Bhopal and the Olympics

Here is what happened in Bhopal twenty-eight years ago:

“We would fit 120 bodies in one truck and this we would fill and empty five times a day. There were eight trucks on duty (so that is 4,800 bodies a day). It carried on for exactly the same intensity for three to four days, and after 12:00 am the military took over.
Bhopal skulls
“We took a bulldozer and dug pits to bury all the animals. Some people were picking up bodies and some animals. 50 – 60 drivers were all working that day (3rd December). We picked up the bodies with our own hands. Every time we picked one up it gave out gas. The bodies had all turned blue, and had froth oozing from their mouths.

“In some houses everyone had died so there was no one to break the locks. In one case a 6 month old girl had survived and everybody else (mother, father and siblings) was dead. I broke the locks to that house.

“At least 15 – 20,000 people died in those first few days. What they said in the papers was absolutely wrong. What could I have done? I was a government servant. What the government said was absolutely wrong but what could I do?

“Those who have survived are like the living dead. My lungs have become useless: till today I’m being looked after by Hamidia hospital. Ever since I got affected I get vertigo – I would have to stop my truck because I get vertigo if I drive. My hands and feet don’t work, I can’t see well. The last two to three years I’ve gotten much worse.”

On Thursday 3rd December, 2004, the 20th anniversary of the industrial disaster in Bhopal, a delegation of Scottish human rights groups delivered a letter to the US consulate in Edinburgh, carrying a full size coffin bearing the message “In memory of the 20,000 victims of the Bhopal Gas Leak 1984-2004” and a banner reading No more Bhopals: not here, not anywhere.

The letter highlights the irresponsibility of the US company Union Carbide whose inadequate safety procedures lead to an accident which has resulted in 20,000 deaths and 150,000 reported incidences of sickness or injuries. It calls for the US Government to ensure that representatives of Dow Chemical, the US company which bought Union Carbide, and Warren Anderson (former chairman of Union Carbide) face trial in the Bhopal Criminal court.

At www.bhopal.com you will find an account of the worst industrial disaster in history that exculpates Union Carbide completely and makes no reference to Dow Chemical Company, the Olympics 2012 sponsor, at all.

If you want to read about the international campaign for justice in Bhopal, you go to Bhopal.net or Bhopal.org or Greenpeace or Amnesty International:

Hasina Bi lives near Bhopal near the plant, has been drinking the water from the hand-pump near her house for 18 years:

“When you look at the water, you can see a thin layer of oil on it. All the pots in my house have become discoloured… green-yellow. We have to travel at least two kilometres to get clean water, to Chola Nakka, but my health is so bad that it prevents me from carrying the water I need from there.”

UCC decided to store MIC, a highly toxic chemical, in large quantities at its Bhopal plant which did not have the safety capacity for such storage. The company had no emergency plan to warn local residents of any accident, and ignored warnings that a serious leak could happen.

Despite this negligence, and the scale of the disaster, victims have not received justice in either the Indian or the US courts. UCC and Dow (which bought UCC in 2001), both deny any responsibility and are refusing to appear before Bhopal District Court where criminal charges are pending against UCC.

The domain name www.bhopal.com is owned by a company called MarkMonitor. MarkMonitor defines itself as “the global leader in online brand protection”, which “delivers advanced technology and expertise to protect the reputations and revenue of the world’s leading brands”. The DMOZ directory entry for Bhopal.com provides no link to UCC or Dow but offers the following blurb about the site:

Union Carbide: Bhopal
Facts about the disaster including relief and aid provided, the Browning report and a case study of the incident. Investigation of the tragedy at Bhopal concludes that a disgruntled employee caused the disaster.

The administrative contact for Bhopal.com is Union Carbide. Union Carbide’s history devotes a couple of lines to Bhopal:

1984: n December, a gas leak at a plant in Bhopal, India, caused by an act of sabotage, results in tragic loss of life. (http://www.unioncarbide.com/bhopal)

The “Technical Contact, Zone Contact” is the Dow Chemical Company, of which Union Carbide has been a wholly-owned subsidiary since 2001.

This is what Union Carbide did to Bhopal:

During the last few minutes of Sunday 2nd December 1984, a deeply poisonous gas, methyl-isocyanate (MIC) began leaking from a massive storage tank at Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal. Not one of the factory’s safety systems was working. The refrigeration unit which should have cooled the tank had been switched off months earlier to save $37.68 per day on freon coolant, the vent gas scrubber was partially dismantled. The warning siren was switched off, the flare tower was inadequate to cope with the volume of gases, superheated to 400†C, that were rushing through pipes at 180 mph blistering and charring paintwork, exploding into the night air. The factory did not have sufficient water pressure for fire hoses to be sprayed on the escaping gases, so the reaction continued until the huge tank, as big as a locomotive, was empty and 40 tonnes of lethal MIC and other reaction products had bucketed out into the night air over the sleeping city.

This spring Dow will put a wrap around the London Olympics:

a sustainable, fabric wrap that will encircle London’s iconic Olympic Stadium during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, home to several athletic events, and the opening and closing ceremonies.

