An issue that was swept under the carpet has become the talk of the town overnight, thanks to a YouTube video. ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’, a groovy rap video released by the NGO Jhatkaa.org, is the latest social media anthem that highlights the popular outcry against the alleged mercury contamination in Kodaikanal by Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer factory.
The video, released last Friday, takes on the corporate giant and demands that the company’s CEO Paul Polman “make amends now”. The video is part of a campaign launched by the workers of the now-closed factory and urges viewers to sign the online petition.
“It is a struggle that has been going on for the past 14 years. None of us knew about it. Mainstream media and the authorities have been equally silent about it. I wanted to do my bit using the medium I knew,” says filmmaker R. Rathindran Prasad, who directed the video.
The three-minute video brings into focus the adverse impacts on the health of the employees. “We made the video on a shoestring budget of Rs.15, 000 and shot it in a day and released it online. We began to get calls from all over the world that very night. It was overwhelming,” says Rathindran. The video has created a buzz in the international media as well. The music video — a remix version of American rapper Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ features Bharatanatyam dancers, children dancing to dappa kuthu and protesters marching on the road — has clocked over a million views on YouTube.
Sofia Ashraf, a Chennai-based rapper, who has worked with the likes of A.R. Rahman, composed the piece. “We decided to spoof ‘Anaconda’ because I liked the rhythm and thought it created a mood of aggression, which suited the protest. I handled the camera and edited the footage,” says Rathindran.
The intention was to bypass the mainstream media that had turned a blind eye to the pleas of the workers, says environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has been at the forefront of the struggle since it began. “That’s why we turned to social media. Our second intention was to put moral pressure.”
Nityanand and his team have been documenting evidence, interacting with the workers and forming alliances with the local residents of the hill town. He recalls how the locals alerted him back in 2000 about the waste heaped in the scrap yard. “There were broken thermometers sticking out of the compound walls of houses instead of glass pieces. The factory scrap yard was filled with mounds of thermometers, eight to nine metres high.”
In 2001, there was an initial outburst from the people. Residents, workers and social workers marched to the factory demanding that the waste be shipped back and the labourers be offered compensatory charges.
The next three years saw strong local participation and a positive response from the pollution control board, recalls Nityanand. The local committees demanded a clean-up according to the international protocol. The factory was closed down in 2001. In 2003, through what was popularly called “reverse dumping”, the waste was shipped back to the U.S.
And then, the world forgot about Kodaikanal. Several monitoring committees from the Supreme Court and government reports have issued orders to convene local committees to sort out the issue, but not one has been reconvened ever since, says Nityanand. The grievances of the residents continue. They have not been given their due compensation or medical services.
“The river, land and forest are polluted. We want the factory site to be cleaned through scientific and transparent methods. The residents are impoverished and suffering from ill health. And they cannot afford the mounting medical expenses. The workers are demanding for Rs.1000 crore in compensation for their medical bills and rehabilitation of their children.”
With mainstream television channels and papers writing about the plight of Kodai residents, the video has brought the focus back onto the issue. But Nityanand is afraid this will also be short-lived. “Even the social media is not safe. With net neutrality and IT acts curbing this space, it is also being increasingly squeezed into the framework of the mainstream media.” Will the story of Kodaikanal be forgotten again?