Pune Villagers Confront Killer Dow

(B.J. Kerkar, senior leader of the Lal Nishan Party (Leninist) reports from the frontlines of a powerful people’s struggle against US MNC Dow Chemicals, responsible for crimes like the Bhopal gas disaster.)

The villages Shinde and Vasuli - some 30/35 Kms. away from Pune – have waged a struggle against the notorious American MNC – DOW Chemical Company. Without the knowledge of the villagers, Dow Chemical began construction of their plant in over 120 acres of Shinde-Vasuli’s Gairan land (land reserved for cattle grazing), illegally cutting down some 7000 trees on the plot. Since there was no name board of the company, as yet villagers were unaware as yet as to who was constructing the plant.

The villages fall between two small hills – Bhamchand and Bhandara – highly revered by the Warkari Sect, because they are associated with 16th century poet-saint Tukaram, and are said to mark the birthplace of the Warkari Sect.

The plot continued to be in the name of the Gram Panchayat of Shinde-Vasuli. The Panchayat Act requires that without the permission of the Gram Panchayat, the land cannot be taken. But without fulfilling this requirement, the construction was started.

Due to a chance encounter with Justice B.G. Kolse-Patil, retired Judge of Bombay High Court and Vilas Sonawane, both leaders of the Lokshasan Andolan, (who had come there in connection with an agitation going on nearby) the villagers came to know of the notoriety of Dow. Then they began to agitate, under the leadership of Lokshasan Andolan. Meetings, demonstrations, marches began in right earnest. Villagers participated in large number very enthusiastically, with women folk in the forefront. In a mass meeting, the villagers decided not to allow the Company to resume construction, come what may.

Attempt to Resume Construction Foiled

On January 27, 2008, Dow tried to enter the village with trucks carrying construction materials, escorted by 150 Special Reserve Police in their blue Police vehicles. The villagers had anticipated this and to the utter surprise of the SRPs, first around 300 women gheraoed the Police, later joined by 700 men, making it impossible for the Police to move.

The gherao continued for the whole day and right through the night, the SRPs being denied even food and water, which villagers normally never deny to any visitors. Meanwhile, young boys towed their bullock carts on the road, followed by tractors, blocking the road completely. Even cattle and sheep were also pressed into service.

The women hurled abuses at the Police, asking them, “Have you come here to protect us or kill our children and our families?” Next day, the Police arrested a few men and women and took them to Khed Taluka Court. The Gherao continued in the village. Finally, by afternoon, the DSP (Pune Rural) agreed to let them off without making charges against them; the Gherao in the village was then lifted and the SRP force was allowed to return. All through this struggle, Justice B.G. Kolse-Patil and his team remained with the agitators and helped them to confront the Police.

The most interesting development of the episode was the role of villagers, especially the women: peasants who were transformed into brave fighters who dared to challenge the armed police and gheraoed and abused them profusely for long. The writer had a personal experience of the spirit of these men and women, when the next week, he addressed the 1000-strong rally in the villages - Shinde-Vasuli, presided over by Justice P. B. Sawant (Retd.) of the Supreme Court, who heads the Lokshasan Andolan.

Dow Hatao-Pune Bachao Committee

At the request of the leadership of the Lokshasan Andolan, we formed a Committee called “Dow Hatao-Pune Bachao” (Kick out Dow, Save Pune), consisting of Trade Unions, Women and Student Organisations, and other social organisations, to see that the villagers’ struggle became the struggle of Pune and the whole of Maharashtra. Under the banner of this Committee, we successfully conducted many meetings, morchas, rallies and demonstrations, Press Conferences, and signature campaigns. Lal Nishan Party (Leninist), Lokshasan Andolan and Lokayat were the core constituents.

The Committee also appointed a Peoples’ Tribunal led by two retired High Court Judges of Bombay High Court and Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court, Justice G.G. Lone and Justice Suresh Hospet. After two days proceedings, the Tribunal held the Company guilty of violating all laws and Acts, made a strong recommendation to the Government of India and Government of Maharashtra, not to allow this notorious Company to set up shop anywhere in this Country.