The wrap will comprise 336 individual panels – each approximately 25 meters high and 2.5 meters wide – and will help the stadium become the visual centerpiece of the London 2012 Games. Installation will be completed by spring 2012.

A survivor tells her story of that night, 28 years before these Olympics will be wrapped by Dow:

At Bhopal Talkies crossing we all fell on the ground and just lay there. I was two months pregnant at the time. I had a miscarriage right there in the middle of the street, my body was covered with blood. There was blood all over. I was unable to control my bowels and the faeces ran down my legs, mixing with the blood.

We couldn’t talk to each other or even see because our eyes were inflamed. We were wondering what had gone wrong, who had done this. We had no idea that there was a gas leak from Union Carbide. We thought that if we stayed on at Bhopal Talkies crossing we would surely all die because we could see so many people lying on the ground who appeared to be dead.

Trucks overflowing with people were passing on the main road. We took the Saifia College road and walked about half a kilometre. There we managed to jump onto a moving vehicle, a large three-wheeler, going slowly because it was uphill. It was already crowded, full of people. By then I was covered with my own blood and faeces and vomit from my children. I fell on to some man’s lap inside the vehicle. The vehicle gave away at the top of the hill. The engine collapsed because there were too many people.

George Hamilton, vice-president for Dow Olympic Operations, says

It would be great to be controversy-free, but as I talk to other sponsors and other parts of the Olympic organisation you realise that over the years the Olympics has been a free platform for organisations and individuals to make their points.

The message from Bhopal organisations and individuals is:

Dow and its subsidiary Union Carbide Corporation have refused to own up to their liabilities in rehabilitating gas victims and cleaning up the toxic contamination left behind in the Bhopal site. More than 150,000 gas victims are chronically ill, and 50,000 or so are too sick to even work for a living. Till date, more than 25000 have died as a result of exposure to the poison gases. The toxic wastes that lie strewn in and around the factory has leaked its poisons into the groundwater. More than 25,000 people have consumed this toxic groundwater for years, and there are serious health effects among these communities.

Both companies have refused to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of Indian courts on various matters relating to the disaster and other environmental fallouts. Union Carbide has even been declared a fugitive from justice by the Indian courts. Dow and Union Carbide are directly responsible for the massive human tragedy that continues to unfold in Bhopal. Children of gas affected parents, and those of parents consuming contaminated water have severe and debilitating birth defects.

George Hamilton claims, for Dow Chemicals:

the compensation paid by Union Carbide and UCIL in 1989, a sum of $470m (£296m), was twice upheld by the supreme court, and Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary in 1994 and “exited India”. (He doesn’t reference the “disgruntled employee” story, perhaps aware that no one believes it.)

“We had no association with Bhopal, we bought a company that was an investor so why would we take action that would imply that we were connected or doing something out of guilt. We recognised when we became a sponsor that organisations and individuals would try and associate Dow with legacy issues. We were prepared for that. It’s gone on longer than I would have anticipated but it doesn’t change our resolve.”

On 7th December 1984 UCC Chairman and CEO Warren Anderson was arrested at the airport by the Madhya Pradesh Police Anderson was released six hours later on $2,100 bail and flown out of India on a government plane. In 1987, the Indian government summoned Anderson, eight other executives and two company affiliates with homicide charges to appear in an Indian court, but Union Carbide refused, claiming they were not under Indian jurisdiction. The US Supreme Court has refused to hear the case. In 1991, the local Bhopal authorities charged Warren Anderson with manslaughter: he was declared a fugitive from justice by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal just 20 years ago, on 1st February 1992, for failing to appear at the court hearings in a culpable homicide case in which he was named the chief defendant. The Indian government was asked to begin extradition procedings. UCC has been banned from trading in India since 1992 until Warren Anderson and the other UCC executives present themselves for trial.

Warren Anderson's home in the Hamptons
Warren Anderson lives in Bridgehampton, New York:

Located on a street that runs off the main road, the gates of the house are open. As you enter, the neatly trimmed garden flowers, alternatively red and white, vie for attention with the sparkling vintage Buick Roadmaster parked outside the door. If you stroll around the house, you come upon a large freshly cut lawn with two full-size beach chairs.

Adil, Bhopal survivor

Adil (above) was born in the poisoned communities that surround the Union Carbide complex in Bhopal. Like many children living in the factory’s toxic shadow he lives with a crippling disability and will never have the opportunity to compete in a sports event like the London Olympics.

Water and soil contamination in Bhopal, caused by Dow Chemical subsidiary Union Carbide, has caused a second tragedy and many thousands of the city’s people suffer from chronic illnesses associated with poisoned water and soil.

From 1992 onwards, banned from trading legally in India until Warren Anderson stood trial, Union Carbide secretly traded through a web of intermediaries. Legal documents obtained by The Independent show that

Dow continued to permit the unlawful practice started by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the company ultimately responsible for the disaster, after it bought the “tainted” company in 2001.

