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As Kodaikanal Won’t goes viral, the pressure on Unilever mounts

If you are active on social media sites like Facebook and twitter, by now you would watched the viral rap song “Kodaikanal Won’t” by Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf. It is no ordinary song for it is one of the most unique of protests targeted at Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman against the illegal hazardous mercury waste left behind by the company’s thermometer factory in Kodaikanal as early as 2003.

Here’s a timeline of events that transpired that left the scenic Kodaikanal fumed:

1982: Pond’s moved thermometer manufacturing factory from United stated to Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu after protests after increased awareness in developed countries on polluting industries.

1987: After Hindustan Unilever acquired  Cheseborough-Pond’s globally, the factory went to them.

Mercury was imported from the United States to manufacture thermometer and then export these back to markets in United States and Europe.

2001: Workers started complaining of kidney and related ailments. Residents then found 7.4 tons of crushed mercury containing glass in a scrap yard. The company had also dumped toxic mercury waste in Shola forests in the vicinity of the factory.

March 2001: With rising public pressure, the factory was shut down after 18 years in operation.

2002: Unilever’s Sustainability report claimed that it did not dump glass waste containing mercury but only 5.3 metric tonnes glass containing 0.15% residual mercury that was sold off to a scrap dealer. It went on to quote a report according to which said there was no health effect on the workers of the factory or any impact on the environment.

2003: Ameer Shahul leads public interest groups and workers collaborative that puts pressure on the company to collect 290 tonnes of mercury waste dumped in the shola forest and send it back to United States for recycling.

2004: Scientists from Department of Atomic Energy of the Government of India found that the free Mercury level in the atmosphere of Kodaikanal was 1000 times more than what is found in normal conditions.

Unilever begins working with the regulatory body Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to remediate the soil, de-contaminate and scrap the thermometer-making equipment at the Kodaikanal site.  National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) was appointed to finalize the scope for remediation, which was vehemently opposed by environmentalists.

2006: The plant, machinery and materials used in thermometer manufacturing at the site were decontaminated and disposed off as scrap to industrial recyclers.

2007: NEERI conducts trials at the factory for remediation of the contaminated soil on site, and recommends a remediation protocol of soil washing and thermal retorting. These are contested by environmental groups under the leadership of Nityanand Jayaraman.

2009: Pre-remediation works starts at TNPCB’s recommended standard of up to 20 mg/kg of mercury concentration in soil.

Public interest groups contest the soil clean-up criteria and allege that TNPCB is helping Unilever clean up to lower standards to cut costs. According to them, the acceptable Mercury levels suggested by TNPCB is at least 20 times higher than what the company would have been required to do if they had caused the same contamination in the United Kingdom.

Why this matters?

Mercury is the one of the two metals that is liquid at standard temperature and pressure. This makes it even more hazardous and poisonous in even small doses. In the environment, it causes severe damage to vital organs like Kidney and liver. Its exposure on regular basis can lead to skin and eye diseases. Mercury also affects nervous system and its compounds cause reproductive disorders and birth defects.

More than 1,100 workers were employed in the Unilever factory during its lifetime. Their testimonies prove that they knew nothing of the dangers of working with mercury nor were they provided with any safety equipment or facilities by the company. They worked without face masks (to prevent inhaling of transient mercury in the air) and contractual labor did not even have hand gloves to work with.

Some workers have died since due to mercury poisoning. Many workers and their families continue to suffer till date. The lakes poisoned by mercury have contaminated the fish affecting the livelihood of people living there. Water as far as Madurai, a major city about 130kms from Kodaikanal, has been contaminated. It is because the contaminated water from the mountains eventually flows onto the plains below. It is sufficient to say that the entire ecological cycle in the pristine Kodaikanal and surrounded areas has been contaminated.


According to Central Pollution Control Board report (2009), there are about 41,523 number of hazardous waste generating industries in India and their hazardous waste generation is about 7.90 million tonnes per annum.


What you can do?

Sign the petition addressed to Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever to Clean up Kodaikanal’s mercury pollution and compensate the workers.

Share this information with as many people as you can. Tag @Unilever (on twitter) and shame them on Unilever facebook page.

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