Bhopal 1984 and Dow’s Liability

What sparked this post? A large number of students registering their protest, on IITK newsgroups, against Dow sponsorship to the “International and INCCOM-6 Conference on Future Trends in Composite Materials and Progressing” to be held from December 12 to 14, 2007 at IIT Kanpur. Here is an off the record statement from an important member of the organizing committee, in response to the the humanitarian concerns and voices raised condemning the sponsorship:

As long as the company is providing us with sponsorship money, we do not care what they do.

There is an online petition urging the International and INNCOM-6 Conference Committee and IIT Kanpur Authorities to do the following: 1. Formally dissociate this and future conferences from Dow until Dow fulfills its liabilities in Bhopal and 2. Adopt selection criterion and guidelines for corporate screening in the IITK for recruitment/sponsorships/other such associations giving students an informed choice to affiliate with the companies. Only through such initiatives can IITians reaffirm a choice to have responsible and ethical use of their technological and professional expertise.

Why are the students protesting? To answer that we’ll have to revisit the turn of events since one of the darkest days of the history of environmental concerns.

The Bhopal Disaster

On the night of December 2, 1984, a poisonous gas, methyl isocyanate, leaked from Union Carbide‘s ill-designed pesticide factory in Bhopal. None of the six safety systems were functioning, and half a million people were poisoned. At least 8000 died in the immediate aftermath, while the death toll has risen to more than 20,000 thus far. Up to 150,000 people, including children born to gas-affected parents, suffer serious health effects, and between 10 and 15 gas-affected people continue to succumb to the long-term effects of the gas each month. [Figures in dispute. See other source also.]

The Conspiracy

In 1989, the then Government of India negotiated a secret settlement with Union Carbide Corporation for US$ 470 million as compensation for disaster-related damages — a sixth of the amount originally demanded. On an average, nearly 95% of the victims received a meager US$ 500 as compensation for life long injury or loss of life. Over 20 years, that works out to the equivalent of one cup of tea or US¢ 6 per day.

The Problem

In February 2001, Midland, Michigan based Dow Chemicals acquired Union Carbide despite warnings, by survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, about Union Carbide’s pending liabilities in India. Dow, however, ignored the warnings, and failed to report the true extent of Carbides Bhopal-related liabilities to shareholders and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Dow and Bhopal Liability

At a June 16th, 2004 hearing, the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Bhopal, for the first time, brought Dow into the criminal case by issuing notice to Dow’s Indian subsidiary to explain why summons should not be issued to it to procure Union Carbide. This development belies Dow Chemical’s position that all civil and criminal liabilities were extinguished by the 1989 settlement. The terms of the settlement, as clarified by a 1991 Supreme Court order, do nothing to resolve criminal charges against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson. Neither does the settlement address environmental liabilities, such as clean-up of toxic contamination not related to the disaster. Please look here for more information on Dow’s liability in Bhopal and here, here and there for its toxic legacy worldwide.

Recent Developments

Dow Chemicals is using all means to evade Bhopal liability as owner of Union Carbide Corporation since 2001. Dow Chemicals is responsible for the poisoning of ground water, soil and causing health damages to thousands in Bhopal. Despite repeated demands from survivors and organizations for the last six years, Dow Chemicals refuses to cleanup the over 5000 tons of chemical waste that lie in and around the abandoned Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal.

Dow is exerting tremendous pressure on the Indian Government to get the Government to absolve it of all liabilities related to Bhopal. Letters unearthed by the Bhopal survivor groups indicates that Dow has written to the Indian ambassador in an attempt to dictate the Government’s course of action in a case against it for environmental clean-up in the Madhya Pradesh High Court. From allying with top Indian industrialists to propose fake charity clean up, they now mislead Indian citizens by proposing a clean up for Bhopal toxic wastes in exchange of all legal liabilities and withdrawal of Jabalpur High Court case on clean up issue. And of course promotion of the clean up under Company’s Corporate Social Responsibility Programme. PMO’s role in this matter has been more than just dubious [Source], and it has been alleged (with some form of proof) that the Prime Minister’s office has been putting efforts in taking this matter out of the courts.

They approach Indian Academic Institutes to gain credibility.
A. The case of Dow and Jadavpur University: Last year Dow Chemical approached Dr. Dipankar Chakraborty of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University, and offered to build an arsenic removal plant. Both parties agreed that it was a swell idea. The negotiations were finalized from the university side. Dow is waiting for some approval and the machinery and plant will be built within next 2-3 months. Dow Chemicals is already using the deal in its PR campaign.

B. The case of Dow and IITs: Dow Chemicals approached Chemical engineering departments at IITs exploring the possibility of funding new projects. IIT Delhi and Mumbai have confirmed their meetings with Dow executives and possibility of future association. Please see here the detailed meetings notes received as response to RTI from IIT Delhi and Mumbai for your reference.

You may like to visit here, just in case you want to see the records of Dow Chemicals in US Universities.

All of the above may sound one-sided view of the whole picture and there are some questions that need some answers, e.g., “For how long a company remains responsible for an action?” “Whether successors are responsible for an action in the past?”

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