Stop sulking, get set to shame Dow and the Brits
The furore over Dow Chemicals sponsorship of the London Olympics and the suggestion that Indian athletes should now boycott the Games to register our protest, reveals an utter and complete lack of conscience on the part of the British organisors of the Olympics and a complete lack of imagination on the part of Indian activists.
But first, the facts. Contrary to the impression that has gained ground, Dow is not the primary sponsor of the London Olympics. The company is only sponsoring a fabric wrap around one stadium. This wrap was originally to be paid for by the organisors of the Olympics from their own budget. But when the British government slashed their budget by around 27 million pounds, the organisors looked for private sponsors. One of them was Dow, which will spend around 7 million pounds on the wrap.
Given the sensitivities of the Indian people and the fact that the Bhopal Gas disaster led to the death of upwards of 15,000 victims, the Olympic Committee should have thought twice about tapping Dow as a sponsor.
When the protests erupted, it should have dumped Dow and looked for another sponsor. The sum involved is not massive and it cannot have been difficult to find another company that could pay 7 million pounds.
Instead, the Olympic organisors have behaved with surprising intransigence. Even though Meredith Alexander, the Ethics Commissioner, has resigned in protest and there has been a storm in British Parliament, the organisors have refused to replace Dow as sponsor.
Further, the Olympic Committee has actually taken sides in this dispute, arguing that as Dow did not own the plant when the gas disaster occurred, it could not be held responsible for the deaths. In fact, the dispute is over the compensation due to the victims. When Dow bought responsibility for the plant from Union Carbide, it willingly accepted Carbide’s liabilities. It is those liabilities that the Indian government is now trying to enforce, by demanding that Dow pay adequate compensation to the victims.
The organisors of the London Olympics are not idiots. So they must know that whether or not Dow Chemicals actually owned the plant when the disaster occurred is irrelevant. What is at stake is the issue of liability.
But still, they persist with a stand that is certain to offend Indian sensibilities and to mock the tragic deaths of thousands of people.
So, what should India do in these circumstances? It is now clear that the organisors of the London Olympics don’t give a monkey’s about the Indian Olympic Association’s protest. It is as clear that the British government has adopted a hands-off attitude.
The Indian response has been to threaten a boycott of the Olympics themselves. This threat has had no effect because frankly, India’s participation will make no difference to the success or failure of the London Olympics. If we want to turn up and take part, the Brits will welcome us. If we don’t turn up, well then, that’s just too bad.
So, a boycott is not the answer.
All too often we in India think that a passive strategy of sulking and staying at home is enough to shake the world. In reality, we are totally mistaken. Nobody cares whether we sulk or not.
What we must do, therefore, is to change gears and adopt a more aggressive approach. Because we have right on our side and the Brits are behaving shamefully, we must expose this shameful behaviour and humiliate them in the eyes of the world.
For a start, we should announce that during the parade that opens the Olympics when all participating sportsmen march around the ground, the Indian contingent will carry a banner which says: “These Olympics are partly funded by Dow Chemicals. This is the company that has liability for the deaths of 15,000 people and is cheating survivors of their rightful compensation.”
This banner will be watched by millions of people all over the world on live television and will so damage Dow Chemicals’ global image that the mere threat of a public display of this nature should be enough to cause Dow to pull out voluntarily.
What’s more, there’s nothing that the Brits can do. How can they stop the Indian contingent from unfurling a banner on live television during the opening ceremony? The worst they can do is to threaten to throw us out of the Olympics if we go ahead. But even if they follow this course of action, the controversy that results will be enough to sink Dow’s reputation forever and to ensure that the London Games are remembered as the Shame Olympics.
But even as we make this threat, we should also make a grand gesture. Given the economics of sport in the sub-continent today, 7 million pounds is not a large sum of money. India’s cricket board makes that kind of money virtually every week during the season. The owners of IPL teams spend much more than that each month. I understand that Britain is slowly going bankrupt and that money may be hard to come by. But fortunately, India is in a more comfortable position.
So, an Indian corporation or sporting body should step forward and tell the organisors of the London Olympics that 7 million pounds can be easily found. Reliance could do it without batting an eyelid. It is nothing compared to the amount they spend on the Mumbai Indians. L.N. Mittal could do it – it would hardly even show up on his balance sheet. The Tatas, who now have such huge investments in the UK (where they have rescued that country’s struggling steel and car industries), treat 7 million pounds as loose change; they could easily compensate the London Olympics for any loss that results from getting rid of Dow sponsorship.
If the events of the last month have taught us anything, it is this: neither the Olympic organisors nor Dow Chemicals have any shame or think beyond a few million pounds.
It is time to tell the world quite how shameless they are. And to announce that in the new India, there is no shortage of people who can pay a few million pounds for a stadium wrap without having to accept blood money from corporate murderers of women and children.
There is nothing to gain by sulking. And everything to gain by shaming.