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Rap song forces Unilever response, but Kodai clean-up far from reality

Vishakh Unnikrishnan | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:34 IST
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The disaster

  • Unilever\'s thermometer factory in Kodaikanal was shut down in 2001
  • It was ordered to close down due to environmental violations
  • Studies found mercury poisoning in the environment around the factory
  • This also affected the health of workers and their families

The campaign

  • Employees groups had been protesting against Unilever\'s inaction for a number of years
  • Rapper Sofia Ashraf recently released a song called Kodaikanal won\'t which went viral

The response

  • Unilever CEO Paul Polman said the company was working actively for a solution
  • The company says it isn\'t getting a go-ahead from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board
  • TNPCB isn\'t clearing it due to public opposition
  • Unilever\'s proposed clean up is 25 times weaker than mandated in UK and US

A rap song goes viral, and forces the world's third largest consumer goods company to go on the defensive.

That's the story of Sofia Ashraf's Kodaikanal won't, which went viral on social media and forced Unilever's CEO, Paul Polman, to tweet about the company's commitment to cleaning up the mess its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal created.

Ashraf's song was inspired by Nicki Minaj's Anaconda, which in itself was criticised for having little musical value, and for being sexist and misogynistic.

But whatever the quality of music, it has certainly had the desired impact, at least in terms of getting Unilever to respond.

The company's statement

On 6 August, Polman tweeted, "Working actively solution kodai #UnileverPollutes for several years already Determined to solve. Need others too and facts not false emotions."

In a press release published on its website, Unilever said that it "continues to take the issue very seriously and it's one we are keen to see resolved".

In a series of tweets, Unilever also mentions how it has taken action to clean up soil the on factory premises and is now waiting for the final consent from the local authority.

The company assures that it will "continue to act in a transparent and responsible manner regarding this matter" and has asked all NGOs, employees' representatives and legal representatives to come together and agree on an outcome.

The background

In March 2001, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered a shutdown of the thermometer factory for environmental violations.

Read more: 45 dead, 600 poisoned: HUL finally responds to mercury poisoning victims

Mercury has serious implications on health. Studies have shown mercury to be brain-damaging, as well as a cause of birth defects. Mercury targets the central nervous system, the brain and the kidneys, and is particularly harmful to children and developing foetuses.

In an independent study earlier this year, an NGO, Community Environmental Monitoring, had found high levels of mercury in the vegetation and sediment collected in the vicinity of the thermometer plant.

The main issue now is the delay in commencing the cleaning up process. Unilever claims that the clean-up is being held back by due to the failure of the TNPCB to issue consent.

Different strokes for different folks

What it does not mention are the standards that are to be followed for the clean up. Unilever is pushing the TNPCB to dilute the standards of mercury poisoning in the soil to 25 mg/kg - 25 times less stringent than would be permissible in Unilever's home country, the United Kingdom.

In the United States, the government has forced polluters to clean up levels as low as 0.13 mg/kg.

Public opposition to its efforts to dilute the clean-up standards is a major reason why TNPCB has not given its consent yet.

Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaram, who has been at the forefront of the struggle since its inception, says the dilution of the standards shows the double standards in the company's stance.

"It's like having one policy for the whites and another for the browns," says Jayaram.

"Initially the standards were 10mg/kg of mercury in soil, which was the residential standard of mercury in the soil. The local area environment committee pointed out that residential standard was not acceptable, as the area was ecologically sensitive and contiguous with the Pambar Shola watershed forest."

Unilever CEO Paul Polman tweeted that the company was working actively for a solution to the Kodaikanal issue

Activists and NGOs continue to put pressure on Unilever to not dilute standards.

"I believe Unilever should adhere to global standards and not dilute the cleaning up process. Global Multinational Companies are treating India as a dumping ground. The plant has already caused enough pollution to the area. The faster it cleans up, the better it is for the company," says Deepika D'Souza, an environmental consultant and a shareholder with Hindustan Unilever..

In a press release on Thursday, activists came together to condemn Unilever for its double standards. The release quotes Rachita Taneja, campaigner at Jhatkaa.org, a public mobilisation group, as saying: "We intend to mobilise these supporters for future actions to ensure a fair deal for workers and the environment."

Something better than nothing?

But isn't some sort of cleaning up better than nothing? "That's exactly the policy the company would want to adopt. We don't want another Union Carbide-like case; we want the company to stick to international standards of cleaning up toxic waste," Shweta Narayan, co-ordinator, Community Environmental Monitoring, the NGO which conducted last year's research.

The press release states that till date, the TNPCB has not commissioned a single study to assess the extent of mercury contamination. All studies so far have been commissioned, paid for and prepared by Unilever.

"Residual mercury from a substandard clean-up will leach into the Pambar River and find its way into fish in Vaigai River downstream, a livelihood for hundreds of villagers," says Jayaram.

"We don't want to be treated as second grade citizens. If Unilever says the quality of the products is the same globally, so should be its responsibility towards society, especially its employees," says Narayan.

But the problem does not end there. Unilever states it had commissioned several expert studies since the factory's closure, and all have concluded that the thermometer factory's former employees did not suffer ill-health due to the nature of their work.

Unilever ignores govt report

With Unilever's insistence that employees are not affected, it essentially fails to take cognisance of the findings of a 2011 Government of India report, which had been submitted to the Madras High Court.

The team behind the report included occupational health experts and occupational safety engineers, which investigated in detail the factory and its records.

The team also conducted clinical examinations on 108 former factory workers, including some of their family members, several of whom showed signs of mercury poisoning.

As for the adverse effects on the environment, the group says according to the company's estimate, at least 1.2 tonnes of mercury were discharged into the Pambar Shola watershed as airborne emissions.

A study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency stated that an annual discharge of one gram of mercury into a 20-acre lake is sufficient to contaminate the water body to a point that makes the fish unhealthy for human consumption.

An analysis conducted by a Department of Atomic Energy on the vegetation and sediment collected from near the now-closed factory found high levels of mercury contamination in the samples.

Ashraf's rap video has certainly brought the issue into the spotlight. But Unilever's response is no more than the first step. A lot more needs to be done till the people and the environment linked to the factory can breathe easy.

First published: 7 August 2015, 4:55 IST
 
Vishakh Unnikrishnan @sparksofvishdom

A graduate of the Asian College of Journalism, Vishakh tracks stories on public policy, environment and culture. Previously at Mint, he enjoys bringing in a touch of humour to the darkest of times and hardest of stories. One word self-description: Quipster.

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