In August 2015, a young rapper, Sofia Ashraf, released a music video on an unlikely theme: mercury poisoning in the pristine hill town of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. “Unilever. Clean up your mess. Unilever. Clean up your mess,” went the rap ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’, which has been viewed over 4 million times over the last eight years, bringing to global attention one of India’s biggest environmental disasters.
The story begins in the 1980s, when Hindustan Lever, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch company Unilever, took over Chesebrough-Pond’s thermometer factory in the town. With allegedly inadequate safety protocols in place, scores of workers began to fall ill over the following years, and by some accounts, 28 people died, after they were exposed to the toxic heavy metal, mercury. In March 2001, following an intrepid campaign by the local community and Greenpeace, the factory was shut down.
But the campaign couldn’t end there: mercury — known to cause a range of ailments from neurological disorders to kidney disease — had not just impacted the health of factory workers and their families, it had made its way into the shola forests and aquatic ecosystems, even contaminating fish and lichen that were consumed by people. Activists demanded compensation. In 2016, Hindustan Unilever announced a compensation of an undisclosed sum to 591 ex-workers.
Now, a former journalist and Greenpeace campaigner, Ameer Shahul, stitches together the story of mercury poisoning in the popular tourist destination in his new book Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal. Excerpts from an interview:
Why is it important to document the Kodaikanal mercury poisoning incident today, seven years after Unilever announced a compensation package for its ex-workers?
It is wrong to presume that the problems have been solved simply because a settlement with the ex-workers was achieved and there was a clean-up of the factory site. The ex-workers fought the company before the Madras High Court for over 10 years, and at the end of it, the company decided to settle out of court. There’s an ongoing remediation of the factory land of 22 acres. Then there was the health of the local community beyond the workers of the factory: residents who lived near its premises. Finally, there was the ecological devastation of the Pambar shola as a consequence of mercury dispersal from the factory for over 18 years of its operations. The Kodaikanal mercury poisoning shows that industrial units can be ticking bombs. Erring corporations, especially the ones involved in industrial production such as Unilever, can be held truly accountable only with the help of science and data.
What has been the impact of mercury in Kodaikanal’s environs?
The impact has been of catastrophic proportions. Mercury dispersed through air and surface currents. This is how it infiltrated the environment. Today, Kodaikanal remains one of Asia’s mercury hotspots, as recent research shows. A study published in 2020 by IIT Hyderabad found that mercury is likely to reside in Kodaikanal forest soil for decades to centuries and that forest soil will continue to act as a source of mercury downstream. In 2021, scientists from Annamalai University, showed mercury levels ranging from 19 to 30 mg/kg in sediment samples collected from the Kodai lake. The natural background levels of mercury are up to 5 micrograms per kg of soil and therefore the current levels at the far away Kodai lake are at least six times or more compared to the non-contaminated areas.
You have likened this event to the Bhopal gas tragedy that killed thousands in 1984...
In terms of compensation paid to the ex-workers, the Kodai mercury settlement was rumoured to be the second highest after the Bhopal gas tragedy recompense. In terms of the extent of the tragedy, methyl isocyanate, which leaked from the Bhopal factory remained in the air and soil for decades. Mercury evaporated from the Kodai factory still remains in its environs. In terms of casualties, the Indian People’s Tribunal recorded many, and the ex-workers submitted to the Madras High Court a long list of people who died of unnatural causes while working at the factory or soon after leaving it.
Tell us about the role of Vaigai Ramamurthy, described as the ‘Indian Erin Brockovich’ in your book.
Vaigai Ramamurthy, a human rights lawyer, defended ex-workers at the Madras High Court. She is a selfless, fearless person. She takes up the cases of voiceless people, and was approached to represent the workers. She readily undertook a mammoth task to which she dedicated over 10 years. If not for her work, the outcome on ex-workers’ health issues wouldn’t have been what it is today.
You have said, “The poisoning of the Kodaikanal region remains a disaster of catastrophic proportions in the absence of needful and timely intervention”. What more needs to be done to remedy this tragedy?
Unfortunately, there may not be much we can do to further remediate the catastrophe. However, we can do many things to ensure that the dangers recede, and also prepare the larger community beyond Kodaikanal to face such tragedies in future. An immediate arrangement to monitor mercury levels in Kodaikanal and surrounding areas should be set up by the regulators. This will help researchers, environmentalists and the local community to assess how far the mercury levels are coming down.
Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal; Ameer Shahul, Pan Macmillan, ₹699.