Bhopal protests move online

Feature story - March 10, 2003
Dow Chemical is going to court soon in India. Not as the defendants for their ongoing responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, but as the plaintiffs. They're suing (we're not making this up) the SURVIVORS of the disaster for protesting at a Dow plant.

Victims of the Bhopal disaster protest outside Dow's headquarters in Bombay. Dow wants US$10,000 compensation from the survivors for this peaceful protest.

The company is also pressing for US$10,000 in compensation from the survivors for previous peaceful protests. Dow wants the courts to order the survivors to physically stay away from Dow plants and Dow employees. (The technical term for this legal ploy is the "out of sight, out of mind defence." OK, we made that up.)

But pesky internet activists are showing Dow there is no escape, and providing survivors with a way they can stay far away from Dow plants and Dow employees, but still exercise their right to protest and demand accountability of Dow: a virtual sit-in at Dow's world-wide greenwash headquarters on the internet, www.bhopal.com

This protest starts on Monday 10 March and will continue untill Dow drops the court case against the survivors.

Dow's unapologetic website, which includes an "incident review," denies that Dow purchased any liability for the disaster when they bought Union Carbide, which was the majority stakeholder in the Bhopal plant. The site also claims that "The legacy of those killed and injured is a chemical industry that adheres voluntarily to strict safety and environmental standards." You may want to read that sentence again just to be sure you got it right.

Virtual sit in?

A virtual sit-in is simply an automated way of sending lots of traffic to a website. Activists around the world park their browsers on a page which does nothing more than automatically load the bhopal.com site several times a minute. In the same way that a real-world sit-in disrupts traffic, the virtual sit-in makes the target site less responsive and slow. Eventually, the site may become so crowded with protestors that it stops serving information completely.

The sit in was the idea of the legendary internet activist group the yesmen who have already been giving Dow a black eye with dowethics.com. Andy Bichlbaum from the group said: "We're going to continue representing Dow more honestly than they represent themselves until Dow decides to fulfill its responsibilites in Bhopal. And this protest is going to continue until Dow drops its court case against the survivors."

The ongoing disaster in Bhopal

After the 1984 gas leak, which has killed 20,000 people to date, Union Carbide abandoned the factory site and fled India. For 18 years since, the toxic wastes left by Union Carbide have been bleeding poisons into the groundwater and affecting the health of the people living near the factory. Dow merged with Union Carbide in 2001 and despite paying up for Union Carbide's asbestos liabilities, it refuses to do the same for Bhopal.

Dow has faced may protests since taking over Union Carbide but suing the victims represent a new low in Dow's attempts to gag its critics. Most of the survivors come from the poorest sections of Indian society. Despite this Dow is not only attempting to prevent peaceful protests at Dow locations but is asking for a monetary settlement from the victims. The amount it seeks represents an average survivors earnings over 10 to 20 years. The cause? Dow's "loss of business".

The virtual sit-in, organised by the yesmen, follows on from their hugely successful spoof of Dow's website, currently located at www.dowethics.com. Dow has been playing whack-a-mole with the site, launching several abortive legal attempts to shut it down, only to have new activists set it up in a new spot on the interent. The site takes a slightly more honest look at why Dow refuses to clean up Bhopal and why image is everything to Dow.

Maybe this protest will help show Dow that the only way to really silence protest will be to spend a fraction of its huge US$28 billion annual turnover on cleaning up Bhopal?