The Bhopal Disaster, Union Carbide, Dow Chemicals and the London Olympic Games

Panoramic aerial view of the Olympic Park looking south. Picture taken on 16th April 2012 by Anthony Charlton.

The inspirational and guiding principle of the modern Olympic games is the coming together of all people under the flag of peace, humanity and harmony to celebrate together the achievements and abilities of mankind as inspired by the greatest and most glorious of all Panhellenic festivals of ancient Greece.

But there is a shadow that shadow stretches from Bhopal, Central India, where in 1984 due to one of the worst cases of corporate negligence and disastrous industrial catastrophes in living memory, about 30 metric tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) escaped into the atmosphere.7000-10,000 people were killed immediately and another 15,000 over the next twenty years. While thousands of people in the local area were killed, over half a million were exposed with toxic water and soil contamination remaining a humanitarian an environmental tragedy of immense proportions.

In 1999, Dow Chemical merged with the Union Carbide Corporation, whose subsidiary Union Carbide India ran the Bhopal pesticide plant when the in 1984 the chemical disaster occurred. Hence there are those, according to the BBC News (30 May 2012), that though the London Olympic Organising Committee (LOGO)  is comfortable with Dow Chemicals as a sponsor of the London Olympic Games ,there are those who feel that the tragedy should not be consigned so easily. In 2012 the Dow Chemical’s sponsored decorative wrap will go around the Olympic stadium. The awarding of this lucrative high profile contract is seen as disregarding the high ethical guidelines of the Olympic Committee on sustainable and ethical sourcing and as an insult to the victims of the Bhopal who sufferings and wait for justice continues to this day.

The disused plant has never been adequately cleaned and the pollution continues as a contaminating hazard for the victims, even as they struggle against corruption, long delays and inadequate appeal mechanism in their attempts to obtain adequate compensation. Union Carbide Corporational sought not only to limit its compensation responsibilities but walked away from Bhopal without adequately cleaning up the factory site, leaving the victims to cope with the pollution caused by the storing of dangerous substances without adequate safety mechanisms and failed to set up a comprehensive emergency plan to warn local communities about leaks, even though it had such a plan in place in the USA.

Such corporate double standards often place the human rights of the poor in developing countries at greater risk.

With the thousand killed immediately and a persistently rolling death toll from exposure-related conditions there is no end in sight to casualties and debilitating chronic illnesses from this  tragedy. An estimated 45,000 others are held to be affected by the emission of poisonous gas which caused cancer, disability and renal failure. The illness and injuries include many neurological disorders, diminished vision, persistent coughs fever, fatigue, depression, cataracts, menstrual irregularities and birth defects. In the acute phase thousands of survivors suffered from respiratory ailments such as emphysema and bronchitis, from gastrointestinal problems, ophthalmic problems such as chronic Conjunctiva and psychic trauma. There was also devastation to animal and plant life.

The area near the plant was an area of high population. The city was nearly a thousand years old with primitive industrial capacity with lacking infrastructures. Housing, water and energy as well as public health services, transport, communications facilities ,civil defense systems and community awareness of technological hazards. Human migration from the hinterland caused rapid over population, three times the national and state rate for the 1970’s and by 1984 twenty percent of the 130,000 people lived in slums and shanty towns with large proportions of the populations not served by sewers and garbage disposal and subjected to land ,water, noise  and air pollutants. Government construction was expensive and did not cater for the poor who had to build their home on illegally occupied land outside the official “legal city “of the elite on unused land close to places where jobs were available. The accommodation is poor in terms of space, ventilation, lighting, and sanitation with water coming from unauthorized sources .transport is illegally run because legal transport does not enter the illegal settlements.

Two squatter cities of several thousand people lived within a short distance of the Industrial Union Carbide plant. These large slum colonies with high concentrations of low income people were located across the street from the Union Carbide and were unaware how hazardous the materials in the plant were, nor were they aware how much pressure the plant was under to cut losses. But these slum dwellers provide cheap and plentiful labour.

Union Carbide was located in a city completely unprepared to cope with the technological problems which occurred in the environmental conditions outside its industrial accident. The industrial infrastructure was not nonexistent, nor was there any support system in place, causing severe social and economic disruption, loss of jobs, death of providers of family income, death of family members, relocation to unfamiliar areas, social stigma and drudging delays and unfairness in the tribunal process and grossly inadequate compensation for loss of health, earning power, property and loved ones.  There was continued exposure to noxious fumes, lack of clean water and poor sanitation. Chronic illness exasperated all these other variables especially the poor living conditions. The failure of effective medical infrastructure is legion, and the survivors had to seek help beyond the inadequate government provisions, paying large portions of their diminished financial resources for medical treatment or medicines.

Lord Coe, London 2012 Olympics organiser, has defended Dow’s Chemical sponsorship role while in India scores of survivors demanding justice as they marched to the site of the now-defunct Union Carbide site in Bhopal, carrying banners saying “Down with London Olympics” . They hold that the LOGOG erodes and weakens their quest for justice, particularly as there are still many unresolved litigation issues and claims. Human Rights groups, Indian athletes and Malhortra, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, demand the sponsorship to be shelved. Ken Livingstone urged a rethink on Dow role.

Would not the sponsorship money be better spent on the site clearance of the Bhopal plant?

Though we celebrate the Olympics and the inspirational and guiding principle of the ancient games, observing and rejoicing in peace, humanity and harmony and all that is best in human kind, we should not, must not, forget the sufferings of those dehumanised  by negligence and neglect and must strive not only for achievements in physical accomplishments in beauty, strength and athletics but also in humanity, dignity, fairness and equality of all human beings. Then truly will the Olympic flag fly proudly over London.

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