Sunday, November 04, 2007

DOWned Spirits.

The recent issue regarding Dow Chemicals has created sharp divisions in the campus. Actually it would be an exaggeration to say divisions. It has taken shape of a face off between one very small but highly vocal anti-Dow campaigners and the rest of the institute who very unfortunately haven’t bothered to speak up loud enough. I belong to the big group who feel Dow should be allowed in the campus. No, I haven’t sold my soul to the devil. Neither am I a right conservative with no solidarity for the people of Bhopal. But I strongly feel preventing Dow from coming to the campus will be a grossly unfair action and might have unfortunate repercussions.

It all started with the innocuous notice about the proposed presentation regarding placement by Dow. Immediately a host of individuals launched a protest regarding how Dow has a number of liabilities regarding the Bhopal tragedy. It also brought out the fact the huge list of litigations pending against the organization throughout the world. They made a fervent demand for Dow to own up responsibilities for its actions and as an addendum said that it would be a travesty if IIT Madras allowed the company to recruit students for then it would give some semblance of legitimacy to Dow.

A lot of water has passed down the polluted Adyar since then. Petitions have been sent around. Discussions were held and numerous damaging media reports published. I personally spoke to the people involved in this and got a clear picture of the whole issue.

The primary argument is that its time the institute has a screening process for recruiting companies. It should start with Dow with clearly documented evidences of corporate negligence. Then the example should be extended to other companies off ill-repute like Halliburton, Lockheed Martin. Some were even suggesting that Tata Motors and Reliance too shouldn’t be spared.

The route adopted by the protestors had its glaring irregularities. While a coordinated campaign for informing students through films and literature is totally acceptable, there were some steps which the engineering student community found shocking. Let’s start with the signature campaign. A majority of the people who signed the petition were from the humanities department. How much thought the students put behind the signature is questionable. I doubt whether they had conferred with the students whom this petition was going to affect directly. Neither did they make any effort to understand how placement works. They read it, and signed it. An attitude many of us feel extremely irresponsible especially when it was an issue which didn’t concern them directly.

The biggest irony of this skewed and ill-conducted signature campaign was its representation before the media. Students were astonished to find themselves reading on rediff and the Telegraph about the ‘growing consensus’ among students from IIT Madras against Dow. Two IIT alumni hold a press conference in Delhi and implore the institutes to blacklist Dow. They also appreciate the growing support fro the students. In the middle of all this the fact had conveniently disappeared that the campaign was supported by smallest of minorities.

Reflections took it upon itself and organized a panel discussion. The anti-Dow campaign managed to emotionalize the issue brilliantly by bringing in victims from Bhopal and other social activists. The discussion was surprisingly ‘moderated’ by a member of the faculty whose bias against Dow was well known. The whole event was high-jacked by the group with the student representative’s arguments getting sarcastic replies. The whole thing was described as “well rounded discussion” while in actuality it seemed like a discussion on the nuclear treaty moderated by Prakash Karat with the audience comprising acknowledging comrades.

Let’s get to the arguments now. Dow has responsibilities. It’s true. When they bought Union Carbide in 1999 fifteen years after the Bhopal tragedy they did inherent the accompanying legal mess. But the very people who are so virulent against Dow are not seen signing petitions against the highly corruption ridden distribution of the relief funds. They are not seen demonstrating before the Madhya Pradesh government why the whole area hadn’t been cleared up inspite of the Union Carbide campus being in their charge. They didn’t bother to question the out of court settlement the government of India reached with Union Carbide. So why the protest against Dow suddenly? Is it because it’s much easier to send out petitions from the cozy confines of IIT Madras than going to Bhopal and asking the more relevant questions to the right people? And isn’t it easier to attract the media this way cause even if a cow poops in inordinate amounts in IIT, the media will be there to cover it.

Dow is the biggest chemical company in the world. There is hardly any hour when we don’t use an item which might be somehow be related to a Dow innovation. Plastics, paint, Styrofoam and rubber products form a major part of it. If one is that indignant about a company’s practices wouldn’t the logical approach be to boycott its products? But then everyone knows it would make life virtually impossible and we come back to the question of doing what is easy and doing what is right.

