Friday, October 1, 2010

Internet Privacy and Prying Eyes

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.”
Marlon Brando

You are a 39 year old man who likes to play baseball, drink premium beer and go on long bike rides. You are married with two kids, work in the financial services field, own your own home, make roughly $150,000 a year. You have a college degree, and you struggle with mild depression. Have we met? No, and we probably never will, but I can find out everything about you simply because you like to surf the internet. Based on the keywords we use in search engines, our news sites, shopping habits and even simple things like restaurant reviews we write allow companies to get to know us more intimately than your neighbour and maybe even your spouse. Welcome to the world of today’s personalized internet marketing, a world that has moved well beyond simple cookies and even beacons. I am not talking about the ones mama used to bake or guiding lights, but something far more sinister. These new tracking tools are eyes designed to carefully and surreptitiously watch your every move and even everything you type, depending on the nature of the individual software that gets downloaded every time you open a webpage. And yes, I mean any and every webpage. Originally, these tools were meant to be harmless reminders of our preferences on a specific site: which geography we were in, our saved shopping cart items, and our shipping and billing information. In addition, these were cookies installed by the website, but today they have morphed into digital stalkers whose actions are akin to going through your trash. Worse yet, in many instances the site you are visiting may not even be aware that this type of watching software exists on its web page. It is increasingly being used by third party content providers of which there can be dozens on any given page, who are serving content from ad banners to free software downloads. Alarmed yet?

The people who capture and sell this information say that an individual’s anonymity is protected because we are never identified by name or address. But all this information is being collected from a combination of gleaning publicly available databases and using surreptitious tracking tools on the web as described in the opening paragraph. These companies then add some smart geeks who write programs that can analyze this information and attach assumptions by cross referencing things like home ownership records, family income, medical records and even favourite restaurants and brands you are loyal to and make very detailed and scarily accurate assumptions about each individual. This information is mostly packaged and sold to advertisers, marketers and even financial services companies who are quite likely to be making credit card and loan approvals based on these assumptions, which includes the credit worthiness of an individual. Even though financial companies claim that they are not using this information to profile or reject people for loans, but to better target their products and services. Marketers and retailers say they are able to more effectively do the same. I know from working on websites for various clients that we served up the landing page of a site by recognizing who you are, but this was non-intrusive and based on your visit and purchase history, and limited to your secure activity on that site (and with your consent). It was never based on your general surfing history or activity outside that particular website. The promise of this technology was individual customization; however, what I am now describing goes far deeper and uses information far beyond the reach and remit of one particular web merchant. For example “If we've identified a visitor as a midlife-crisis male," says Demdex CEO Randy Nicolau, a client, such as an auto retailer, can "give him a different experience than a young mother with a new family." The guy sees a red convertible, the mom a minivan.” (Wall Street Journal article: http://bit.ly/96MiWX).

I understand that the world we live in today is very different from the one our parents grew up in, or for that matter even from the one we grew up in. Technology has changed our lives in many ways, and one of the sacrifices of convenience and the instant gratification which we all seem to yearn, is our privacy. For us to not have to go through the pain of initiation and identification each time we land on a webpage, to shop or consume news, or read recipes means each site needs to remember who we are and what our preferences are. In simple terms it means that each time I go to read news I will not have to specify my geography for the edition I want or have to re-enter my credit card or shipping address each time I shop at my favourite online store. All this is reasonable to me and I am sure to most people, and more importantly we are able make this choice. You can, for instance, delete cookies after each internet session, and voila, the same site will treat you like a first time visitor until you sign in to your password protected account. However, in this new world, the majority of time we are not told, or even aware of, who is tracking and monitoring our surfing activity or how much of it is being watched, stored, analyzed and then sold to a third party. Many young people today seem to feel that privacy is an old-fashioned notion for an old-fashioned generation; I completely disagree, but that is a matter for another blog. If someone wants to share his or her life’s every waking moment, from brushing their teeth in the morning to crying themselves to sleep at night and everything in-between, then all the power to them (suffice it to say, I will never accept you as a ‘friend’ or quickly ‘un-friend’ you) but that is your choice and mine. Taking away my privacy or invading it without my knowledge is not acceptable, because I did not volunteer to give it up. This is where I have a fundamental issue with this new practice, and the laws that govern our privacy are hopelessly outdated for this new digital world. So for all those people who believed the internet was the last and greatest bastion of anonymity - simply put, you’re no longer a random IP address.

