Vidya Venkat, Frontline, Volume 24 – Issue 23, Nov. 24-Dec. 07, 2007
Praful Bidwai and Arvind Kejriwal annoubce an IIT alumni petition against Dow recruitment in October 2007
SHOULD the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) align themselves with big corporations known to have a history of unethical practices? A group of students, faculty members and alumni of the IITs have sparked off a debate on corporate social responsibility by raising this question. At the heart of the debate is the Dow Chemical Company, which became the largest chemicals manufacturer in the world since its purchase of Union Carbide Corporation in 1999.
A petition addressed to M.S. Ananth, Director of IIT Madras, as part of an anti-Dow campaign, stresses the need for a student body on the lines of Students for Informed Career Decisions (SICD) at Stanford University. The SICD seeks to raise student awareness about the social responsibility of companies that recruit on campus. It documents in detail the past record of a company in terms of its impact on human rights, labour, the environment and politics. The petitioners point out that Dow has a “controversial history” and therefore ethics should govern the decision to invite it on campus. When a panel discussion on Dow’s responsibility in Bhopal was held in IIT Madras on October 26, one of the participants admitted that students got an opportunity to equip themselves with corporate facts “they never knew of earlier”. Rasheeda Bi, a survivor of the Bhopal disaster, and Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhavna Trust, a charity involved in treating victims of toxic exposure, interacted with IIT students to debate Dow’s Bhopal liability. The discussion followed the screening of Secrets and Lies, a documentary by Stavros Stagos that examines the 1984 disaster.
The favourable response to the discussion has encouraged other IITs to follow suit. Professor Bhaskaran Raman from the Computer Sciences and Engineering Department of IIT Bombay said, “A group of us in Mumbai have also organised the screening of movies related to this issue of Dow and Bhopal. The trouble is that many people do not know that Dow Chemical now owns Union Carbide. Many do not know that the issue is not just about what happened in 1984, but also about ongoing environmental damages which will continue as long as Dow does not clean up the site.”
Many have welcomed the move to equip students with facts that will help them pose “intelligent” questions, but not all are in favour of a boycott of Dow. A final year student of the Mechanical Engineering Department at IIT Madras said, “We can’t afford to take the moral high ground with placements round the corner and everyone queuing up for the best jobs.” Also, there are doubts over how far the IITs can influence opinion on Dow’s moral responsibilities towards Bhopal victims. Said a professor: “It is not clear if the IITs can take a position against Dow Chemical when the government itself is welcoming the company with open arms.”
The current student campaign against Dow in the IITs evokes a sense of deja vu. In the 1960s, American universities campaigned vigorously against Dow as it was the sole supplier of napalm to the U.S. military for use in the Vietnam War. American historian and anti-war activist Howard Zinn’s Dow Shalt Not Kill was written in 1967 at the height of the student protests in Michigan and elsewhere against Dow for its “immoral profiteering”. Student bodies from Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan resisted campus recruitment for Dow between 1966 and 1969 owing to the moral outrage following the killing of innocent people with napalm.
More recently, the international student community campaigning against Dow has also pressured the company to respond to the Bhopal disaster. In February, following a decision taken by the Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative turned down funding from Dow for its energy symposium.
Nandkumar Sanglikar, the spokesperson for Dow based in Mumbai, told Frontline that matters relating to liability in Bhopal were the concern of the Dow Chemical Company in the United States. He emphasised that Dow in the U.S. and its Indian subsidiaries were “separate legal entities”.
He added that Dow was all set to expand in India. “Our upcoming R&D centre in Pune will conduct basic chemical research and will be one of its kind in India. We have already got the best and brightest working with us,” he said.
However, if civil society intensifies its campaign against Dow, it would cost the company its reputation. Said a student campaigner from IIT Kharagpur: “Dow will have to come up with convincing answers on Bhopal, not mere public relations stunts. It is a question of ethics, not just legalese.”