Global Observer

Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims escalate pressure for DOW to be dropped from Olympics

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DELHI -- From Bhopal to London, survivors of the worst industrial disaster in history protest against DOW Chemical Company being a sponsor of the London Olympics. DOW maintains that it has no liability for the 1984 gas leak.

DELHI -- Activists and survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy are protesting against DOW Chemical Company being a sponsor of the 2012 London Olympics.  Almost three decades have passed since deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, a city in central India, on Dec 3, 1984.

Union Carbide became a subsidiary of Michigan-based DOW in 2001.The American multinational company maintains that all liability ended after a 1989 out-of court settlement had Union Carbide paying $470 million as compensation to the victims.

In Bhopal, a protest was staged by children born with birth defects. "These are the children of the leak," Rashida Bi, a well-known activist and survivor, told SmartPlanet. "The Olympic Games stand for peace, love and health...DOW must be removed as a sponsor."

The government calculates a death toll of 15,000 people but activists put the figure at 23,000 or more. An estimated 572,000 suffered from the effects of the gas. It is the worst industrial disaster in history but the compensation to the victims has never been adequate. Warren Anderson, head of the Union Carbide, never faced trial since the U.S. government refused to extradite him to India.

Today, the slums outside the abandoned factory are eerily quiet. The effect of the gas has caused severe health problems like cancer, chronic illnesses and diabetes among its survivors as well as the next generation of babies. The land and water around the leak remain badly contaminated, according to people who live there.

Sebastian Coe, an Olympics gold-medalist and chairman of the Organising Committee for the  Games, has been challenged by activists to drink the water in the area. At a public event in London, Farah Williams, a survivor, offered a spoof mineral water bottle of "B’eauPal drinking water." Protestors in Bhopal recently burnt an effigy of Lord Coe for deciding that DOW would be kept as a sponsor.

After DOW acquired Union Carbide, activists have insisted that it inherited civil and criminal liabilities as well responsibility to clean-up. The Indian government, which has been slammed for accepting the $470 amount, is now seeking an additional $1.7 billion from DOW.

In 2010, an Indian court announced a new package for about $22,000 to each family of a person killed by the leak and $4,000 to survivors of those who suffered permanent disability. Even this has been rejected by activists as too little and too late. Sit-ins for additional compensation are also being staged.

Protests against DOW being a sponsor have also been held in the U.S., Nicaragua, Vietnam and the U.K. Activists are also approaching foreign governments and athletes to back out of the games. "We have got a lot of support from former Olympic athletes," said Rachna Dhingra from the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. "This is not in anyway a unreasonable demand."

Dhingra said that they would fight to end the 10 year contract between DOW and the International Olympics Committee signed in 2010. Much anger has been directed against DOW paying an estimated $11 million for the fabric warp that will encircle the stadium. Since advertising is not allowed around Olympic venues, DOW cannot put its logo on the wrap.

DOW insists that it is not responsible for what happened in 1984 in Bhopal. With the games kicking off on July 27, the activists intend to ramp up pressure on the Indian government to withdraw from the games as a sign of protest and to honor the continued suffering of half-a-million people.

Abdul Jabbar, from the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, said they would petition ministers in Delhi on Jan 13. "Our efforts will show the true colors of the governments,"  he said. "What is more important than human rights?"

Betwa Sharma

Correspondent

Betwa Sharma has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, AOL News, GlobalPost, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Tribune. She previously worked as the United Nations/New York correspondent for the Press Trust of India, the country's largest newswire. She holds degrees from the National Law Institute University in India, Cambridge University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in Delhi, India. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure