When sports fans and athletes arrive in London this summer to celebrate the Olympic Games, the victims of a gas leak disaster that happened on a winter night in central India almost 30 years ago are unlikely to be at the forefront of their minds.
But today’s resignation of Meredith Alexander, the Olympic Games’ ethics commissioner, may prompt Olympic visitors to take a second look at the plastic wrap that will encircle the east London stadium and remember its connection with the disaster that killed thousands of people in Bhopal in 1984.
The wrap’s sponsor, US chemical company Dow, signed a multi-million pound deal in 2010 to become one of the 11 Worldwide Olympic Partners.
Dow owns US-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the company which held a majority share in the Indian subsidiary that owned and operated the UCC plant responsible for the 1984 gas leak disaster, which killed thousands of people.
“I feel that the commission ended up becoming an apologist for Dow Chemicals and is taking Dow’s side in the debate about whether or not Dow bears responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy,” Meredith Alexander told Amnesty International.
More than 100,000 continue to suffer from serious health problems as a result of the leak, while toxic waste at the plant site is yet to be fully cleaned.
“I can’t look myself in the mirror and be associated with that. And my decision to do this publicly comes from a desire to help ensure that the victims of the Bhopal tragedy actually have their voices heard," said Meredith Alexander.
The Commission for a Sustainable London (CSL), the ethics body that monitors the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG), was asked to consider the Dow deal's appropriateness for an event billed as the most sustainable Games ever.
LOCOG gave the deal the green light – but when Amnesty International presented Meredith Alexander with evidence that documented the lasting impact of the Bhopal tragedy, she decided she could no longer continue being part of the CSL.
London Mayor Boris Johnson and LOCOG chairman Sebastian Coe’s way of handling the case has angered Alexander, who says LOCOG should cancel the contract with Dow.
“When the organizers were looking at the bids, they claimed that they didn't see anything about Bhopal. I think that’s inexcusable – a simple Google search is going to turn up all kinds of information about Dow and Bhopal. The process was flawed and people like Boris Johnson and Lord Coe should have looked at that.
“You can still see the impact of the toxic leak in Bhopal today – in the rates of miscarriages, the rates of illness. It just didn’t feel right to be part of a body that doesn’t acknowledge those people,” she said.
Alexander doesn’t buy the argument that Dow only bought Union Carbide in 2001 and therefore cannot be held responsible for what happened in Bhopal.
“When a company buys another company, they get all the good stuff, the assets, the know-how. But they also get the bad stuff. And with Union Carbide, the bad stuff is a horrible toxic legacy of human rights abuse. Dow chose to buy that company, so it’s now Dow’s disaster to deal with,” she said.
"There are two sides to every story, but right now the people in power are ignoring the victims of Bhopal.”