Internal emails show that Dow managers knew that UCC was not allowed to trade in India directly:

“There was a big lawsuit with UCC in India in the past. UCC considered the case is closed but India’s officials and companies didn’t think so. Presuming the product ships directly from USA to India, my suggestion is to sell the product under Dow legal entity with Dow label.” (April 2001)

From Bhopal.net:

At the railway station a whole tribe of gypsies was encamped and every single one perished, men, women and children. Not one was left alive to say who they were, or what their names were. Their deaths were not counted. Many people couldn’t prove the deaths of their family members because they lacked the requisite documents. One man lost sight of his young daughter in the stampede to escape the gas: he never saw her again, but without papers couldn’t prove to the authorities that she’d ever even existed, leading to him into a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare.

Sebastian Coe says:

The head of the organising committee of the London Olympics, Lord Sebastian Coe, has said they will not expel Dow as a sponsor. Protesters have burned effigies of Coe, an Olympic legend with four medals (including two iconic 1500m golds), who has said: “Dow’s links with Union Carbide came 17 years after the Bhopal gas leak and it could not be held responsible; nor was it the operator or owner when the final settlement was agreed in 1989. Dow became the major shareholders in that company only in 2001, and the final settlement was upheld on two separate occasions by the Indian Supreme Court. I feel comfortable after analysing the history of this case.”

Indeed, Dow has never claimed ownership over UCC’s liabilities in India, which has allowed them to refuse to clean up the Bhopal site, and they have publicly insisted that UCC is a separate legal entity. But this appears to have been as much a public relations gimmick as the purchase of Bhopal.com domain name. Reported in the Times of India this week, a leaked email from Catherine Maxey, Public Affairs director at Dow:

“Union Carbide Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company. UCC will not be issuing any more press releases, product announcements, price increases, etc. All business activities are done under the umbrella of a Dow business. We face the market as Dow. Reporters will be tempted to keep talking about Union Carbide. But we should discourage reporters from using the words Union Carbide, unless it’s reference to a historical activity. There should be no need for a trade press reporter to refer to Union Carbide, as we face the market as Dow They should not call a product a “Union Carbide product.” All products are sold as Dow products now. Any current or future activity of a business is done as Dow.” (March 2001)

Dow and affiliate companies broke the law in India, by “knowingly and willfully” selling products of Union Carbide by routing those products through “untainted” companies by re-labeling them. Documents obtained by the Times of India show that Dow was setting the prices for UCC products in India: in 1999, 5 years after Dow claims they “exited” India, they were selling UCC products worth $24 million of UCC products through one company alone.

The correspondence indicates that there was a concerted and conscious attempt to create a firewall between Dow and UCC in public domain, and rebrand UCC as Dow’s.

Sign the petition.
Donate to the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
Write to Sebastian Coe via WriteToThem.
Email the London Olympics.

George Monbiot wrote in 2009:

You might have imagined that after the global outrage this disaster caused, and the way in which Bhopal has become shorthand for corporate malfeasance and insouciance, that the site of this great crime would have been cleaned up and sorted out as quickly as possible. That the plant, which was closed after the gas leak, would either have been demolished and removed or cleaned up and turned into a memorial for the victims. You’d be wrong.

As the Bhopal Medical Appeal reminds us, the plant has instead simply been abandoned. Hundreds of tonnes of deadly chemicals have been left there – in open pits or just piled on the ground – to leach into the water supply, where they continue to poison people to this day, causing cancer and foetal malformations, among other horrible effects. The chemicals include deadly pesticides and their even deadlier precursors.

After drinking half a glass of water that the people of the city drink every day, the author Dominique Lapierre reported that “my mouth, my throat, my tongue instantly got on fire, while my arms and legs suffered an immediate skin rash. This was the simple manifestation of what men, women and children have to endure daily, some 18 years after the tragedy.” Seven years on, nothing has changed. There has been no cleanup, no attempt to prevent the leakage from the site that takes place during every monsoon.

Write to Dow. Ask them: instead of providing a wrap for the Olympics, let their 2012 legacy be finally cleaning up the toxic waste that UCC left at Bhopal.

Zubin aged 3 - Bhopal victim born 2006


Action during the Olympics

Sign the petition to the Indian Minister of Home Affairs Chidambaram:

Bhopal survivors have waited almost three decades for justice, detoxification of the site and full compensation. It’s time to end their struggle. Please ensure the Government’s submissions to the Supreme Court are as strong as possible and include all the victims identified by the survivor groups based on research from the Indian Council of Medical Research.

Amnesty International: Tell Seb Coe to stop defending Dow Chemical

Send Dow Chemical a message on Twitter using the hashtags #Olympic #Bhopal

Take part in the Bhopal Blindfold campaign.

If you are in the US: The Motley Fool on How Dow Chemical Can End the Bhopal Tragedy

4 Comments

Filed under Human Rights, Justice, Olympics

4 responses to “Bhopal and the Olympics

  1. I Neil

    I’d really like to speak more with you regarding the Bhopal article, thank you for posting this!

  2. This is a really excellent piece. Very well researched and well written. I would also be very interested to hear from you.

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