India Tries to Oust Dow Chemical from Olympics

India is threatening a “partial” boycott of the Olympic Games, to be held in London from July 27 to Aug. 12, because of Dow Chemical Company’s presence among its major sponsors. This has given the feud between London and New Delhi an unambiguous political overtone.

The name Dow Chemical has ominous overtones for India. That is because of Union Carbide, which the US-based multinational purchased in 1999, was responsible for the horrific 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, one of the world’s worst industrial catastrophes. A Union Carbide production plant leaked 27 tons of the deadly methyl isocyanate gas in Bhopal, central India, killing more than 20,000 people and exposing over half a million to lifelong illnesses and deformities.

That has brought Dow under sustained heat for its £7 million sponsorship of the London Olympic Games stadium wrap and the Olympic Movement in a US$100 million deal.

Faced with mounting pressure from humanitarian organizations and the media, the Indian Olympic Association and the Indian government have asked the International Olympic Committee to drop the company as the London Games’ sponsor. The bodies claim that the organizers’ association with the US company goes against the principles of the Olympic Charter. “Look beyond the financial implications of the deal and examine the humanitarian aspect of the issue,” Indian Olympics body said.

George Hamilton, Dow’s vice president of Olympic operations, said the Indian government is the one who should be doing the explaining over the contamination of Bhopal rather than his company.

British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that “it would be a very sad day” if India were to withdraw from the Olympics, pointing out that boycotting the event “was not the right thing to do.” The premier underscored that Dow was not the owner of Union Carbide when the deadly gas leak took place in Bhopal in the 1980s.

What has stirred Indian sentiment most is that despite a protracted court battle, pressure from the United Nations and a global battering of its image, Dow has failed to adequately compensate the victims’ families or the affected survivors in Bhopal. It has also refused to clean up the toxic plant site or to appear in Indian courts. Dow Chemical’s CEO Andrew Liveris maintains that any claim that it might have any responsibilities to Bhopal’s survivors is “beyond belief.”

More than two decades later, toxic water and soil contamination remain a humanitarian and environmental tragedy affecting thousands. To make matters worse, last month it was also discovered that Dow Chemical had knowingly violated a ban on the sale of Union Carbide products in India by selling millions of dollars of products through a web of intermediaries.

While exposing Dow’s alleged contempt for Indian law, the revelation also undermined the company’s legal claim that it is a separate entity from Union Carbide and therefore not responsible in any way for remedying the situation in Bhopal.

Compounding the mess further was a Wikileaks release of emails between Dow Chemical and the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor, which revealed that the former had paid to have Bhopal activists closely monitored for years, demonstrating Dow’s acute concern about the damage Bhopal continues to do to its image. Indian experts are befuddled as to why the multinational spent millions on trailing activists instead of compensating the victims and cleaning up the site.

Meanwhile, the IOA and the Indian government continue to spar with the IOC and the Games organizers, who have refused to drop Dow as sponsor. In a letter addressed to Rahul Bhatnagar, joint secretary in the sports ministry, the IOC said that while it “appreciated” the Indian government's concern for the victims of the tragedy, Dow Chemical neither owned or operated the plant at the time of the Bhopal gas leak disaster.

"Dow is a global leader in its field of business and is committed to good corporate citizenship…Dow did not have any ownership stake in Union Carbide until 16 years after the accident and 12 years after the US$470 million compensation agreement was approved by the Indian Supreme Court. The court has upheld that agreement twice since, in 1991 and 2007,” the IOC responded.

The IOA has also accused the government of adopting double standards on Dow Chemical’s sponsorship issue and said the sport ministry's plans of selective boycott of the London Olympics would have "serious repercussions." Sports Minister Ajay Maken responded by saying that it is the Indian athletes who will play a vital role in deciding whether India will boycott the London Olympic Games or not.

However, some analysts, while conceding that the Bhopal disaster was an example of industrial malpractice of the worst kind, believe Dow’s participation ought to have no bearing on the Olympics. They argue that seven years after the incident, the leftover parts of Union Carbide outside India were bought by Dow Chemical. So legally, Dow cannot be held responsible for Bhopal. Besides, they argue, Dow Chemical operates openly across India.

IOA Acting President Vijay Kumar Malhotra said in a statement recently that the Indian government's doublespeak has created more problems and weakened its case. “While (the government) wants that the London Olympics organizers drop Dow Chemicals as the sponsor of the Games, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) which is under the Agriculture Ministry, held a seminar last month which was sponsored by Dow."

Malhotra added that the IOA had received several queries from abroad on this issue with people evincing interest in wanting to know "what action Indian Government has taken against Dow Chemicals which has a large scale operation in India."

However, Nityanand Jayaraman, a volunteer with the Bhopal campaign, argues in Hindustan Times that Dow can’t be let off the hook “as every single liability of the company 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.”

Regardless of whether or not Dow is kicked out of the London Olympics, the event will have played a vital role in educating people about Dow and Bhopal. The company’s insensitivity, which has garnered worldwide media attention, has also revealed ethically troubling business practices. It has also raised uncomfortable questions about such situations where economics and politics intersect dangerously in an increasingly complex world.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist; neetalal@hotmail.com.)