I encourage you to read the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article and series I cited above, on Internet privacy. Below I am listing sites you can visit in order to Opt-Out from being tracked and a link to download Privacy Choice, a WSJ vetted software, which tells you who is watching you on every site you visit (the company that provides the software does not track or monitor you). While these are things you can do to take greater control of your privacy, you should keep in mind that all of this is based on companies that voluntarily disclose their tracking tools, and are members of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a body formed to create greater transparency and protect our online privacy. Many of the companies tracking us are not members of NAI and do not disclose their tracking tools, only the big and reputable companies do.

List of sites to Opt-Out:


Privacy Choice: the website offering FREE software tool that allows you to see who is tracking you on each site you visit: http://www.privacychoice.org/trackerwatcher/download

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque: America, Land of the Free?

“I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.”
Abraham Lincoln

I am a New Yorker and my city was attacked on September 11, 2001. The day after 9/11 I was 2 blocks from Ground Zero from 9am to 9pm doing water runs for the firemen, policemen and other Emergency service men and women working to find survivors and removing bodies from Ground Zero. I ran up and down those streets all day long collecting and passing out bottles of water donated by companies, stores and ordinary people. I was not alone. There were many others like me who volunteered because they needed and wanted to do something to help their city in its darkest hour. I still remember the streets lined with people, Buddhists, women, Muslims, children, Jews, Christians, men, Hindus, all standing arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder and cheering every serviceman coming in and out of Ground Zero. They were all New Yorkers who were there to help in any way they could, or simply to provide moral support and show their solidarity. I remember thinking to myself that this is exactly why I always have been and always will be a proud New Yorker. This is also why I had never doubted that our city would not only survive this reprehensible attack but grow stronger from it. We would show the world that terrorists are and will remain nothing more than a repugnant, immoral and cowardly group of men who can never break our will, our spirit, our unity and our sense of human decency. Not with 9/11. Not ever.

It amazes me when politicians continually cite public opinion polls that say almost 70% of New Yorkers do not want the ‘mosque’ built near Ground Zero, as a great reason to stop the project from proceeding. If people always knew what they wanted and leaders always followed the will of the people or what people believed was possible, then women would still not have the right to vote in America, Black people would not be served in restaurants and India would probably still be under British Rule. The timing of this sudden hysteria is also very curious. This project has been openly discussed since a New York Times article disclosed the plans in great detail sometime late last year (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/nyregion/09mosque.html) and it was never raised as an issue by anybody for months after that. However, now that mid-term election fever has taken stride it has suddenly become a huge issue. I also wonder how many of that 70% of New Yorker’s are aware that the location in question already has a prayer hall, with Muslims coming there daily to pray. And that the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” is actually called Parc51 and is meant to be a non-descript building that serves as an inter-faith cultural center with a swimming pool, Performing Arts Theater, gymnasium, classes and yes the same prayer hall that exists today. The inspiration and model for the Islamic cultural center is the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There will be no dome shaped mosque, or minarets with loud speakers, period. It is also worth noting that the site is two and a half blocks from the old World Trade Center location. One cannot even see Ground Zero from it.

