How the Olympics business does green politics
January this year, Meredith Alexander, a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London (CSL) affiliated with the Olympics, resigned her position citing the Commission’s refusal to oppose Dow Chemical Company. Dow, of the Bhopal gas disaster fame, is one of the ‘stakeholders’ (sponsors) of the Games, and is supplying a 900 metre long decorative wrap that will envelop the main Olympic stadium in London. The wrap will cost over £7m and provide no useful function whatsoever.
Alexander resigned in conscientious opposition to the involvement of Dow whose subsidiary, the Union Carbide Company (UCC), is responsible for the worst industrial disaster in history – a horrific chapter that continues to unfold. Around 25,000 people have died since the initial incident on December 3, 1984 in the city of Bhopal in central India, and well over 500,000 people have suffered injury, disease and abnormalities. The environment is so poisoned with lead, mercury and other toxic chemicals that water from the area even to this day is undrinkable.
Alexander was not even consulted on the matter of Dow’s involvement by a body that is supposed to oversee “green and sustainable” practices of corporate ‘suppliers’ of the Games and advise the London 2012 Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) on such matters. However, in their response to the commissioner’s resignation, the CSL have declared that the decision to sack sponsors lies solely with LOCOG or the International Olympic Commission (IOC). Their statement also says, “The decision to select Dow Chemical as the stadium wrap supplier was made without consulting the Commission.”
While the IOC does not seem to be involved in the debate, LOCOG’s chairman, former Olympic gold medallist and Conservative MP, Sebastian Coe, has come out in full support of Dow, saying that Dow bears no responsibility for the disaster since it bought UCC only in 2001, after the latter had settled all liabilities.
This is blatantly false. UCC paid a measly sum of around £298m when the Indian government asked for £2bn, and did not conduct the most needed clean-up operation, as a result of which children in Bhopal are still born with birth defects, and people suffer everything from tuberculosis to cancer to various skin disorders. Warren Anderson, the then CEO of UCC is listed as a fugitive, now 90 and enjoying the protection of the United States (with Indian state collusion). UCC have continued to claim that the accident was a ‘sabotage’ and not due to negligence.
What’s more, an ongoing case in a Connecticut district court against Dow Chemical has revealed new evidence that falsifies Dow’s claim that it bears no responsibility for UCC’s actions. Leaked emails reveal that the top brass of Dow continued to sell Union Carbide products in India through a front company despite India declaring that all UCC assets be seized. Later Dow even set up new subsidiaries of its own in Asia to continue the sales using their untainted name. Now Dow claims (which the evidence belies) that UCC is a separate company and therefore Dow is not responsible for the clean-up.
The farce in all this is UK government’s promotion of the 2012 Games as ‘green and sustainable’, one of whose sponsors is Dow, along with other stellar names like McDonald’s, Coca Cola and BP, whose environmental track records are less than admirable. This despite the fact that these sponsors are supposed to adhere to the LOCOG’s ‘Sustainable Sourcing Code’, which stipulates, “Suppliers and licensees will ensure that products and services are sourced and produced under a set of internationally acceptable environmental, social and ethical guidelines and standards,” and that labour practices should be in line with Ethical Trading Initiative base code which says working conditions should be safe and hygienic.
But these codes do not specify how “acceptable” the “environmental, social and ethical guidelines and standards” should be. The sourcing code also has no provision to exclude companies that are mired in serious judicial cases and allegations of violating those very “acceptable guidelines and standards.” Dow, for example, has no less a charge than “culpable homicide” against it.
Although the Indian government, keen to bend over backwards to attract foreign investors, wants to ‘negotiate’ with the Olympics Committee, Indian Paralympics’ athletes are threatening to boycott the games unless Dow is sacked. There have been furious protests in Bhopal in December, in which the victims faced not just international apathy, but also repression by the Indian police. Bad press all around has caused Dow to remove its logo from the wrap; perhaps thinking that lying low is the shrewdest option.
However, Dow supported by Coe and company has no intention of backing off. In fact, it is one of the companies that have signed a 10 year contract with the IOC. After all there are billions to be made in “bringing Olympic values to life” – as long as it is for the right people.