Dow’s Crimes Against Humanity

Dow’s contamination story begins at home. At its global headquarters in Michigan, USA, Dow’s factories have for the past fifty years polluted land on both sides of the Tittabawassee River for at least 22 miles, with very high levels of Dioxin. Dioxin is probably the most toxic human-made compound, harmful to life even in miniscule amounts, causing birth defects, miscarriages, cancer, immune and hormone system disorder, developmental disabilities, diabetes, dermatitis, etc. The state of Michigan now warns residents against any contact with the poisoned soil!

It has also been manufacturing many notorious pesticides, like Dursban, extremely harmful to humans and environment alike. Banned both in E.U. and then in the USA from conducting research, Dow decided to enter India, where Central and State Governments have been extending red carpet treatment to them because they have promised some one billion dollars in investment.

It was Dow which first developed and manufactured Napalm - the jelly-like explosive used extensively by US imperialists in the Vietnam War. It sticks to the skin and burns through to the muscle and bone, inflicting immense pain and death. Another Dow product is Agent Orange – also used extensively by the US in Vietnam to defoliate forests, apart from causing tremendous pain and diseases such as cancer to human beings, which continue even into the next generation.

Corruption, Bribes and Dow

In February 2007, the US Security and Exchange Commission reported that Dow has admitted to paying two lakh dollars (Rs.80 lakhs) in bribes to Indian Officials to get three pesticides registered in India. Following this revelation, the CBI raided Dow’s offices in six Indian cities. Yet, the Government refused to end its welcome to Dow, and Dow continues to profit from poisonous pesticides like Dursban or Chlorpyrifos, proven to cause brain damage in children. The sale of Dursban has been restricted in the United States. In 2003, Dow paid a fine of two million dollars (Rs.8 crores) to the State of New York for illegally advertising Dursban as “safe”. Dow has now even set up a plant to manufacture Dursban in India, at Lote-Parshuram in Ratnagiri District of Maharashtra – again not very far from us! In its sales literature for Dursban in India, Dow claims that it has “an established record of safety regarding humans and pets”!

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy caused by Union Carbide is a grim reminder that Pune could be next. Dow took over Union Carbide’s assets in Bhopal but has been refusing to pay the liabilities/adequate compensation to the gas disaster victims or clean up the huge poisonous dumps of dangerous chemicals in the Bhopal Company area, which has been endangering the lives of the people living there. It may be recalled that the death toll in Bhopal so far has reached 20,000.

The Struggle Continues

On seeing the intensity of the agitation, the Government of Maharashtra appointed a so-called Expert Committee, headed by the Environment Secretary. It was a farce as the decision was already made. The Dow Hatao-Pune Bachao Andolan was invited to depose before the Committee. They went on to expose the Committee’s true role and held angry demonstrations outside. The Committee as expected has now given its report, allowing the Company to go ahead, with some environmental conditions. Dow had meanwhile approached Bombay High Court, which asked the State Government to grant them necessary protection.

On 27 July 2008, a group of people of the Warkari Sect led by Banda Tatya Maharaj Karadkar, marched on the Dow Plant under construction, wrecked it and burnt down furniture and such things there. The images of the burning Plant was flashed on TV channels and widely reported in the Press. The Police arrested 16 villagers for this and put them behind bars on false charges. However, the Warkari leader himself went to the Police Station and asked to be arrested in return for release of the villagers, who had been conducting a peaceful agitation. He gave a written statement that it is he who has along with his Warkari followers who wrecked havoc in the Plant. The Warkari sect is spread all over Maharashtra, and the Government is afraid to antagonise the Warkaries, who number tens of lakhs.

The struggle continues. The Dow had earlier issued full length advertisements claiming innocence in the local press; ads costing lakhs of rupees; but no one believes them, as an extensive campaign in Pune had carried the truth about Dow to Pune citizens.

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