From Ted Jeory in Bhopal
ON ITS website, Britain’s Olympic stadium sponsor Dow Chemical states the “role of chemistry is to do more good in the world”.
It says: “We are committed through chemistry to the betterment of global humanity”, that “we place a high value on listening to our communities and strive not just to be a good neighbour, but a global corporate citizen”.
These boasts may have persuaded 2012 boss Lord Coe and his friends on the International Olympic Committee to invite the US giant into their big Games Family, but the people of Bhopal beg to differ – literally.
Within a few hundred yards of the derelict Union Carbide pesticide plant that spewed deadly gas over the Indian city’s slums on December 3, 1984, is a clinic run by two angels of mercy dedicated to nursing hundreds of children who are still born maimed to this day.
Rashida Bee, 55, and Champa Devi Shukla, 59, who themselves suffered, grieved and survived the disaster, are founders of Chingari Trust, which scours slums to warn pregnant women the well-water they are drinking is most likely contaminated due to a failure to clear the plant.
The two women and a team of 17 staff have about 400 youngsters on their books but a lack of funds means they can only cater for 128 at any one time.
Dow, owner of Union Carbide since 2001, and Lord Coe like to talk about “sustainability” when it comes to the Olympic Games but the word has an ironic feel to many in Bhopal. The clinic costs about £31,000 a year to run, while Dow, which has failed to clear the contamination from the Bhopal plant or contribute a penny to medical efforts in the city, is funding a £7million “sustainable” fabric wrap around the 2012 stadium in return for exclusive marketing rights.
As Rashida Bee and Champa Devi point out, £7million would allow them to treat hundreds more children and sustain their efforts for 60 years.
They founded the clinic in 2006 by donating the entire £90,000 they were given two years earlier as winners of the prestigious Goldman Environment Award, which is regarded as the Nobel prize for environmental efforts.
Bhopal, with its crumbling roads and choking pollution, is no place to be disabled and judges recognised the pair’s 15 years of selfless work with those gas victims, particularly women, whose rights they now champion. The pair had noticed that children in the areas closest to the pesticide plant were born with appalling disabilities, including twisted limbs and mental problems.
With the money from the award, they were able to expand their work and the spotless clinic is now a shining example of community action. From Monday to Friday, they bus in the children, all of whose parents are gas victims, and give them speech and physical therapy, while on Saturdays they venture among the slums and educate inhabitants who are culturally afraid to show their disabled children in public.
Last year, ironically, a number of youngsters such as smiling nine-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer Aman Quereshi, participated in India’s Special Olympics for disabled children.
What inspires Rashida Bee and Champa Devi is their own history and a desire to right what they see as corporate and political injustice that killed up to 25,000 people and injured about 500,000 more. Rashida lost her father, sister and four close relatives as a result of the leak, while Champa Devi saw her late husband suffer for years with cancer caused by the tragedy. Her son suffered so badly with the pains in his lungs, it drove him to suicide.
“He couldn’t live with it any longer,” she said. “The leak destroyed my family. Gas had rushed into our house. We couldn’t breathe. We ran out, it was like a dance of death, people were actually wanting to die the pain was so bad.
“White foam was coming out of my daughters’ mouths. We headed for the hospital but the doctors had no clue how to cope. Some victims who fainted were thrown on to a pile of corpses.” Rashida added: “I was woken by people shouting, ‘Run for your lives, you’ll die.’ We ran, but later my eyes shut tight, I couldn’t open them, but when I did all I could see were corpses.”
They both now say that Dow, although it has never owned the plant, “is our enemy” because they “should show some morality, clean the waste and take it back to America”. Rashida said: “They knew about this waste and the suffering it causes when they bought Union Carbide. They’ve spent billions of dollars on their business, but they’ve not contributed anything to Bhopal. It is left to the women here to fight.”
On Friday, as a campaign escalated in the UK, groups in Bhopal burned effigies of Dow’s stadium wrap and of Lord Coe, who many want to visit the city. The anger was intense but campaigners, including the British based Bhopal Medical Appeal, which funds Chingari Trust, are also glad of the renewed global attention brought by Lord Coe’s decision to give Dow a clean bill of health. The campaign was losing momentum – waiting for a bigger anniversary than the 27th on Friday.
It is also a city divided by what campaigners see as a deliberate betrayal of victims by politicians and multinational company bosses. After the 1984 leak, state officials declared only parts of the city “gas-affected” so when Union Carbide agreed to set up a fund of £250million in 1989, claimants were restricted to those areas.
Wealthier areas suffered less, largely because it was their residents, the ruling class, who gave Union Carbide the go-ahead to build its plant close to the city centre and its slums. Judges were said to have treated desperate victims like criminals, handing out meagre compensation awards.
The US Union Carbide bosses were allowed to escape India without facing questions or trial.
The Indian government owned half of the Union Carbide subsidiary and Dow’s lawyers say it is up to them to clean the site. Ashutosh Shukla, a Bhopal journalist, said: “The history of Union Carbide shows a democratic country like India can be bought by multinational companies who can get away with a crime of this magnitude.”
Dow now wants to build water treatment plants in India, but not in Bhopal. London Assembly member Navin Shah, who visited the city on Friday, said: “I hope Coe and Dow do the right thing. If the Olympics legacy is to mean anything, they have to be serious about morality.” Dow insists it has no liability towards Bhopal and is dedicated to creating a safer chemical industry.
The International Olympic Committee said: “Dow never owned or operated the facility in Bhopal, and the state government of Madhya Pradesh owns and controls the former plant site.”
Dow/Olympics: my Sunday Express account from Bhopal
December 7, 2011 by trialbyjeory