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

Vishakh Unnikrishnan | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:16 IST

The incident

  • Between 1982 and 2001, there was a thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu.
  • Workers were exposed to mercury in the workplace due to inadequate safety practices. More than 45 workers have died prematurely.

The protest

  • Workers have protested outside Hindustan Unilever offices in Mumbai twice, in 2007 and this year.
  • This year, one shareholder took note and raised the issue at the company\'s AGM.
  • CEO assured shareholders that the matter would be attended to immediately.

Former workers at a Kodaikanal mercury-thermometer factory in Tamil Nadu have waited 14 years for justice. Hurt and scarred - physically and mentally - and too sick to work for a living, Unilever's mercury affected workers have been fighting a long battle for compensation.

However, on 29 June, their voice did finally reach the shareholders of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), the company that last owned the factory, when 50-odd workers assembled in protest outside the company's annual general meeting in Mumbai, as they do every year.

The irony is that the focus of the AGM was supposed to be on how to avoid a Maggi-like fallout among the company's diverse product catalogue.

Slow-motion Bhopal

The factory was shut down in 2001, after the Anglo-Dutch multinational faced massive protests. Reports showed that mercury leakage had infected the ecologically sensitive watershed area neighbouring the factory, endangering the ecology and health of people working and living in the area.

This case of poisoning has many similarities with the Bhopal gas tragedy, if not in the magnitude of its effects, then in the manner in which the Corporation has evaded its responsibilities to the environment and affected people, and how the Government has remained a silent bystander.

In 18 years of operation, the factory exposed more than 600 workers to toxic mercury. At least 45 workers have died prematurely, and hundreds are suffering from nervous disorders, dental problems, vision and hearing impairments, skin problems and memory loss.

Among the protestors was 46-year-old Malarkodi. Malarkodi had spent 18 years working as a sweeper at the factory. With no protection gear provided for her job, mercury poisoning from sweeping broken thermometers and glass tubes caused her to suffer from various nervous tremors, gynaecological problems and hearing impairment.

Forty-four-year-old Bhawani was also part of the protest. Bhawani was a victim of six miscarriages and has only one daughter, aged 20, who suffers from fits and stunted growth. Bhawani presently finds it difficult to make ends meet due to her ailing condition.

SA Mahindram, president of the Pond's HLL Ex-Mercury Thermometer Workers' Welfare Association, accompanied 12 other ex-workers, their families and children. He said: "Mercury contamination has killed around 12 children in Kodaikanal. I hope the fact finds a mention in today's meeting among shareholders."

Still spewing poison

The workers' association still bears the name of the original owner of the factory. Cosmetics maker Pond's had moved its plant from the United States to India in 1982 at a time when the US was cleaning up its act by clamping down on sources of mercury pollution.

In 1987, Pond's India and the factory went to HUL when it acquired the parent company, Chesebrough-Pond's.

Although it has been closed for more than a decade, a Chennai-based NGO, Community Environmental Monitoring, has found high levels of mercury in vegetation and sediment collected in the vicinity of the thermometer plant.

Kodaikanal factory was shut down 14 years ago. More than 600 workers have been exposed; 45 have died

The samples analysed at the Department of Atomic Energy and the National Centre for Compositional Characterisation of Materials proves high levels of mercury contamination in the vicinity.

"The factory continues to release mercury and still does not own up to its mismanagement," says Nityanand Jayaraman, environmentalist and advisor to the NGO.

HUL has continued to deny these allegations and insists that all materials used for the manufacturing have been decontaminated before disposal.

Small ray of hope

This year, the workers' protest finally penetrated through to the AGM, where the matter was raised by some shareholders.

"I had been privy to the issue and protests since 2007, and had raised the issue at the meeting," says Deepika D'Souza, an environment consultant and a shareholder who attended the AGM.

"After I raised the issue, CEO Harish Manwani informed all shareholders that the matter would be attended to immediately, and that he wouldn't mind an out-of-court settlement taking into account the company and workers affected."

Police problems

Though the matter did find mention behind closed doors, the protestors had to face a hostile police trying to avoid distribution of any pamphlets. Shareholders were also asked to surrender pamphlets issued by protestors.

"The moment I entered the office, the pamphlets were snatched away from me," alleges D'Souza.

As the meeting went on, volunteers from the city joined the protestors in raising slogans of impropriety and human rights violations by the company. The police eventually informed them that a court order had barred them from protesting anywhere near HUL's offices.

The protestors were oblivious of any such order. At the end of the day, when it was provided to them, it turned out to be inapplicable to them.

"The court order was against HUL's Union of Mumbai, while we represented HLL ex-Mercury Thermometer Workers' Welfare Association, a group they had never heard of," explains Shweta Narayan, co-ordinator, Community Environmental Monitoring. "We had to seek the help of our lawyers present with us, to explain the situation to the police present.'

The police had one directive - protestors should not be able to interact with shareholders. The directive was largely met. The protestors, however, were able to send the message across with the help of volunteers.

Hope still floats for these victims. That's if Harish Manwani follows through on his promise now.

First published: 2 July 2015, 9:49 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.