Bhopal tragedy comes to haunt Dow R&D unit, villagers block road to site

Vinod Mathew & Nisha Nambiar, Indian Express, January 28, 2007
Pune, January 27: On January 16, they blocked the road leading to a 100-acre construction site—one that, if Dow Chemical has its way, will be their first R&D unit in India. The project was started in October.
The construction work at the Rs 400-crore ‘Global Research Centre’ came to a grinding halt as hundreds of residents of Shinde village, a quiet hamlet tucked away in the interiors of Khed taluka in Pune district, woke up to an uncomfortable reality—that Dow Chemical now owns Union Carbide Corporation. The Corporation was the parent company of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) when the Bhopal tragedy struck in 1984. For the villagers, however, it is of no consequence that UCIL was hived off by UCC in 1994 to McLeod Russel (India) Limited. The negative light under which the 1,500-odd villagers have begun to look at Dow Chemical’s centre has led to a decision that not a single truck, carrying building material or any worker to the construction site, will be allowed to pass through the village, the sole approach to the Dow Chemical unit. They know it could soon become a ‘law-and-order’ situation and they’re bracing up to face such an eventuality, though as of now the protest is a peaceful one.
Sarpanch Gorakh Rambhau Temghire — who was called twice last week by the sub-divisional officer to be persuaded to withdraw the agitation — has told the villagers that the agitation will continue under the umbrella of Bhamchandragarh Bachao Warkari Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, after Bhamchandragarh, a place of historical importance near their village.
The villagers are working in three-hour shifts between 8 am and 7 pm, playing the role of sentry at this point and shouting slogans against the company. Interestingly, there has been no police action against them. “Let them arrest us,” shouts Shantaram Bapu Temghire, former sarpanch of the village, reflecting the mood of the villagers.
The stand of villagers has perplexed N Y Sanglikar, Director, Public Affairs, Dow Chemical International Private Limited, as he believed the villagers were all for the ‘big project’ till a few weeks ago. “These are my people and I know them. They can be easily swayed. This week they may be opposing the project, but the next week they could be supporting it. The company has decided to allow time to win back the confidence of the villagers. But there is no time frame,” he says.
According to Justice BG Kolse Patil, retired judge of Bombay High Court, Justice P B Sawant, retired judge of Supreme Court and social activist Vilas Sonawane, the villagers were swayed by the arguments of the company once, but not anymore. “An RTI has been moved for information on Dow and we are ready to file a writ petition in the High Court for the same,” says Patil.
Meanwhile, villagers have in their hand — what they hope can act as a legal spanner in the project work — the 7/12 extract of the 100 acres where it’s called a ‘gairan’ (grazing land for cattle), which is to be looked after by the village panchayat. “When it was given over by the Government to the company, we were not told about it. No change of ownership has been made in the revenue documents. As on January 10, 2008, the owner of the land where the company is putting up its facility is not MIDC or Dow Chemical,” says villager Genbhau Mengle.
According to Purshottam Jadhav, MIDC’s regional officer at Pune, since it is a Government land, the onus is on the Government to change its ownership once the District Collector passes the order and it’s not mandatory to ask the panchyat samiti’s permission. “Of the 62.74 hectares, 10 hectares were given back to the village, 40 hectares were given for Dow Chemical and 12 hectares remained with the Government,” he says. However, the same is yet to be reflected in the 7/12 extract.
“The 100-acre plot has been allocated to us by the Maharashtra Government on a long lease basis. We have the appropriate documents and approvals in place needed to start and continue the construction of the research centre,” points out Sanglikar.
Meanwhile, no efforts are being spared by the company to convince the villagers of their bonafide intent. On January 22, Dow Chemical got a letter of support from National Chemical Laboratory (NCL). On Thursday, NCL Deputy Director B D Kulkarni said he was requested by the company to give a covering letter and he did it immediately as NCL had worked on some research projects with Dow. When asked whether he had seen the project report, he said that they had assured him that it would be send to him later.
The coming days may see lot of developments as Dow Chemical is planning to woo back those villagers who were supportive of their centre mid-December when they got ‘swayed by outsiders’ — only two months after Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao signed on the dotted line to pave way for the facility.
editor@expressindia.com

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