That many families of victims of 9/11 are upset and angry is not surprising, given how deep and recent the wounds still are. Almost 3,000 innocent people were murdered that day. It was the first and only large scale attack on American soil, other than Pearl Harbor, and in many ways it shook the foundations of the safety people felt, and caused many American’s to lose their innocence. I did not lose a family member that day, but I did go to every Armory, morgue, and hospital and did spend hours calling victim help lines to search for a family friend’s son from India. He worked in Tower 1 and was missing. So while I cannot claim to understand the feeling of loss I do totally understand the intensity of their feelings, and the emotional frenzy this issue has stirred up among New Yorkers, by fringe groups on both sides. What we decide will be fundamental to what New York City stands for going forward and how we view ourselves and are viewed by the country and the world. It is important that we get this right, and there is a right answer. It is for this reason that we must all start by asking ourselves again who was attacked on that day. We will realise that it was all New Yorkers - Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu and every other religion represented by the 2,752 innocent people working in the two towers. It was democracy and freedom being attacked by a twisted ideology and by manipulated men filled with hatred for all human beings alike (I should state an equal number of victim’s families have come forward in support of the Cordoba Initiative and for building the Parc51 Cultural Center). The next question we should ask is what happened to the solidarity that we showed in the days after those cowardly terrorists attacked our city. And then the only question that remains is how we should proceed in order to do justice to the memory of the victims to ensure that their lives were not lost in vain – to see us all fight and become even more divisive and divided.

The Imam Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan have lived in this neighborhood for many years, and they too are New Yorkers. The Imam worked for the Bush administration, and now Obama's, as an American emissary to Muslim countries. His mission is to encourage them to pursue the same religious and personal freedoms that he is allowed in America. Imam Rauf travels the world telling all Muslims how great and wonderful it is to be American and being a Muslim in America. So instead of fighting them, let us pose a challenge to Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan to make their neighborhood Cultural Center a tribute to the progress we have made in a world where we are often divided by hate and misinformation. To do this we need to lift ourselves above the daily diatribes of politicians seeking another term, candidates seeking a cheap platform for the 2012 Presidential election, and self professed Pundits making a quick buck. We need to challenge our beliefs, dig deeper and get beyond the inflamed rhetoric of manic Muslim clerics, misguided liberal louts and conservative con men. We need to channel all this emotion, anger and feeling into demanding that the people behind Parc51 use this opportunity to make their Cultural Center the most open-minded, inviting, cross-cultural and all-religion-encompassing Islamic destination in the world; a testament to equality and religious freedom that exists in America, that the Imam travels the world touting.

I say we tell them, “Go ahead and build the Islamic Cultural Center but make damn sure that it represents our city, its uniqueness and its greatest strength – that we may be from different parts of the world and believe in different Gods, but each day that we live, work and walk in this city we are one. We are New Yorkers.” And by doing this we shall make it the greatest tribute we can pay to our fellow New Yorkers, who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Crying Games

UPDATES:
Wall Street Journal: "Games Open on Winning Note"
Times of India: "Games Village is best ever in history of CWG - Fennel"
BBC: "Games Begin with a Spectacular Opening Ceremony"


"I am delighted in a way because rains are causing difficulties for the Commonwealth Games. Basically, I will be very unhappy, if the Games are successful…"
Mani Shankar Aiyer

At first glance I felt outrage at the words of this Indian politician and Rajya Sabha MP. How could he make such an unpatriotic statement, I thought to myself, it really is shameful, disgusting and an embarrassment to our country who is about to host the Commonwealth Games (CWG) later this year. Even though his justification for the statement and his stance has to do with the fact that he believes that the money could have been put to better use to provide basic public facilities and infrastructure for the country instead of these “circuses” as he put it. A noble thought on some level but to actively want your country to fail when hosting such a large and prestigious International event, still made me feel like it was an inexcusable sentiment. However in the days that followed and with the ever increasing media coverage of the lack of preparedness, missing paperwork, unaccounted for public funds, forged email orders and nonsensical contracts all to support the now whopping Rs, 11,000 crore budget which is a 1,328% increase over the initial estimate of Rs. 770 crore – I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Aiyer and have joined the camp that hopes that these games are a total, utter and miserable failure and the greatest embarrassment to our 64 years of Independence.

