The author, Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based journalist investigating and reporting on corporations and their impact on environment and human rights.He is a spokesman for the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.
The 22-year old battle against the Bhopal Gas Tragedy comes home to the IITs
On 3 December, 1984 , a run-away reaction caused by a leak of water into a Methyl iso cyanate tank led to a disastrous gas leak that killed 8000 people in its immediate aftermath. At least 500,000 people were exposed to toxic gases that night. Till date, more than 50,000 people are too sick to work for a living, and more than 100,000 chronically ill. The compensation given to Bhopalis for a life of pain and illness is roughly half the monthly salary that Dow is reported to be offering successful IITians recruited through campus interviews. Between Rs. 10.5 lakhs a year pay package and justice in Bhopal, the options before IITians are starkly clear.
Dow Chemical has plans of recruiting from IITs for its engineering R&D centres in Pune and Chennai. However, it has “indefinitely postponed” its pre-placement talks in Bombay and Madras for undisclosed reasons. This was after several students in both campuses raised ethical issues about inviting a company that is stonewalling the delivery of justice in Bhopal, has been caught bribing and lying, and is embroiled in a criminal litigation involving the deaths of thousands of Bhopalis. Meanwhile, student organisers of Cheminsight — the Chemical Engineering Department festival in IIT Kharagpur — have reportedly decided not to approach Dow for sponsorship despite paucity of funds.
IITians opposed to Dow say criteria have to be developed to keep rogue corporations such as Dow out of IITs. While no institute has yet barred Dow from recruiting on campus, some final year students are apprehensive that even discussing the Bhopal controversy will scare Dow away. The only losers, they feel, will be students who would otherwise have had a shot at core engineering sector jobs. For engineering students, that is a big draw.
IITians in Madras have asked “Why blame Dow, when it is our Government that is corrupt?” But do you know who’s bribing the government?
In February 2007, the Securities Exchange Commission, America’s financial regulator, fined Dow Chemical $315,000 for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Dow had paid more than $200,000 (Rs. 80 lakhs) in bribes to senior Agriculture Ministry officials to expedite the registration of three pesticides, including one called Dursban.
In 2000, around the same time that Dow was bribing Indian officials to register Dursban for sale in India , the company was forced to withdraw all home and garden uses of Dursban. Hailing the decision to ban Dursban from domestic use as a “major step to improve safety for all Americans,” Carol Browner, the administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, said:
“This action comes after completing the most extensive scientific review of the potential hazards from a pesticide ever conducted. This action the result of an agreement with the manufacturers will significantly minimise potential health risks from exposure to Dursban. . .for all Americans, especially children.”
Indian children clearly do not qualify for protection from this chemical that damages brain development. This pesticide is being manufactured and sold freely in India. If and when parents of affected children approach the court or the media for justice, will IITians say “Why blame Dow, when it was our corrupt politicians who allowed the registration of this toxic pesticide?”
In a democracy, people have a duty to constantly guide and correct the Government. The Bhopalis and their supporters have raised a voice against our Government’s stance. But for that to be heard, more voices need to be raised from different quarters. The injustice and racism inherent in selling a banned pesticide in India can be countered only if it is made visible, and if Dow is told that such acts would delegitimise its presence in the country.
In its defence, Dow has only two things (both related) to offer money and technology. Dow’s dealings with IIT and the Government of India are all about gaining legitimacy. Dow’s investments and offers of technology partnerships with the Government or IIT cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Technology without ethics is what led to the Bhopal disaster. By inviting Dow to IIT, the public-funded Institute is subsidising Dow to the tune of Rs. 30 lakhs which is what it would have cost Dow to advertise widely to recruit off-campus.
It is true that most corporations have sordid histories of financial fraud, and environmental and human rights violations. But Dow is special it has been caught lying, bribing and practising double standards. Working for Dow and Carbide needs courage and a thick skin. A job with Dow may give you a lot of money; it will lose you a lot of respect, even from among your own friends.
At the IIT Madras panel discussion, Placement Cell Director Col. Jayakumar said that IIT does not apply any criteria for screening companies that wish to recruit students on campus. But that seems to be untrue. A rickshaw puller’s union that offers Rs. 80,000 a year to hire an engineer to head their “simple machines” design unit has no chance of recruiting on-campus. As one IIT Madras professor pointed out, employers that cannot offer more than Rs. 3 lakhs per year are barred from recruiting on campus.
IITians will have to exercise some criteria, if not in who they will work for, but at least in deciding who will be allowed into the campus. The criteria could be simple. Rather than bar an employer based merely on allegations, IIT could develop a very simple four-pronged criteria list:
- Does the company or its subsidiary have any pending criminal proceedings against it?
- Has the company or its subsidiary been caught for corruption?
- Does the company or its subsidiary practise double-standards that impact human health and/or the environment?
- Has the company or its subsidiary ever been caught for dishonesty, lying or misdeclaration?
Any company that triggers one or more of these criteria could be barred. Dow
is one of the few companies that trigger all four criteria.
Who Pays? Who Gains?
On 26 October, 2007 , IIT Madras’ Reflections organised a well-publicised but sparsely attended panel discussion on Dow and Bhopal . Rashida Bee, who was 28 at the time of the disaster, was the main speaker. The company
ignored an invitation by “Reflections” to participate alongside a Bhopal survivor in the discussion aimed at presenting both sides of the Dow-Bhopal controversy to students.
Rashida appealed to the students of IIT Madras to refuse Dow the legitimacy of a partnership with the Institute as a means of supporting the struggle for justice in Bhopal. Rashida is one of more than 500,000 people who were poisoned in 1984 by the toxic gases that leaked out of the Union Carbide’s pesticide factory site in Bhopal. Like more than 70 percent of those exposed, she comes from a working class family.
Should engineers concern themselves about the antecedents of the corporations that employ them, or should they restrict their selection criteria (on whom to work for) to the nature of work and the pay package? Some of the issues raised by IITians include:
- All corporations deploy unethical and illegal practices. No corporation will pass the social and environmental screening criteria
- If Dow faces resistance in IIT Madras, it will go to IIT Bombay or Kharagpur
- Why blame Dow when it is “our” Government’s laxity and corruption that has prolonged the resolution of the disaster;
- Beggars cannot be choosers. IITians have to grab whatever comes their way in terms of campus interviews.
- Why should I care as long as I do my job honestly?
- So what does all this have to do with the career choices of IITians? Everything.
The questions to you are: As engineers, how many of you will be able to do what is right to society even if it means deviating from what your job or your boss requires you to do? Where will you draw the line will you design or synthesise anything that you’re asked to, regardless of its implications on society? Will you be selective? How will you exercise your choice, and when?
Your answers have a bearing on the lives and health of people most of them poor that you may never even meet.