India’s Chingari Trust look after 150 children each day, all victims of the 1984 Bhopal tragedy. Even though the incident took place nearly 30 years ago, its ill-effects have been felt every day since the explosion at the Union Carbide gas plant. Each year new victims are born into this seemingly never-ending tragedy.
Thousands of people died after the industrial accident at Bhopal, with 558,125 being injured, this is a tragedy that cannot be forgotten. Union Carbide, the company responsible for the tragedy, was bought by Dow Chemicals in 2001. I have been campaigning against Dow Chemicals being awarded an Olympics’ sponsorship contract because I believe it is an insult to the victims, survivors and the children looked after by local groups like the Chingari Trust and Sambhavna.
In December last year I visited Bhopal on the anniversary of the incident. I heard first-hand accounts from survivors and their families and saw with my own eyes how this tragedy still blights their lives every single day. I understand their anger that the company responsible is a major Olympics “Worldwide Partner” with all the associated kudos. I met local groups who treat the victims and children with serious disabilities and birth-deformities caused by contaminated drinking water. I’m going back during the Paralympics to do whatever I can to provide help for the victims and their families.
As a British Indian I’ve often wondered what if a similar tragedy were to strike at home in Britain? Would we acquiesce and quietly accept Dow Chemicals’ Olympic sponsorship deal? Would we be happy that those responsible were able to associate themselves with the London2012? The answer to these questions is a resounding no. It is not acceptable that those responsible for this tragedy are benefiting from their association with the Olympic Games. Why should we be indifferent just because those who lost their lives died 6,000 miles away in central India?
I firmly believe that Dow took on both Union Carbide’s assets and their liabilities, including the Bhopal tragedy. Civil and criminal cases are still pending in Manhattan and Bhopal. For such a company, who in my view have not come close to repaying their debt to the people of Bhopal, to be an Olympic sponsor makes a mockery of the games.
I understand that someone has to pay for the games and the sponsorship is very welcome and helps reduce the liability for the taxpayer. However, there are many companies in the world who are responsible and do not have such chequered histories and questionable moral positions as Dow.
I think the time has come for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to put its money where its mouth is and adopt a sponsors and advertisers code that clearly stipulates criteria for the selection of sponsors and “Worldwide Partners” for the games. A simple starting point would be the principles defined in the IOC’s Olympic Charter. Article 1 of the Olympic Charter states:
“Olympism is a philosophy of life… (which) seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
Do the IOC really believe that Dow Chemicals is socially responsible or respects fundamental ethical principles? More importantly, do the people of Bhopal believe Dow are socially responsible?
If the IOC are a serious organisation committed to these ideals then they need to live up to their own rhetoric. Perhaps the IOC itself should be subject to greater democratic accountability; with the continued spread of democracy around the globe surely it is time for the IOC to open itself up to reform. The Olympics are too important to be left to an unfettered global elite disconnected from places like Bhopal. A simple first step would be to adopt criteria for the selection of sponsors. Is this too much to ask for?
Navin Shah is a member of the London Assembly