Even before all this financial impropriety started to come to light, the continued reports of lack of preparedness and standards of the facilities managed to scare the Queen away, who for the first time in forty-four years will be missing the opening of the CWG, due to a “heavy workload.” In addition a number of Britain’s top athletes have also decided to skip the games in order to focus on the 2012 Olympics in London. Should we take personal affront to this or perhaps they have just been following the same media reports I have been reading on Delhi’s readiness for the games. Perhaps, the report about the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Swimming Complex that was inaugurated on 18th July but a week later was spotted with water seeping along its walls and a leaking roof after some heavy drizzle. And these incidents were followed by an Indian athlete getting injured while training in the Olympic-sized pool. Or maybe it was the one about yet another completed venue that sprung a leak. This time it was the cycling velodrome at Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, where the roof also apparently started leaking after some rain showers. However, a senior official did confirm that the leak was “not serious and repaired promptly.” But can he keep up I wonder as the next report covered the “extensive leakage” at the Yamuna Sports Complex when rainwater accumulated in the false ceiling causing the ceiling to collapse. Incidentally, this games complex had been officially inaugurated on 29th June. Although, I can tell you that games officials confirmed there was no damage to the wooden flooring – hallelujah! Then there are the other venues like the Karni Shooting range which look like construction war zones with ‘kuccha’ tracks, piles of brick and loose stone lying around, blotches of paint in some places, massive holes in the ground and no approach roads but claiming they will be ready and fully functioning even though there are less than 70 days to the start of the games. Then again if they are anything like the stadia already inaugurated then arguably this too will be completed and ready for use ahead of schedule. Oh did I mention that the original budget for this range also crept up from the original estimated Rs. 16 crore to Rs. 149 crore. Keep in mind that according to International guidelines all CWG projects were meant to be completed by May 2009 with the following year meant to be used for trial runs and making needed adjustments.

If all this is not enough to scare the Queen and every athlete, now we have new reports surfacing everyday about the depth and breadth of corruption and financial impropriety on a hitherto unimaginable scale, even for India. The Central Vigilance Commission is now investigating 16 projects and this number is expected to rise much further as reports continue to surface of favoritism in selection, bidders being allowed to tamper with figures post-auction, use of sub-standard material, rigging of bids, gold plating and go-ahead of projects which were not even required. In random concrete samples used to test for strength, the CVC technical teams found that large numbers failed to meet the basic 28 day strength requirement. When tested at an independent laboratory they found that the cement content was much less than the prescribed or claimed amount used by the contractors. Mind you these samples were also tested and passed by the Government Civic agency in charge. In other words they fabricated these reports and findings. One of my favourite findings by the media has to do with treadmills that have been hired for the duration of the games, which not only shows the ridiculous depths our politician greed will sink them to but also their brazenness. Harrods of London sells state-of-the-art machines for £10,000 or Rs. 7 lakh. But our CWG games organizing committee in all its corrupt wisdom has decided to hire treadmills for 45 days, which means they will just rent and return them, for Rs, 9,75,000 or £13,301 a piece! If you are still reeling from the shock then consider that Mr. Suresh Kalmadi (Chairman of CWG Panel) and his committee are also hiring chairs, no doubt to sit and watch the people on these treadmills, for Rs, 8,378 apiece. After which you can cool off with a cold drink of water from one of the refrigerators they have hired for Rs. 42,202 apiece.(Times of India article: http://bit.ly/bKTGl5)

China’s Olympic bid and hosting was treated by the nation as her entry onto the world stage. An announcement that China was ready to be a global superpower. One that has the infrastructure and ability to organize, manage, host and deliver on such a massive scale for such a prestigious world event. Granted China is a totalitarian regime and getting things done there is much simpler and easier than in a democracy. Basically, the Chinese government decided what it needed to do to successfully stage the games, and went ahead and did it. Even if it meant driving people from their homes or shutting down private businesses for the lead up to and duration of the Olympics. One can cut India some slack here as with democracies one has to deal with environmental groups, citizens protests and the slow pace of government bureaucracy. But let’s then consider South Africa hosting the recent Football World Cup. By all accounts the progress and lead up was frenzied, with major delays and budget overruns. FIFA officials wondered for a long time if the nation would ever be ready or if the rampant crime and institutionalized corruption would lead to a disappointing World Cup. For the sake of national pride, South Africans managed to pull together, put aside their many differences and deliver despite corrupt government officials and institutions. I read that the local criminal gangs even agreed to an unwritten amnesty for the duration of the games. Not only did South Africa deliver but they surpassed every expectation, winning over even their harshest critics, who left showering praise on the state-of-the-art facilities, the impeccable organization, the lack of serious crime and the warm reception. They did their nation and their continent proud and they did it against all the odds as a nascent 16 year old democracy.

