Friday, August 31, 2012

Despite new-found environmentalism Dow denies succour to Bhopal

Before the commencement of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the gas-affected people of Union Carbide, Bhopal and their several organisations mounted a protracted campaign against the Dow’s sponsorship of it. The Dow funded the £7 million wrap around the Olympic Stadium and also has negotiated a 10-year £100 million sponsorship with the International Olympic Committee. The Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) is now a subsidiary of The Dow Chemicals, the latter having bought it in the late ‘90s.

It is well-known that in December 1984 a lethal gas, methyl isocyanate, leaked out of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal and killed thousands and maimed many more for life. The protesters’ contention was that while the company poured millions in the Olympics it did not sufficiently compensate the victims of the gas leak. It has also refused to clean up the factory site on which its subsidiary had dumped toxic material which polluted the soil, the environment and the ground-water in the area inflicting misery on the people.

While there was muted support for the Bhopal protesters from the Indian politicians those in Britain went after the matter more seriously. Senior Labour Party leaders demanded an audit of Dow’s sponsorship of the Olympics and the Chief of its Ethics Committee, Meredith Alexander, resigned over Dow’s sponsorship. Five different protest groups presented London Olympic Games communications director Jackie Brock Doyle with five boxes of signatures – a 28,000-strong petition on and a 30,000-strong petition on SumOfUs – calling for a public apology from Games organisers. They also demanded from Dow a financial contribution of £7 million to help remediate the contaminated land and water supply.

The Dow, however, steadfastly denied its responsibility in the tragedy as, it contended, it bought the UCC 15 years after the tragedy and that by then all legal claims were resolved. UCC had paid $470 million as compensation to the Indian Government and that the matter was settled at the highest court of the land which after the settlement had exempted the Indian arm of the Corporation from any further litigation in the matter. It went on to say that the responsibility for the clean-up of the site now lay with the Indian Government. Paul Deighton, Chief Executive of the Games and Sabastian Coe, Chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) found no substance in the protests and the Games went on with the Dow connection.

One cannot really fault the Gas Affected for their persistent campaign against the Dow as they, numbering thousands, continue to suffer the consequences of the lapses of the UCC and its erstwhile Indian subsidiary. Its system of waste disposal has proved to be lethal. Not only it left barrels of wastes in the complex, it dumped toxic wastes around it. These have leached into the soil not only contaminating it, these have also contaminated the sub-soil water which the inhabitants of the nearby settlements use, inter alia, for drinking purposes. A recent test report of the ground water has revealed excessive amounts of dichloro and hexachloro benzene, mercury and lead in the drinking water used by the residents of the adjoining colonies. The complications these could cause in human systems on regular ingestion need hardly be mentioned.

The entire row of the sponsorship of the Games by the Dow brought forth its uncompassionate, uncompromising and indifferent attitude to human misery. It has also displayed its callous indifference to the environment which its subsidiary happened to have fouled up harming the people and their habitat. That would truly be a justifiable conclusion. However, the truth now is different. Of late, Dow has turned a new leaf. Bryan Walsh, a senior writer with the Time magazine, recently reported that the CEO of Dow Chemicals negotiated with the head of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), one of the biggest green groups based in Washington, a collaborative effort to maximise the environmental value of the Corporation’s operations with a view to enabling it to go green. It has announced “a five-year, $10 million collaboration with TNC to eventually tally up the ecosystem costs and benefits of every business decision” and to make environmental factors part of its profit-and-loss statements. The Dow chief Andrew Liveris is reported to have stated “Our planet’s natural resources are more and more under threat” and “protecting nature can be a profitable corporate priority and a smart global business strategy”, a statement , though hardly could ever be  expected from him at least in India, should be music to the ears of environmentalists.

The change of heart has not come just like that. It has a lot to do, as Walsh said, with the threat of government action on emissions on which a price has now been fixed, insistent share-holder pressures on green issues and a growing concern over the limits of available natural resources. In a well- researched piece entitled “Three faces of Dow” in Garbage Magazine, supposedly a ground-breaking environmental publication, Art Kleiner, a journalist and author of note, has described three past and present identities of The Dow. “First, there is the ‘traditional’ Dow: the frugal, small-town chemical company founded a century ago... close-knit and egalitarian, where chemistry PhDs stay from college until retirement... and where the toxicology labs date back to the 1930s.” There is also the "antagonistic" Dow – “the Dow of napalm and Agent Orange... the Dow that bitterly fought Oregon housewives and Vietnam veterans over herbicide sprays”. The third is the "learning" Dow, the company with a change of heart about environmentalism. That is where the collaboration with TNC comes in. TNC’s scientists, Walsh says, will advise Dow on how the company’s business decisions impact the environment—and in turn, how the environment affects Dow’s business. The ecosystem will become a new and major component for Dow’s bottom line, putting environmental sustainability on par with business sustainability.

