Protest Music

Why we got rapper Sofia Ashraf to make a video about Hindustan Unilever's Kodaikanal plant

An activist explains the background of the long agitation against the giant firm's controversial thermometer plant in Kodaikanal.

The spotlight on Hindustan Unilever's mercury legacy in Kodaikanal by Sofia Ashraf's viral rap video has prompted the company to do something it hasn't done in years. It has spoken to the media, and even put up a note on its website clarifying their stand about its thermometer factory. The debatable claims of the note aside, the fact that Unilever chose to break its silence is refreshing.



The virality of social media can be overwhelming, particularly for its producers. As one of the activists who helped produce the music video, I am under no illusion that a million views is a million people better informed. Many viewers are sure to have left with little more than “Unilever! Clean up your mess” ringing between their ears. Then there are others that are genuinely disturbed, want to help, to know more about the company's response, the government's response and activists' responses to those responses.

Now, as the wave subsides, there is space for sober recounting of what actually ails Kodaikanal and the veracity of Hindustan Unilever's online responses.

Early history

Mercury belongs to a category of toxins that are persistent in the environment. It can cross the placental barrier protecting the fetus from the mother's hand-me-down poisons, travel long distances on atmospheric currents and could build up to lethal levels as they travel up the food chain through processes of bioaccumulation and biomagnification.

In the 1970s, US-Canadian efforts to clamp down such pollutants included eliminating their sources.

The thermometer factory in Kodaikanal originally operated in Watertown, New York, on the banks of the Black River. Until recently, the Black River continued to receive high mercury loading rates, according to a 2009 study of Lake Ontario's watershed in New York by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The report also mentions that broken thermometers were found on the banks of the Black River in Watertown.

In the early 1980s, this factory was shut down in New York and moved to the hill town of Kodaikanal.

The factory was allowed to be set up on the southern slope of a ridge draining into the River Vaigai – one of Tamil Nadu's major rivers. The site was ecologically and geographically contiguous with the Pambar Shola forests. Sholas are highly biodiverse sub-montane tropical evergreen areas, which along with the grassland complexes, are a keystone ecosystem for regional hydrologies.

The exposé

In March 2001, Kodaikanal-based Palni Hills Conservation Council and a quickly pulled together Tamilnadu Alliance Against Mercury invited other organisations, including Greenpeace, to speak about to Hindustan Unilever's actions in Kodaikanal. A prior investigation had established that the company had dumped empty mercury bottles in the woods behind its factory, and sold 7.5 tonnes of mercury wastes to a local scrap merchant.

On March 23, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, led by its dynamic chairperson Sheela Rani Chunkath, ordered closure of the factory for having violated the Environmental Protection Act, 1986. Within weeks, she had set up a committee,  including members from ex-workers and local residents, to bring in public participation in the process of remediation.

In June 2001, the pollution control board and the committee ensured that Hindustan Unilever removed the wastes from the scrapyard to the factory. To this, more wastes were added. “In the days immediately after the factory was shut down, we were deployed to collect mercury from the drains and repaint the factory walls,” recalled an ex-worker named KP Murugaiah. “The plastering, the soil beneath the drains. . .they were all soaked with mercury. We dug up certain spots in the factory grounds where broken thermometers and wastes had been buried in the past.”

In 2003, again pushed by Chunkath, 289 tonnes of mercury wastes were exported to the US.

The committee took issue with the clean-up standard proposed by the company. In 2001, Unilever said it would clean the soil to a Dutch residential value of 10 mg/kg. Committee members wanted a more stringent standard because the contaminated area was part of and drained into the Pambar Shola watershed. But, Chunkath was transferred, and the committee was never convened again.

NEERI report

In 2007, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute – which was engaged by Unilever – submitted a report that argued that 10 mg/kg was unreasonably stringent. It recommended that clean-up be downgraded to 25 mg/kg.

The report's conclusion is telling:
“. . .techno-commercial aspects are also to be considered. . .The benefits likely to accrue out of stricter norms are to be compared against the additional cost [to Unilever] that may be incurred while undertaking such projects.”

The proposed standard is 25 times laxer than the standard in the United Kingdom where Unilever is headquartered.

Worker troubles

The environment had Chunkath to care for it, at least until 2005. The workers had no champion. It was only in 2001, that workers first became aware that mercury was a poison.

“We used to play with mercury,” said an ex-worker named T Kaviraj. “There would be puddles of mercury on the floor; we'd kick that and watch it scatter into tiny beads. Because it was noisy in the distillation room, whenever I wanted to call my colleague, I'd scoop up some mercury and fling it on him.”

The workers took their case to the Madras High Court in 2006. In court and on its website, Unilever has denied that workers were exposed to mercury or are suffering from related effects. The website highlights a Madras High Court committee report supporting its claims, but is silent about a 2011 Government of India report also submitted to the High Court that doesn't. That report found that Unilever had violated occupational safety norms, that workers were exposed to mercury, and many workers had been affected. The Committee recommended compensation. But the High Court has not heard the matter since February 2013.

Unilever's behaviour in Kodaikanal goes against its professed adherence to high standards of social responsibility. Unilever spends a portion of its annual Rs. 48,000 crore advertising budget in marketing itself as an environmentally responsible and caring company. What then stops the $58 billion company from addressing worker liabilities that are not likely to exceed Rs 1,000 crores?

***

In the note on its website, Unilever has denied these accusations. It says:
"Hindustan Unilever Limited did not dump glass waste contaminated with mercury on land behind its factory. Scrap glass containing mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometres away from the factory, in breach of our guidelines. HUL immediately closed the factory and launched an investigation.

There were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment. This has been confirmed by many independent studies. There was limited impact on the soil at some spots within the factory premises which required remediation.

With the necessary permits from the US and Indian governments, the recovered glass scrap was sent to the US for recycling in 2003. In 2006 the plant and machinery and materials used in thermometer manufacturing at the site were decontaminated and disposed of as scrap to industrial recyclers.

After extensive assessment and testing, final permission for remediation of the soil was granted in July 2008 by the statutory authority, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. Preremediation work was started in 2009 at the site. However, in 2010, the TNPCB decided to revalidate the soil clean-up standard in response to NGO requests. Soil remediation work will commence at the factory site once the final decision is taken on the soil clean-up standard and consent is given by the TNPCB."

Nityanand Jayaraman is part of the Justice Rocks Initiative that produced the Kodaikanal Won't rap video, and has been involved in the campaign to make Unilever clean up and compensate since 2001.

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