Today is Independence Day, our 64th year as a free nation. Don’t get me wrong. I love my country, and perhaps it is this patriotic fervor that brings me to agree with Mr. Shankar Aiyer; albeit with a heavy heart and a sense of shame. All the eyes of the world are upon us, to see if too India can deliver an event of this magnitude and prestige. From India’s perspective the stakes are also high, as we try to get serious recognition on the world stage as a regional and global power. Failure will no doubt leave us the spectacle and laughing stock of the world. But failure will perhaps, just perhaps also be the bitter pill we all need to swallow to awaken our national spirit and finally stir our sense of patriotic duty.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Israel & Palestine: After Mavi Marmara

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
Mahatma Gandhi

Indians and Israelis have long felt a strong kinship with each other. Perhaps it has partly to do with both nations celebrating their birth and freedom from British rule barely 6 months apart. Or that both peoples have been invaded, persecuted and ruled by foreigners, and both share a rich history of culture and civilization dating back many centuries. In fact, a 2009 extensive International Study called "Branding Israel" done by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, looked at 13 countries (considered to be important in the world, including US, India, Canada, Great Britain, France, China and Russia), the greatest level of sympathy towards Israel was found in India. People always talk about the United States’ unconditional support and pro Israeli bias, but amazingly 58% of Indians showed sympathy to the Jewish State, with the United States coming in second. This kinship is also evident in our countries military and trade relations, with India being Israel’s second largest military and economic partner, after the US and Russia respectively. Even more fascinating is that the Bnei Menashe (“Children of Manasseh”) is a group of more than 9,000 people from the North East of India who claim descendant from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Their oral history, passed down 2,700 years, charts their escape from slavery in Assyria and journey to Persia. They travelled through Afghanistan toward the Hindu-Kush and proceeded to Tibet, then to Kaifeng, reaching the Chinese city around 240 B.C.E. During their years there, large numbers of the Israelites were killed and once again enslaved and persecuted. From here they pressed on to India where they were welcomed and stayed for the next few centuries (Source: Wikipedia). Today many are starting to learn and practice Judaism again and a few hundred have also relocated to Israel. I am told that Hindi movies are hugely popular in Israel, even played on prime time television. So India too, much like the US, has historically had a pro-Israel default position in every situation regarding Palestine. However, when Israeli Commandos recently raided a Turkish flotilla killing 9 people, India for the first time was openly critical of Israel’s actions. India’s stance made me wonder how things have gone so horribly wrong, for in the last decade things seems to have gotten much worse between Israelis and Palestinians, and now it feels like there is not even an inkling of light at the end of this tunnel. To my mind this is directly a result of a severe dearth of leadership on both sides.


What Mahatma Gandhi realised was that Indians could not defeat the might of the British Empire on the battlefield or through freedom fighter’s tactics, as we called them, used to disrupt the Empire in small ways through bombs blasts and using small arms. He knew that the only way to defeat the British was to take the higher ground, to boycott their products, their rule and their way of life - much like Mandella who followed Gandhian principles decades later to unshackle South Africa from the chains of Apartheid and even Martin Luther King Jr. who followed Gandhi’s principles to fight for civil rights in America. All these men understood that freedom can only be won by stirring the masses and waking within them a sense of patriotism, pride and conviction that is not hindered by the thought of losing one’s life – it has to be more precious and worth more than the fear we feel in the absence of it. This is something no leader has stirred within the Palestinian people until now. There is a small and growing movement stirring within the West Bank, where men who once wore masks and carried guns are joining unarmed protest marches, goods produced in Israeli settlements are being burned in defiance and the Palestinian Prime Minister is visiting areas officially off limits to him and his people to plant trees to declare the land a part of a future state, according to a New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/07/world/middleeast/07westbank.html).  It is an extremely powerful way to empower the ordinary citizen, the majority of whom do not agree with the violent path their leaders have lead them on, a path that has seen no results after decades. In the last few months Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, visited and joined a protest march and Martin Luther King III is scheduled to speak at a conference on nonviolence. It is still far from what can be called a mass movement, but it feels like Palestinians are realizing that violence and hard-nosed diplomacy have gotten them nowhere and that perhaps another approach is necessary to break this endless deadlock.

