Why I resigned over Bhopal
Guardian Thursday 26 January 2012.
source: mailed by Suresh Bhat
A true Olympic legacy would be for Dow Chemical to shoulder responsibility for the 1984 tragedy
Like most people, when I hear the word Bhopal, it conjures up the most horrible images in my mind’s eye. In December 1984 a highly toxic gas was leaked from a pesticide plant in the Indian city. Winds spread the poison through a densely populated area.
Many died instantly, others as they tried to flee, more than 20,000 people died in total in the aftermath of the leak. Others have lived with debilitating health problems ever since. Children born decades after the spill are drinking water that flows from the polluted site. The terrible legacy of the leak takes its toll on every generation. And 28 years on, the victims are still waiting for meaningful justice and full compensation.
When faced with loss of life on this scale, the immediate question people ask is who is to blame. The answer is complicated, but the extensive evidence from Amnesty International demonstrates that Dow Chemical now carries ultimate responsibility. The assets and liabilities of the company involved at the time – Union Carbide – are in Dow’s hands. Instead of cleaning up the site and compensating the victims and their families, Dow denies any responsibility for the tragedy.
I have long known the basic outline of this story, but recently I have had reason to learn much more. Until Wednesday, I was a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012. When London bid to host the games, it promised to be the most sustainable games ever. The commission was set up to help ensure this promise is kept. As a commissioner, I was contracted to volunteer 20 days a year to provide advice.
My time on the commission was a huge privilege. I have worked with talented people who are deeply committed to making the games more sustainable. I’ve been particularly impressed with some of the achievements around reducing carbon emissions and waste from the Olympic Park. The commission also played a key role in significantly limiting the use of the toxic chemical PVC.
The commission has a limited remit; it can only comment on certain things. In 2010, the International Olympic Committee appointed Dow as an international sponsor for the Games. This decision was taken in Geneva, and the commission had no ability to take a stand. Then last year, Locog, the London Games organiser, invited companies to tender for a major contract to provide a wrap for the main Olympic stadium. Dow won this bidding process. Many groups and individuals raised questions and finally the commission was asked to investigate.
I was shocked to see that the result of our investigation was a public statement from the commission that essentially portrays Dow a responsible company. I had been providing information about Bhopal to commission members and I was stunned that it publicly repeated Dow’s line that it bears no responsibility for Bhopal.
I did everything I could to get the statement corrected or retracted. When it became apparent that this would not happen, I realised that the only way to ensure that my name was not used to justify Dow’s position was to resign. And the only way to ensure that the victims’ side of the story was told was to do so in public.
I have been deeply moved to realise how many people are interested in my choice and how much support there has been for my difficult decision. I would like to see Dow take responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy and finally ensure that real justice is achieved for the victims and the families of those who died. This would be a true Olympic legacy.