Bhopal: Hundreds of survivors of the deadly 1984 Bhopal gas leak held a "Special Olympics" on Thursday with children suffering birth defects in an effort to shame Olympic sponsor Dow Chemical Co. on the eve of the London Games.
Survivors say Dow owes them compensation for the world's worst industrial disaster and have campaigned to have the chemical giant dropped as a sponsor of the Olympics. Dow says it has no liability because it bought the company responsible for the plant more than a decade after the cases had been settled.
All sides acknowledge that what took place on the morning of December 3, 1984, in this central Indian city was a tragedy. A pesticide plant run by Union Carbide leaked about 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas into the air, killing an estimated 15,000 people and affecting at least 500,000 more, according to government estimates. Activists say thousands of children have been born with brain damage, missing palates and twisted limbs because of their parents' exposure to the gas or to contaminated water.
Having failed to get Dow's Olympic sponsorship quashed, Bhopal activists carried through with their threat to hold their own "Olympics" to showcase the devastation caused by the gas leak.
The event began Thursday with an opening ceremony of children with cerebral palsy, partial paralysis and mental retardation parading in wheelchairs and walking with the assistance of others around a stadium overlooking the old pesticide plant. Some people were carrying brooms to symbolize their demand that Dow clean up the plant.
The children were to compete later in a crab race, a 25-meter sprint and "assisted walking."
Jamila Bi brought her wheelchair-bound 11-year-old grandson, Amaan, who has cerebral palsy, to show what the disaster did to her family.
Dow, which is sponsoring a decorative sheath around London's Olympic Stadium, was trying to use the games to wash away its responsibility to the people of Bhopal, said Satinath Sarangi, a protest organizer.
"Dow Chemical as a sponsor violates the very spirit of the Olympics," he said.
The activists were demanding Dow provide $8 billion in compensation to the victims and their families and clean up the soil and groundwater around the plant.
In a statement, Dow expressed sympathy with the victims but accused activists of trying to rewrite history. The company reiterated that it never owned the pesticide plant. It is linked to the tragedy because 16 years later, in 2001, it bought the Union Carbide Corporation, an American company that had a majority stake in the Bhopal plant.
Dow says the legal case was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for $470 million, and that all responsibility for the factory now rests with the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which now owns the site.
"Those trying to attach Dow to the incident are misinformed or misguided," said Scot Wheeler, a Dow spokesman.
Investigators say the accident occurred when water entered a sealed tank containing the highly reactive gas, causing pressure in the tank to rise too high.
Union Carbide Corp. said the accident was an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee who was never identified. It has denied the disaster was the result of lax safety standards or faulty plant design, as claimed by some activists
The Bhopal activists are also using their protest to try to embarrass the British for what they say is a lengthy history of oppression of their former colony.