Wednesday, December 05, 2007

ITC or DOW Chemicals: The bigger picture

Disclaimer: I am not an advocate for Dow Chemicals. I hold Union Carbide solely responsible for the Bhopal Gas Disaster and support all efforts to persuade Dow Chemicals, the current owner of Union Carbide, to clean up the entire area in and around the site of disaster and make it a safe place for the future generations. However, in this process, we must not forget the people who are dying daily due to consumption of tobacco in any form.

Tobacco related deaths in India for citizens between the age group of 25-69 hovered around the 600,000 mark in 2006. In the cigarette market of India, ITC has a 70% share by volume. Thus, out of every 100 cigarettes sold in India, 70 are manufactured by ITC.

Now let us look at the Bhopal Gas Disaster. The worst of all claims put the number of deaths due to the gas leakage and in the aftermath at 20,000. The number of chronically ill and suffering due to disorder is around 150,000. These deaths have happened over a period of more than 20 years. The owner of the factory, Union Carbide India Ltd. sold its assets to Eveready and part of the proceedings from the sale were pocketed by Union Carbide, the parent company of UCIL. In 2001, Union Carbide was taken over by Dow Chemicals.

Now that Dow Chemicals has setup its shop in India, it wants to tie up with local academic institutes for recruitment purpose as well as for carrying out research work. Many people associated with the Bhopal Disaster movement, plus IIT faculty, students and alumni are opposing these tie-ups, on the grounds that Dow Chemicals should first, own up for the mess in Bhopal and second, either clean up the existing mess or pay for cleaning the site and decontaminating the ground water. Some groups have been successful in stalling Dow's efforts of campus recruitment.

At this juncture, I would like to pose the following question to people who claim to be fighting for justice to the humankind of Bhopal. If Dow Chemicals is being banned from recruiting people from IIT campuses because it is responsible for the death of more than 20,000 people and the injury and illness of more than 150,000; why isn't the same law applicable to companies like ITC? ITC has a major cigarette business. It earns a lot of revenue from sale of various kind of cigarettes. Cigarette smoking has killed and is killing a lot more people than those who died in the Bhopal Tragedy. Yet, we see IITs welcoming ITC with open hands for placements. ITC recruits talented young B.Tech./Dual Degree students from IITs who might someday end up working to increase profit from cigarette sales. The company usually gets a slot in the first two days of placement, which indicates the kind of pay it offers to the students.

Do we fail to realise that ITC is as big (if not more) a killer as Dow Chemicals? Or as Freakonomist Steven D. Levitt says, our reaction is based more on the perception of threat rather than its actual impact. We do not feel threatened when someone smokes a cigarette standing next to us. But just the very idea of MIC hanging around our neck makes us feel that Dow is threatening to human kind. Can we get beyond the perception of threat and see the actual one? Also, can we evolve a sustainable path (the golden-middle path) so that all parties involved get maximum benefit at least costs to them? Is the government willing enough? Are the people willing enough? What is the golden-middle? These are the questions that need to be answered by the stakeholders- the people, the activists, the industry and above all, the government.

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