In recent times it feels like Israel in particular has lost its once strong leadership and the actions of the men and women who now govern her seem increasingly desperate, and more poorly thought out than ever before. From the war with Lebanon, to the current blockade of Gaza and the most recent botched Commando raid, Israel has not only not managed to accomplish the goals she stated at the outset of these operations but also seems to be rapidly losing the much more costly moral high ground and public opinion. In the most recent incident, where 9 civilians carrying humanitarian aid were killed, it is hard not to see Israel as the bad guy. To make a case for self-defense for highly trained Commandoes (arguably among the best in the world) facing a group of men armed with chairs, clubs and sticks – hardly the makings of an armed and trained terrorist unit – is a tough one. At least in the court of global public opinion. Granted the Palestinians have not stopped their attacks on Israelis as the peace roadmap states, but Israel too has not held its end of the agreement, to dismantle illegal outposts and not build any new ones. By building a fence and walling in the Palestinians, Israel is only succeeding in cutting them off from their land, means of economic survival and livelihood which will in all probability have the opposite effect it intended. By creating more hunger, poverty, unemployment, and lack of education and opportunity, it will serve to make the next generation of Palestinians even more desperate. If you cage people like animals long enough, one day they will behave like animals.

Ultimately, somebody will need to take the higher ground for there to be any resolution and lasting peace for both peoples. It feels to me like the Turkish flotilla incident is a real chance for Israel’s leadership to reset course. To change their tactics, their policies and take the higher ground to forge a new peace agreement with the Fatah backed Palestinian government. If they can do this to create a two-state solution which brings peace and economic prosperity to the West Bank, its economy and people, then Hamas will be totally isolated and the people of Gaza less likely to support them and their failed policies – forcing Hamas to come to the negotiating table on Israel’s terms. But if Israel continues to flounder and the peaceful moment within the Palestinians begins to take real and meaningful root and, much like Gandhi’s famous salt march to Dandi, we see start to see widespread civil disobedience with unarmed Palestinian women creating roadside blockades, protests and showing peaceful defiance against armed Israeli soldiers and there is even one drop of bloodshed in this situation – then it will be hard for India and America to continue defending Israel, and for the world not to see Israel as the bad guy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bhopal to BP: A Stark Contrast

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
Thomas Jefferson

People in America are seething with discontent about their President’s handling of the immediate aftermath of the BP rig explosion and oil spill. They feel he has not done all he could and that the Federal government has dragged its feet, not putting the full weight of their resources behind fixing the problem. Many Republicans even believe the government should have taken over the cleanup effort, even though the government does not have the necessary equipment, expertise or means to cap a deep water oil well break. Obama’s popularity has taken a huge beating as a result of this discontent around the country. There has also been growing resentment to his constantly cool and calm demeanor. That he never shows emotion and certainly never seems to fume or display any indignation or rage. Ironically, it was this same trait that catapulted him into a lead in many minds over John McCain during the financial crisis in 2008. However you feel about his personal handling of the response, what cannot be debated is that from the outset he has held British Petroleum fully accountable for the entire disaster and for all the ensuing damage, stretching even the most generous legal definitions of liability for foreign companies operating on US soil. He has made them liable, not only for all costs incurred by the Federal government for the cleanup operation, but also for lost wages of fisherman, riggers and small business owners in affected town. Somehow he even got BP to pony up $25 million for the State of Florida to invest in advertising to re-assure tourists that Florida beaches remain unaffected, open and safe. All this in addition to coaxing BP into putting a down payment of $20 billion into an account administered by a government-appointed third party, which will enable them to process and pay claims in a more expedient manner. And during all of this he managed to help the BP board see the wisdom in not issuing any further dividends to shareholders for the remainder of 2010. Whether you are satisfied with his administration’s sense of urgency and speed of response or not, I think it is fair to say that he has been single-mindedly focused on protecting his citizen’s well-being and livelihoods by ensuring that the blame and liability rests firmly with this foreign company and that taxpayers will not be the ones to bear the burden of this catastrophe.

