when Union Carbide was an independent entity. The company believes that the matter was decided in 1989 in an out-of-court settlement.

Dow Chemicals claim they are not responsible for any legal or fiscal obligations since.

On January 7, 2009, the Satyam Computer Services scam broke in the media—in India and around the world. Chairman Ramalinga Raju admitted to falsifying Satyam’s accounts.

The scam was branded “India’s Enron”.

The scandal was finally resolved with Tech Mahindra purchasing a 46% stake via public auction. The Mahindra group acquired the company and is thus responsible for its employees, clients and its debt.

The analogy may not seem like the best one. I am no legal luminary but it does seem that Dow Chemicals are seeking to dodge a bullet when they claim to have little to no responsibility towards damages from Bhopal victims.

Even if one were to put aside the legal ramifications, does that still not outrage one’s sense of justice and fair play?

Do Dow Chemicals  fail to see how morally repugnant their argument is? Was there a failure to foresee such an eventuality—a failure of due diligence before purchasing Union Carbide? Was that risk not factored in?

As Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Group for Information and Action says:

“The sponsorship of Dow Chemicals is against the spirit of the Olympics charter.”

“Olympics charter speaks about prohibition of racism but the company that provides sponsorship for the event practices racism in its business, While Dow Chemicals has accepted to the legal liabilities of Union Carbide in the US, it refuses to accept liabilities in India. Isn’t this racism?” 

Indian governments and Sporting boycotts

It is incumbent for the Indian government to exert pressure on the London Olympic organisers and force Dow Chemicals to disassociate themselves from the premier sporting event on the planet.

The Indian government has a record of supporting worthy causes such as anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the pan-Arab Palestine freedom struggle.

Vijay Amrtiraj lost out on a chance to win a Davis Cup title in 1974
In 1974, the Indian Davis Cup team forfeited the final against South Africa protesting the discriminatory policies of its regime.

In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi intervened to make sure a Davis Cup quarter-final match-up against Israel at home. India did not enjoy full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state at that time. Full diplomatic relations did not resume until 1991.

When the Indian government can take a strong stand expressing solidarity with foreign nationals and their grievances under the aegis of universal brotherhood, can less be expected of it when the matter-at-hand involves their own?

Sir Sebastian Coe’s role

At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram represented the cream of British athletes. Coe won the 800 meters, Ovett’s specialty, and Ovett the 1500 meters, which was Coe’s pet event in Moscow.

The rivalry between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe fueled the dreams of many NexGen middle-distance runners.

Thus, it is a huge disappointment for Coe’s myriad sub-continental fans that the former Olympian feels a complete disconnect between Dow Jones’ involvement in the London Olympics and their shirked responsibility towards the Bhopal disaster.

IOC’s Mission

Among the stated IOC’s missions is a commitment to sustainable development and environmental responsibility.

Sir Coe tom-toms that the fabric panels have a lower carbon footprint and are lighter than conventional materials. Is that adequate?

Are the “credits” earned from this green endeavour and the regeneration of Stratford, East London enough to offset Dow Jones’ criminal neglect of Bhopal and its victims?

To quote an article on Bhopal.org:

“Mr Keith Wiggans, Managing Director of Dow UK says it is time to move forward and leave the ‘awful legacies of the past behind’. The fundamental point he conveniently neglected to mention is that there is nothing past tense about the situation in Bhopal. Living around the former Union Carbide factory site are some of the poorest people in the Indian city of Bhopal, who for the past 27 years have been slowly poisoned by contaminated groundwater which they use for drinking, cooking and bathing.”

Should the London Olympics risk tarnishing its reputation as well as the IOC’s with a linkage to one of the world’s worst industrial accidents of the last century?

Should India send a contingent to the London Olympics, if Dow and/or the London Olympics Organising Committee refuse to budge?

The answers are clear. Why are the parties concerned simulating deafness to the questions?


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

—American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) (from “Life of Reason I”).

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