Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Down with Dow? Maybe not

Ordinarily, with a name like ‘Dow’, you’d be a caption writer’s delight. But when the ghosts of over 10,000 Bhopal residents you murdered – very, very indirectly, of course – peer from behind your red diamond shaped logo, puns go out the window. And when we know that the Olympic Games, that ancient sporting competition designed to bring people together, has signed on Dow Chemicals as one of its sponsors for the 2012 edition in London (and beyond), ‘shocking’ is pretty much the only word that comes to mind, ‘aghast’ coming a close second.

Aslam Sher Khan, former hockey star, is of the opinion that India must boycott the Olympic Games in London next year. The venerable Mr Khan, his heart totally in the right place, says, “It’s a shame that the people who murdered so many innocent people in Bhopal are allowed to be part of the Olympic movement. India must force Dow out of the Olympics, and if that doesn’t happen, boycott the Games.” Now that serves all those who are called on to defend India’s ‘disastrous showing in yet another Olympic Games – how can a country of over a billion win next to nothing’. But this might be a good time to step back and view the debate from a few different angles.

Ordinarily, especially in these days, when the absoluteness of Annaesque sentiments is what rules popular discourse, it would have been easy to go along with Khan’s opinion. But, really, is it all so cut-and-dried?

To start with, let’s just step back and place Dow under the right light. The Bhopal gas leak on December 3, 1984 is rightly described as the worst industrial disaster of all time. The leak of the poisonous methyl isocyanate killed about 3,000 people immediately, and has since taken the lives of 8,000-odd more. The company responsible: Union Carbide. Without littering this sports-related column with facts easily found on Google, let me just say that the law has failed to punish those responsible for the dastardly act (whether of commission or omission) or compensate those victimised. Even here in the ‘Third World’, it was a revelation that human life was so cheap (but the fact that it happened in a developing country had, of course, everything to do with how events played out thereafter). But Dow came into the picture only in 1999 when it bought Union Carbide. At the time, the Dow board had fears that the company would become responsible for Union Carbide’s crimes. And so it did.

Now, let me state a few cold facts, and please – please – take me at my word when I say that I hold no candle for Dow (why should I?):

· Dow did not commit the crime to start with, though that does not absolve them of the responsibility that comes with being the company that merged with the crime-committing company
· Dow’s main ‘crime’ is in refusing to pay compensation to the Bhopal victims as demanded – and I cannot find the words to condemn that strongly enough
· I see this as the difference between homicide and culpable homicide. Dow is culpable because it bought over Union Carbide, so as far as I can see, they did not commit the crime but – quite rightly – inherited the culpability. Don’t shed a tear for them. It was a business decision they made knowing every fact
· Since Union Carbide doesn’t exist anymore, the main sticking point now has to be the non-payment of compensation
· Lastly, and importantly, I believe that the Indian government is almost as culpable as Dow as far as the non-payment of compensation is concerned, simply because it has done very little over the years to push the law in this regard, acting only when the protestors’ voices grew loud enough to reach Raisina Hill

Given these facts and circumstances, the question I am trying to answer is this: what purpose does a boycott serve?

Do I mean that India, as a nation, should keep quiet? Certainly not. I think Ajay Maken has started a solid initiative, and importantly, it’s being backed by the sporting community. But, before moving forward, I also want to question Maken’s stance a bit. Maken started things off by writing a letter to Indian Olympic Association (IOA) President VK Malhotra asking the IOA to speak to the International Olympic Council about the issue. Why? Why is this IOA’s cross to bear? Call me a born cynic, but as far as I am concerned, it’s the Indian government’s job to take this up with the British government. It’s not an issue concerning sportspersons any more than it concerns the rest of us Indian citizens. It’s for the government – and remember that it must share half the burden of blame – to put diplomatic pressure on the UK and ensure the nation’s athletes don’t have to perform under banners emblazoned with the letters D-O-W. Why is the government firing from Maken’s shoulders and why is the Sports Minister firing from the IOA’s shoulders?

Having said that, though, I will now step back. I am not a political commentator. Let’s return to the sports side of things. And while Aslam Sher Khan might have gone a step too far with his boycott call, many others do make solid points.

Like Michael Ferreira, who told me, “Hit them (Britain) where it hurts the most. Freeze trade relations. Hurt their economy. Force them into a situation where they are forced to drop Dow from the Olympics.”

Viren Rasquinha and Ashwini Nachappa told me – separately, but almost entirely in agreement – that it’s not the job of sportspersons to do what politicians should do, but sportspersons must raise their voice to express the concern of the people of our country. Having Dow as a sponsor for the Olympics is not acceptable to the people of India, and we must express that in a unified voice.

And that, to my mind, is the solution. As far as the Indian sports community is concerned, we could consider participating in the Olympics with black armbands on. The government and Indian civil society must simultaneously protest in all other relevant fora. Not boycott, I believe. Because remember, these are athletes we are talking about. Not social or political activists. They have trained hard for four (or more) years to have a shot at Olympic glory. That can’t be snatched away from them because the Indian government is incapable of doing what it is supposed to do – get compensation from Dow for the Bhopal victims. It just doesn’t seem fair.