Could a rap music video about Kodaikanal's mercury disaster do what years of protests have failed to?
It has been a decade and a half since Unilever shut down its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, a hill station in Tamil Nadu. The massive multinational had little choice but to do so after it emerged that large quantities of waste containing mercury from the factory had been dumped in the forest behind the factory. The company then known as Hindustan Lever claimed that this was only done by a junkyard it had sold its waste to, while activists and others insist the company was using the forest as a dumping ground as well.
What is evident is the fallout of this dumping. Large tracts of Kodaikanal's lakes, plants and fish have been affected by mercury poisoning. A study conducted this year found high levels of mercury in the moss and lichen around the factory, even though it has been shuttered for more than 14 years. And people have reported all sorts of problems.
Unilever has, from the beginning, washed its hands of any liability involving workers who may have been affected by the mercury. Although it admitted to mercury poisoning the soil, the company claimed "many expert studies" prove that there have been no adverse health impacts on the ex-workers of the factory. Yet activists have pointed to the deaths of up to 30 people, many other odd health conditions and an inability to get much of a response from the company.
Documentary filmmaker Amudhan RP sought to shine a spotlight on the plight of those affected, in his 2013 film Mercury in the Mist. Others have tried all sorts of efforts, from boycotts to petitions to social media to pressure Unilever, one of the world's biggest companies, to acknowledge its role in contaminating Kodaikanal.
Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf's music video, Kodaikanal Won't, set to the tunes of Nicki Minaj's Anaconda, is only the latest attempt to bring attention to the issue. Throwing virality into the mixture, Ashraf's video, which has been picked up by Indian and international outlets, calls on people to sign a petition at kodaimercury.org
More than half a million people have seen the video and the petition already has 17,000 signatures, of the 25,000 it was hoping to get. Whether that will have any impact on an issue that has remain unaddressed for almost 15 years now, however, remains to be seen.