The serene view of the Kodaikanal hills from the ‘Coaker’s Walk’ hides a tale of melancholy and everyday struggle. As she flitted from one pushcart to another attending to a rare tourist in this off-season, Helen Margaret, now 39, recalled in a tremulous voice her days as a worker at the defunct thermometer factory of Hindustan Unilever on St. Mary’s road. “In the three years from 1996 when I worked there, I did not know the hazards of mercury. We used to play with the silvery liquid, often throwing it at each other,” she recollects, making the “bhoni” (first sale of the day) of her small fruit cart.
Playing with mercury, recognised as one among top ten chemicals of major public health concern, came with a price, she says. Her second son Nitesh Kumar was born with mental disability in 2000.
Subsequently, her husband, a chronic diabetic, died. Today, Ms. Margaret takes care of three school-going sons from a meagre income of Rs 150 a day. “I cannot leave Nitesh alone for a minute. He studies at the Church-run school for the disabled nearby. I make multiple visits to check on him. My life is a struggle that I cannot explain,” she rues, outraged by a recent comment by Unilever CEO Paul Polman that he wants only facts and not “false emotions” on Kodaikanal.
The >‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ rap video released this month has brought focus to the plight of these former workers, and the pristine environment of this Western Ghat hill station.
According to the World Health Organisation, foetuses are most susceptible to developmental effects due to mercury. “It can adversely affect a baby's growing brain and nervous system. The primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development.” Industrial processing is listed as one of the two important ways of exposure to mercury. And former workers say they were exposed to a lot of mercury.
“I never wore a glove when I handled the thermometer. I had severe skin rashes, which were treated as allergies. It was only after the factory was shut in 2001 that we came to know of the dangers of mercury. We were never told about it when we worked,” says P. Sangeetha, who claims to have worked at the site in 1996 when she was just 14 years old.
The company maintained women were never allowed to work in mercury area.
Her father, Govindhan, was contractually employed as a security staffer which involved several inspection rounds around the site. In 2000, Govindhan died following an alarming drop in haemoglobin levels.
An HUL-driven study published in 2006 in the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, based on the examination of 255 employees and contract workers in 2001, found many showing symptoms of various possible disorders that activists state were the result of exposure to mercury vapour. However, supported by clean chits from three institutions of repute--the All India Institute of Medical Sciences , National Institute of Occupational Health and Industrial Toxicology Research Centre--the company has maintained that mercury in its factory had nothing to do with the health issues of the workers. Nor has it had any effect on the environment.
S.A. Mahindran of the 550--strong Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association, which has approached the Madras High Court for compensation to workers, states that the three reports cited by HUL were given by experts without meeting any of the workers. “On the contrary, a Ministry of Labour constituted committee concluded that there was prima facie evidence that not only ex-workers, but also their children have suffered on account of mercury exposure. This committee met the workers in October 2011 and was a first-hand study.”
In many cases, the company has replied that it does not possess records of annual medical check-ups of workers.
Many though claim to have continuing symptoms while over 40 former workers have allegedly died due to mercury-related issues, the association says. K.M. Gias Mohammed Gori was one of the first to join the thermometer plant when it opened in 1984. “At that time, Kodaikanal had no industries. People were begging for employment. When the plant opened, we all rushed to join and saw it as a blessing,” he recalls. But within a year or two, Mr. Gori began experiencing loss of teeth, which the committee in 2011 noted as one ill-effect of mercury exposure. “Soon, I experienced severe fatigue and backache and left the job. I live in poverty in this 10 ft x10 ft thatched hut. Let Mr. Polman come and see if my emotion is fake,” he says.
The long-drawn legal battle has also tired out the workers. The Madras High Court has not heard the matter since 2013 even as workers complain of great financial burden from medical expenses.
On the environment front, the battle has been raging on the standards to which the mercury contaminated soil needs to be cleaned up. Citing media reports, Member of Parliament and Pattali Makkal Katchi leader, Anbumani Ramadoss, one of the first to react, stated that the company was proposing a remediation norm that was 25 times laxer than those prevalent in the United Kingdom, where Unilever has its headquarters.
“They are providing techno-commercial reasons as justification of the lax standard. In the UK, the permissible mercury level is 1mg/kg whereas the company wants a standard of 20-25mg/kg of soil here. By its own estimation, it let out 1.2 tonnes of mercury into the Pambar Shola forests. This is environmental colonialism,” says environment activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has worked on the issue since 2001 when the company was shut by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) after evidence emerged that mercury-contaminated glass was sold to scrap dealers a few kilometers away from the factory site.
With the rap song, viewed over two million times on YouTube, building up pressure, HUL has now submitted the Detailed Project Report (DPR) for remediation in Kodaikanal to the TNPCB. However, questions from The Hindu on what the cleaning standard the DPR proposed went unanswered. An HUL spokesperson said via email that preparatory work for the process will begin immediately. In 2003, an expert decontamination team from the U.S. removed tonnes of partially treated mercury sludge from the site. The workers have accused TNPCB of collusion.
With upcoming Assembly elections, the Kodaikanal Municipality, blamed for being silent all along, has got into the act, with its chairman M. Sridhar committing to pass a resolution against the company with a demand for compensation for environmental degradation during a public consultation meeting on August 12.
Activists note that water flowing through contaminated soil finally reaches the Vaigai dam, which irrigates thousands of hectares in South Tamil Nadu. “We have also decided to campaign for the boycott of Unilever products and to boycott elections if no solution is found,” says Mr. Mahindran.
But these technicalities have very little relevance for Ms. Margaret. “If the company accepts its mistake and compensates us, it would serve as justice and would reduce the burden on our lives,” she says, as she helps her son Nitesh back into the classroom.
TNPCB shuts down the HUL thermometer factory after sale of mercury contaminated glass to scrap dealers is detected. Health study of workers done
Large amount of mercury scrap sent back to the U.S.
Ex-employees move Madras High Court against Unilever. Health effects such as miscarriages, kidney and nervous system damages, mental disability in children etc. stated
Committee constituted by Ministry of Labour concludes there was prima facie evidence of mercury-related ailments in workers
Unilever CEO Paul Polman says he is determined to solve the issue after international focus following rap song