Now contrast this with the Indian government’s response to the greatest industrial disaster the world has ever seen by an American company called Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) which operated a majority owned chemical plant in the city of Bhopal, India. One fateful night in December 1984 the plant leaked toxic gas engulfing the city of Bhopal and its environs, exposing some 500,000 people to lethal and poisonous gas. Government estimates indicate that 8,000 people died within the first week. Another 8,000 people died since from gas related causes. Some 5,000 women were widowed. The gas exposure is also blamed for birth defects ranging from minor to very severe disabilities for the next two generations and is still causing unusually high clusters of cancer and other diseases in the families of the exposed. Today, 390 tons of toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant, never cleaned up by UCIL or the Indian government is said to continue to leak and pollute the groundwater in the region and affect thousands of Bhopal residents who depend on it. In 1985 the Indian government filed a suit in US court for damages worth $3.3 billion. In February 1989 the Indian government, led by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, agreed to an out of court settlement with Union Carbide for a paltry $470 million - approximately 14% of their original claim. To add insult to injury, the then Chief Executive of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, was arrested in 1985 and released on bail on a visit to India. He fled the country, and while still considered an absconder, has since retired and lives a lavish life in the exclusive Hamptons community on New York’s Long Island. “Greenpeace asserts that as the Union Carbide CEO, Anderson knew about a 1982 safety audit of the Bhopal plant, which identified 30 major hazards and that they were not fixed in Bhopal but were fixed at the company's identical plant in the US” (Wikipedia).

Twenty-six years after the tragedy India’s Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the world’s greatest industrial disaster. The Supreme Court is punishing the 7 of the 8 living Union Carbide board members with a 2 year prison sentence, which can be appealed. The culpable homicide charge was effectively reduced to a charge usually used for reckless driving cases. After a wait of a quarter century this is the justice the tens of thousands of victims of Bhopal received. This is the only justice the President, Prime Minister and government has been able to deliver to their citizens. And it seems the perpetrators will continue to go unpunished even as the people of Bhopal continue to suffer the consequences of their negligence. Dow Chemicals, the company which acquired UCIL, has repeatedly stated it accepts no responsibility for this “tragic accident” and recently also retracted a 2002 statement by DOW’s PR Head saying the US$500 compensation per victim was "plenty good for an Indian.” Curiously though, Times of India found Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings from February 2010, where DOW has disclosed that it has taken on all liability for Carbide lawsuits in the US dating back to 1977 (Bhopal happened in 1984), and expects to pay a further $839 million in the coming years to settle these. Carbide became a subsidiary of Dow through a merger in 2001 (‘Bhopal gas tragedy: Dow's double standards exposed’ – Times of India).

Based on a unanimous public outcry the Indian government is now pushing through new measures that include increased compensation for victims, and a renewed effort to extradite the 90 year old Warren Anderson  (an extradition request by India in 2003 was turned down by the US government) along with a pledge to clean up the abandoned UCIL factory. While Dow’s poorly worded statement above says it all, there is another and bigger issue at stake here that goes beyond corporate responsibility and companies doing the right thing in such extreme and tragic situations. It has to do with the weak response and seeming lack of muscle of the Indian government. As India continues to pride its steady advance onto the global stage as an economic and military powerhouse, the government continues to show its impotence when it comes to protecting its own citizens. Victims groups claim that the Indian government did not want to create a hostile climate for foreign companies and foreign direct investment and thus cushioned much of its actions against Union Carbide and DOW Chemicals. I hope this is not true because a government, who does not use every means possible to first and foremost protect its own people, has no business playing on the global stage or calling itself a Superpower.