By Aishwarya Nag Choudhury
As you walk into Kodaikanal, seep in the view, breathe in the mountain air and smell the fragrances of the dew covered plants, the hill station seems like a pristine paradise. It does not invoke images of pollution.
Kodi town alone is the home to three Shola forests. Known for their high water retention capacity, and the ability to release it slowly, these forests form an important catchment to many rivers and provide a home for many endangered animals. The Nilgiri tahr, giant squirrel, jungle fowl and gaur are just a few examples.
But here, high in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, there lurks a story of exploitation and degradation. Not only that of nature, but of thousands of workers, their families and other common people. Atop one of these Shola forests, sits a thermometer plant run by Hindustan Unilever, the Indian counterpart of the international business giant Unilever.
The factory was shut down in 2001 by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Bureau (TNPCB) for dumping of several tonnes of toxic mercury-bearing waste in a scrap yard in a densely populated part of town.
Though the factory was shut down, it had already profusely contaminated the surrounding areas and had adverse effects on the residents of the town. The story of exploitation still continues. HUL has neither disposed the toxic waste nor compensated families of workers who died or are suffering from the effects of being exposed to mercury without any protection.
The residents still seek justice. In a recent video Sofia Ashraf, a musical artist from Chennai, has composed a rap, a fierce battle cry, in support of the issue, urging Unilever to clean up their act. Because, “Kodaikanal won’t step down, till you make amends now!
As the fourteen year long struggle continues, we at NewsGram tell the story of Kodaikanal.
In 2001, the residents of Kodaikanal found toxic mercury waste in a dumpsite in a populous part of the town. The waste was from the HUL thermometer factory. It contained a stockpile weighing 7.4 tons of crushed mercury and glass. The waste was disposed so badly that mercury was spilling on the ground. This sparked a protest and 400 people marched to the factory gates marking the beginning of a saga that still continues. The factory that had been in operation for eighteen years was then shut down by the TNPCB.
However, the problems in Kodi were not to end so easily. The effects of improper disposal of mercury had sown seeds of long-term disaster.
Further HUL was accused of not paying back families of those who have died or are suffering due to ill effects of mercury. Responding to claims, the company conducted a health check-up of the workers and concluded that no workers were affected, but in a preliminary health survey conducted by two occupational community health specialists on only 33 workers, it was exposed that many among them have skin and gum allergies and related problems that appear due to mercury. More than 1100 workers worked in the plant.
In June 2007, an expert committee set up by the Madras High court to decide on the health claims of the workers failed to establish any connection between the conditions of patients due to exposure to mercury. The case is still going on.
In December 2004 the TNPCB, by orders of the SC formed Local Area Environment Committees (LAEC) to with representatives among the factory workers. The LAEC shut down after six months of operation.
“The TNPCB is presenting HUL with a roadmap to sidestep its responsibility” – said a former factory worker. Moreover the TNPCP’s responses to RTI queries reveal that the SC had never asked for the committee to shut down.
In August 2005 a two-member Tamil Nadu sub-committee of the SC Monitoring Committee, comprising of Dr DB Boralkar and Dr Claude Alvares, wrote to TNPCB expressing concern about the irregularity.
“The decontamination is being conducted by NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) in association with HUL, and HUL is directly financing the consultant. This is not in keeping with the SCMC’s directions which require the work of remediation and rehabilitation be done through the Board.” The committee was thereafter mysteriously replaced by other members.
On 19 June 2008, the Board granted “permission to HUL to commence soil remediation”, taking 25 mg per kg of mercury in the soil to be safe, which is 25 times less stringent than what is allowed in the UK, where Unilever has one of its headquarters.
THE DARK SIDE—MERCURY EFFECTS
Reports say that the air and water in Kodaikanal and surrounding areas bore mercury. A study conducted by the Department of Atomic Energy says that the Kodaikanal Lake is contaminated. The cause stated for this is the disposal of elemental mercury to the atmosphere due to improper storage and disposal of waste on the surface.
Moss samples collected from trees surrounding the Berijam Lake, located 20 km from the factory, were also tested. Mercury levels were in the quantity of 0.2 µg/kg, while in Kodaikanal Lake the lichen and moss levels were 7.9 µg/kg and 8.3 µg/kg, respectively. Fish samples from the Kodaikanal Lake also showed mercury levels in the range of 120 to 290 mg/kg. Moreover the Shola Forest, on which the factory rests, is also contaminated.
In an environmental audit commissioned by the company, HUL admitted to having offsite discharges of 300kgs in the Pamdar Shola forests and an additional 70kgs of airborne emissions. Just 1gram of mercury discharged into a 25 acre lake annually can contaminate it to an extent that the fish of the lake becomes unfit for human consumption. GreenPeace, however, maintains that the figures are grossly understated.
What made things worse is that the employees knew nothing about the ill effects of mercury, nor had the company taken any effort to warn them. The workers were not provided with any safety gear or face masks. Moreover they used bare hands while working with mercury. There were no bathing facilities so the mercury particles on their bodies went home with them, affecting their families and children. Since they did not know the effects of mercury on health, they could not connect the sickness to their vocation. However absenteeism increased due to headaches and other health complaints.
Released in the air mercury can cause kidney and liver problems. It can do damage to the eyes, reproductive system and cause skin diseases. Workers began to suffer spinal problems and rashes.
Even today the effects of mercury can be seen in Kodi. 18 ex-workers died, the causes of which can be traced back to mercury. There is also evidence of children of workers who died. The numbers of miscarriages are on the increase and instances of children being born with mental and physical disabilities are still reported from worker families.
Moreover the fish of the Kodi Lake have become unfit for consumption resulting in the loss of livelihood for many. Mercury contamination is found in water as far as Madurai, 130 km away from Kodaikanal. Level of mercury in the soil outside the building is still 250 times more than the permissible readings.
HIGH TIME TO ACCEPT THE BLAME
The company took very little effort to clean up their mess. The shifting of production involving hazardous materials from western countries to low labour economies are done to seize maximum benefits from both in terms of finance and health resulting in exploitation of labour. Moreover, added to this, the degradation of the environment is nothing less than flagrant criminality which isn’t held to account.
This trend of production shift happens when companies cannot get past proper regulations in their own countries and thus move to developing nations where they can get past by-laws and exploit cheap labour.
HUL had relocated its thermometer factory from Watertown, New York, to this site in 1983. To get permission to construct the factory in a residential locality abutting an eco-sensitive area, the company assured regulators that the factory was non-polluting. After the establishment though, all promises were broken.
The solution to the Kodi problem is rooted deeper in corporate greed. Middlemen benefit under the banner of “doing business” and the harsh impacts are on the lowest paid workers, completely cut off from the administration and millions of ordinary citizens at large.
Paul Polman, Unilever CEO, says that he prides himself in heading a company that he says is “accountable to the workers and the environment.” It is high time that he answers some questions and put his words into practice more seriously. As the global CEO he should clear up the environment by authorizing proper disposal and compensate the workers of the plant.
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