Once we ban Dow where does the buck stop? The production of napalm by Dow for the US government during the Vietnam war has been used as yet another example of their destructive practices. Hence we ban all companies and organization which have been associated with the war efforts of their individual countries. The list will read GE, Boeing, Dow, LM and virtually every big company from the US. BP, Shell, Volkswagen, Bayer from Europe. And of course all research institutions including our very own electrical and aerospace departments who have consistently collaborated with the Indian armed forces in developing methods of killing countless poor Pakistani soldiers. Does the irony register?

I have to state that the faculties who have supported this cause have shown poor judgment of the placement process and student sentiments. They have placed the placement team in a huge quandary. This team works throughout the year and spares no effort to get the best and the biggest of multinationals from every corner of the world. It is to the credit of the placement office that we have one of the most well-organized placement sessions in the country. The placement committee and the elected representatives were left stranded after the sudden rush of irresponsible media reports. Dow has already begun to show its reluctance to come to IITM. In view of the total absence of any such protest from most of the IITs and the media scrutiny on IITM, the obvious reaction will be to recruit from the other institutes. Hence inspite of an overwhelming opinion in favor of having Dow in the campus, due to the actions of a very few, our students will most probably miss out on an opportunity to work with the biggest chemical company. The argument that if one is really interested to work for Dow, can apply off campus clearly shows how out of touch the faculty in the HS department is with the career sentiments of the engineering students. They have no inkling of the anxieties through which batches go during the placement week and how the only concern is to get a good job as soon as possible. Applying off campus is an indication that one has been rejected in all the on campus interviews. Which student would like to risk that?

These incidents are terrible PR gaffes. They act like prior warnings to other MNCs who would rather stay away from IITM and avoid probable embarrassment. The only one losing out are our students. Dow is setting up a 100 million dollar R&D facility near Pune. If it doesn’t get researchers for that lab from IITM, it will take them from somewhere else. The Indian government who is supposed to fight for Bhopal is going out of its way to ensure Dow invests millions in India. The company is willing to invest millions in research among the cash strapped labs of India. How aware are the people who are protesting of the current state of research in the country. Do they keep track of the abysmal funding and conditions under which our PhDs and professors strive to produce quality work?

Finally this is what it all boils down to. The campus agrees that informing students about a company and its activities is a fair idea. What is not agreed to by a huge majority is the following.

  • Petitions led by departments who do not have the real stake in the issue.
  • An extremely unfair representation before national media about campus mood.
  • Ignorance about placements procedures and student sentiments but interfering in the whole process.
  • Lack of consultation with elected student representatives and jeopardizing their year long efforts.
  • And the biggest one of them all is judging students from the perspective of their moral high ground.

I was clearly told that the whole thing has come down to whether we choose to show solidarity with the victims from Bhopal or we place our careers above it. Please do not skew the issue by passing such impossible judgments. We are students of science and we keep things in perspective of reality. We know banning Dow from the campus is not going to get any extra relief for the victims. It won’t change anything. We also know that showing true solidarity is not sitting in one’s comfort zone and picking on things which are easy to pick on. Never should one dare doubt our feelings for our countrymen. There are these elements from outside the campus who take this purported moral high ground and mock us for our ‘blind lust after a pay cheque’. I request such negative people to stay on the other side of the main gate. Instead of pontificating before us, please do some actual work which will improve the lives of the affected. And also stop exploiting their miseries.

This is nothing but a throwback to the sixties and seventies where anything associated with the west is evil. The desire for success is considered unnatural. Eyebrows are raised when students vie for the best jobs. Aspiration for a better lifestyle is translated to selfishness and disregard for the fellow being. I would like to request these people to see the real world around them which has drastically changed. We aspire to better our lives. And that means a better India for the future. The world has finally opened its doors to India. We will not miss this opportunity at any cost. And no number of petitions can change that fact.