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Archive for December 7th, 2011

Two months ago, I wrote here that Executive Office-refit Mercedesmobile Mayor Lutfur Rahman was at war with Angry Young Man Civic Mayor Mizan Chaudhury. The former was squashing the latter’s dignity with his expensively acquired size nines, making him take taxis to community events instead of the more appropriate borough car.

You’ll remember that the tension had become so much that Mizan and Lutfur’s Caporegime, Alibor Choudhury, had a finger-wagging handbags at high noon showdown across the council chamber one September night.

I said after that spat:

I think the solution lies in Hackney, which also has a directly elected mayor. There, the former civic mayor is known as the Speaker and that seems to be a perfectly appropriate and sensible title. It also more accurately sums up what the holder of that office actually does (most people can surely relate it to the Speaker of the Commons).

…The pair of them need to acknowledge the bitterness is bad, agree to a formal change of title from Chair to Speaker…

Isn’t it great that they read this blog…At last Tuesday’s full council meeting, the title was indeed changed to Speaker. But the two are still squabbling, though. This time, it seems as though Lutfur has added more furniture to his office suite and at the same time failed to replace any he removed from Mizan’s.

I think we should make the Youth Mayor the Speaker on a formal basis. I wonder if that suggestion will be taken up.

One other thing I noticed from a quick read through the agenda of that night’s meeting is that a whole new set of bylaws are being proposed for Victoria Park and other parks. These update the language from the 1930s and introduce new restrictions on the age that children can use the various playgrounds — the limit is being reduced from 14 to 11 years of age.

Also included are specific mentions on the use of barbecues in parks. They will be allowed, but only in designated areas it seems. Seeing that one enforced in the summer months will be interesting to watch.

For those who like deciphering legal jargon, here’s the specific proposal on that:

Fires

11. (1) No person shall light a fire or place, throw or drop a lighted match or any

other thing likely to cause a fire.

(2) Byelaw 11(1) shall not apply to:

(a) the lighting of a fire at any event for which the Council has given

permission that fires may be lit.

(b) The lighting or use, in such a manner as to safeguard against

damage, danger to any person, of a properly constructed camping

stove, in a designated area for camping, or of a properly constructed

barbecue, in a designated area for barbecues.

 

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I mentioned the Chingari Trust clinic in my last post. Here is a fuller account of its work, which was published in the Sunday Express at the weekend.

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.”

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Apologies for the lack of posts on Tower Hamlets recently, but I’ve been busy on the Dow Chemical/Olympics controversy, including spending last week in Bhopal itself. Four months on from the Sunday Express’s attempts to nudge other UK newspapers into covering this story, IOC president Jacques Rogge himself was forced to comment on it yesterday…by defending Dow. Has Rogge ever visited Bhopal? I doubt it.

London Assembly member Navin Shah, pictured below, has, however. He was with me last Friday on the day an effigy of Coe was burnt in the city. He said Coe, rather than trotting out the lines from Dow’s PR machine, should also visit and try to understand the anger first hand.

Dow continues to point out, quite correctly, that it never owned nor operated the Union Carbide plant, whose rusting structure remains a sinister presence right next to the city’s slums. For years it has been successful in persuading newspapers, whose lack of space prevents more detailed arguments, to stick to the events of December 2/3, 1984, with the simple message  of “not us, guv”.

Yet as gas victims point out, Dow knew precisely what it was buying when it merged with Union Carbide in 2001. To them, it was buying not just Union Carbide’s profitable assets worldwide, but also its awful legacy. By denying any responsibility for cleaning up the groundwater pollution that began well before 1984 and which has continued with such terrible effects ever since, it shows a cynical lack of corporate morality, if such a term is not an oxymoron. If it has no legal responsibility for Bhopal, neither then nor now, what is preventing it contributing to the medical efforts there? It has never donated a penny. No doubt it is worried that would be the thin end of the wedge, but they also would have known these risks in 2001.

Lord Coe and Rogge are now proving themselves equally cynical and morally deficient, servants to the ethos and dollars of corporate giants. Their attitude makes a mockery of the so-called Olympic ideals.

Sport Minister Hugh Robertson has also proved himself adept at being a Dow mouthpiece, glibly saying last week that “their products are in daily use all over London”. Yes, they may well be, and there is no doubt, either, that Dow does do work which benefits society – their water treatment plants are desperately needed in Bhopal – but such individual consumer choices are a world away from effectively using public money to let them use the centrepiece of the £9.3billion Games as their own advertising billboard.

Here are a few of the people in Bhopal who object to Lord Coe’s decision. They were at a candlelight vigil on Friday night, all of them children of gas victims, born with congenital deformities and other disabilities said to be caused by polluted groundwater. Lord Coe really should go and talk to them.

All these children are being cared for by the brilliant Chingari clinic, which is funded by the UK-based Bhopal Medical Appeal charity (two of its campaign leaders, Colin Toogood and Lorraine Close live in Tower Hamlets). I wrote extensively about the clinic in my report for the Sunday Express at the weekend, which I’ll upload separately in my next post.

Here’s a picture of it:

The clinic is just one part of several campaigns in Bhopal, where there is also anger against what is seen as the complicity of Indian government and state officials in preventing full justice: Dow is not their only enemy.

One of the leaders is Abdul Jabbar, himself a gas victim with an agonising raking cough but whose charisma has over the years amassed the support of thousands. Here he is in a clean and well-run sari workshop he has set up for women from the gas-affected slums.

Here are some of his gas victim supporters at a rally he staged on Saturday:

Other leaders of the campaign movement are Rachna Dhingra, pictured at the effigy burning below, and her husband Satinath Sarangi, who was a mercurial presence in Bhopal last week, disguised for a large part of it to avoid the police before Saturday’s rail blockade. I met them both away from the public glare at the weekend: as the leaders of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, they are the international faces of the campaign, both highly articulate, intelligent and tech-savvy. In fact, it was Rachna’s quotes to me about London 2012 having the “blood of Bhopal on its hands” in my first article in August which alerted the Indian media to this issue and which is the origin of today’s row.

And here are some of the images of Friday’s main event when effigies of Dow’s stadium wrap and of Lord Coe were burnt with all the fervour of the Subcontinent. When I told one woman beating the burning effigy of Coe that his grandmother was from India, she smashed his “body” even harder. That wall in the background is the perimeter of the derelict Union Carbide factory. Guards block the entrance.

And here are a couple of images from the beginnings of the rail blockade on Saturday, which resulted in violence between protesters and police, the first time this has happened in 26 years of anniversaries.

 

In the meantime, at last Tuesday’s full Tower Hamlets council meeting, the majority Labour group had intended to propose a motion (the principle of which was supported by Mayor Lutfur Rahman cabinet member Rania Khan) condemning Locog’s decision to award sponsorship of the 2012 stadium to the US chemical giant.

However, the meeting was apparently delayed so long by Lutfur’s group allegedly filibustering other business that there was no time for the motion to be debated. That is a shame, although there is nothing to prevent the leaders of all groups, including the Mayor, to issue a joint statement to Locog. (I doubt Tory group leader Peter Golds, even if he wanted to, would get involved in that, however, as it his party which has welcomed sponsorship deal.)

To his credit, Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales has already made his feelings known; see here.

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