Dow Shalt Not Pass: A Response

Written by  //  March 18, 2012  //  National Politics  //  12 Comments

[A response by Kartik T to Arghya, Umakanth and Prateek

On the issue of Dow Chemical’s (part) sponsorship of the London Olympics, Arghya has sent out a call for a debate focusing on the twin issues that have surrounded the Bhopal issue for years now: (i) the legal responsibilities of that company; and (ii) the moral compunctions and appropriateness of the Olympics partnering with such a corporation.

At the outset, let me clarify that I intend to talk about the first issue only fleetingly; mostly because I lack a legal background and the requisite training to hold forth on it, but also because V. Umakanth has addressed this issue in his response, here. I will write instead about the problems that I see in an enterprise like the Olympics partnering with a corporation of the nature of Dow Chemical. In this endeavor, I also hope to use some of my own experience working with coalitions like StudentsForBhopal and ICJB (and meeting some of the survivors of that night) to illustrate that this is an issue that has very real implications for very real people even today, nearly thirty years after the event, and that legalese is not the only aspect there is to it.

First, the facts. The London Olympics have entered into an undertaking with the corporate giant Dow Chemical to the tune of GBP 7 million – a sizeable amount by any reckoning. Perhaps more significantly, the Olympics have recognized Dow as an Olympic partner, and have legitimized to some extent Dow’s recent efforts at projecting itself as a sustainable corporate that has the larger interests of humanity at heart.

Would it that the story ended there. Dow Chemical is whole owner of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the company whose plant was responsible for the release of toxic Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) in Bhopal in December 1984, killing thousands and affecting tens of thousands more. At the time that Dow bought over UCC, the liabilities of that company with regard to the gas leak were clearly defined and known. Dow itself has had a checkered past; specifically in its championing of the pesticide Dursban, and more controversially in its role as supplier of the toxic dioxin Agent Orange to the United States Army for use on civilian populations in Vietnam.

Legal propriety is an issue, of course, and an important one at that. But if I can be forgiven for making sweeping statements, the entire legal profession exists in order to interpret (and sometimes obfuscate) the clear lines that the rule of law draws up in arbitrarily general circumstances; and to apply these interpretations to specific instances. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind, then, that Dow can find some of the finest legal minds to put forth their case in a manner that makes it both appealing and rational to those legal minds that hold with them the power of arbitration. On this count, it may be said that Dow and its infinite resources – given the fullness of time – stand a very good chance of coming out on the right side of things.

The concept of corporate responsibility, however, encompasses a field beyond the confines of mere legal implications. If it is Dow’s desire to project itself as a sustainable, humane and responsible organization, then there is an inherent requisite that it first confront the ethical correctness of its actions (or lack thereof). And that is an integrity that cannot be bought or manufactured in the short-term, but one that must be built on responsibility and demonstrated action. Dow’s conduct – now and in the past – has reeked of an ethical turpitude: be it using double standards for different markets [1] bribing bureaucrats or getting rid of those that it cannot buy [2]; conducting toxin-based experiments on human subjects [3]; or just plain false advertising [4]. These are but some documented instances of falsehood and manipulation arising out of this one corporation, and they scarce evoke confidence that this sudden transfusion of money into the Olympics is anything more than a gimmick towards profiteering means.

There is of course a more important issue that lies beneath. Sheer admission of ethical, moral or legal guilt is not – and should not – be enough to absolve any entity of its responsibilities. It is easy enough to ask of victims and adjudicators that the past be forgotten; much harder is making a difference in the lives of those victims, and mitigating their suffering. As of most recent estimates, nearly 25,000 lives have been lost due to conditions related to direct exposure to the event, and five or six times that number of people are chronically ill. Many children born in the aftermath of the gas leak suffer from various growth problems, and the incidence of killer afflictions like cancer is only on the rise. The Sambhavna Trust, a charitable organization that has been involved in rehabilitation efforts since the gas leak, runs a clinic [6] that attends to the needs of the affected and runs on grants and donations. The clinic tries to step into the void left by the abrupt departure of the Government of India, as well as the unilateral abdication of responsibility by UCC and Dow Chemical. However, like most efforts that do not enjoy a dedicated corpus of funds towards a specific cause, the clinic is unable to cope with the sheer numbers of the affected and the nature of help that they need.

There is also the issue of human dignity – most of the survivors know where the blame lay for that fateful night, and they have felt its debilitating effect on their lives ever since. They have also seen the brazen ways in which first the government, and then the corporation that bought over the guilty party, have systematically gone about ignoring and sometimes actively impeding their voices of protest. Denied justice at various turns, they have had no answers to offer their children – some of them not yet in their teens – who grapple daily with deformities and disease and ask for simple explanations. They have an answer, the same one they have had for near on thirty years now – but is the world listening? The real tragedy of Bhopal is that the event lasted a single night, but the disaster continues to unfold, wreaking a crippling physical and emotional toll on the affected.

It is here that two things are of utmost importance. The first is to ensure that events like the Olympics – recognized as validators of excellence, humanity and fraternity the world over – offer absolutely no legitimacy to wrongdoers like Dow Chemical. The Olympics are a stage where thousands of athletes and hundreds of nations compete proud and hard for glory, all while understanding their responsibilities and the consequences of indulging in unethical or flat-out wrong actions. There is no bigger stage to espouse the values and ideals of humanity, and so also, there is no institution better suited to show up irresponsible corporations for the obligations that they shirk. And that brings us to a new question – should India take stronger action than just protesting the acceptance of Dow’s sponsorship? Should this include a possible boycott of the London Olympics if Dow remains on the list of sponsors? There has been a long history of the Olympics being used as a stage for protest, both political and otherwise; indeed, many of these “protests” have been thinly veiled projections of powerblocs’ aspirations on the international stage. There is surely no better stage to bring recognition to this issue. Naturally, there are more complex issues that surround this simplistic solution – including the fairness of such a boycott to athletes who structure their lives around these big ticket events – but those are for another article to cover.

The other, longer term issue to consider is the establishment of mores and rules to guide future action for business interests, not just in trade or legal terms, but also with respect to ethical and humanitarian concerns. Consumers can be great watchdogs to this effect, by demanding that the corporations that they put their money in take responsible action. In the case of Dow, though, such constraints are significantly harder to enforce; most of its consumers are corporate entities in their own right, rather than individual end users. As we agglomerate into an increasingly smaller world where resources are scarce and competition cut-throat, the establishment of these codes is essential (as Umakanth points out) to bridge the gap between legal liabilities, and the lesser addressed ethical questions that surround such issues – issues that affect the very lives of thousands.


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