Surprisingly, despite this change of heart The Dow did not budge from its rigid stand that it had nothing to do with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. After all, whatever happened in Bhopal, terminating and disrupting the lives of thousands of locals, was the result of the callousness and indifference of its subsidiary, UCC, currently somewhat like a kid-brother to it. True, a final settlement was reached way back in the 1980s but, like everybody, both Dow and the UCC are aware how and why a shoddy settlement was arrived at with the Indian Government to the great disadvantage of the victims of the gas leak. Its new-found environmentalism has to have elements of Humanism embedded in it. If it had millions to pour into the Olympics The Dow could certainly use a few of them to mitigate the human misery authored by its subsidiary and to restore the destroyed human habitat in Bhopal. That would have been admirable and, perhaps, more ethical act and appropriate way of discharging its corporate social responsibility. That would, perhaps, also have endeared it to Indians who would have become more welcoming and offered it greater opportunities for industry and commerce. Sadly, this never seemed to have occurred to it!   


Monday, August 6, 2012

Sign of the times - contempt for rule of law

It is an open secret in this country that food articles are adulterated, contaminated and frequently treated with toxic chemicals. This is done to sweeten fruits, quickly ripen and enlarge sizes of fruits and vegetables and to lend to them a farm-fresh sheen. This has been going on for quite some time and the press and some TV news channels have been pretty vocal about it. But the authorities concerned of the food and drug administrations of various states have seldom taken action. The result has been that this has been going on merrily and those indulging in the practise never bother about either the law or the consequences of their deceit on the consumers. We have reached a stage today that virtually every item of food, be it vegetarian or non-vegetarian, milk or edible oils, is consumed with trepidation. A reputed physician in the local cancer hospital, when asked about enormously large waiting crowds of patients, told me it is all a result of pollutants in the atmosphere and contaminants in what people ingest.

Over the years governance has been so lax that adulterating or contaminating food articles seems to have become par for the course for those who trade in them. That is why when the local district and food safety officials got active late last month after a lapse of a couple of years there was resentment and those who took samples of some food articles from a well-known restaurant in the business district of Maharana Pratap Nagar, Bhopal, came in for some rough treatment. Not only were they gheraoed (a kind of wrongful and forcible restraint), preventing them from leaving the premises and they were subjected to some hooting and slogan shouting. Unused as they are to being checked in their wrong-doing, the offenders promptly collected a crowd of sympathisers from nearby eateries.

The bone of contention was “mawa”, Indian name for thickened milk, which is an essential ingredient of most of the Indian sweets that are made by confectioners. Many tons of adulterated thickened milk and other milk products were seized all over north India a couple of years ago and our own state was not far behind. Despite intensive action the illegal trade has continued and this year in Bhopal alone many quintals of adulterated mawa have been detected and seized before and after the fracas at MP Nagar. The illegal business picks up during the festivals occurring between August and October. No wonder, therefore the local authorities thought of carrying out checks and came up against aggressive offenders. The adulterants and contaminants are very harmful for health and lacing the food stuff with them should be treated as a serious offence.

Breaking law, resistance to law-enforcement – contempt for rule of law is what seems to be driving people. Lax, in fact, absence of governance has made the offenders bold enough to challenge the authority of the government. Those who unauthorisedly occupy public lands go after the squads of government officials who have the mandate to free them of encroachments. The auto-rickshaw drivers do not charge commuters by their installed metres, do not wear uniforms and do not display their names despite repeated orders of the district administrations. Basements meant for parking of vehicles have been sold or let out for shops, leaving no alternatives for the vehicle-owners but to park on the roads constricting the road-space for smooth movement of traffic. These are only illustrative; the malaise has gone viral affecting most of the socio-economic facet of current times.

Things have been happening like this for years but the administration has never shown any spine. Laws are weak and, on top of it, these are also sparingly enforced. And then, there is inevitable interference from political bosses rendering the bureaucracy helpless. A spunky sub-divisional magistrate had stood up to a minister when he interfered in her operations to penalise an adulterator of food stuff. She was promptly moved out and put in an inconsequential post in the Academy of Administration. (Please see “A spunky bureaucrat and an intemperate politician” No wonder, an era of lawlessness has descended in the state. Regardless of the claimed rise in the state’s GDP people are generally consuming what should be trashed away as poison.  

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...