Ensure a credible clean-up in Kodaikanal

March 15, 2016 12:18 am | Updated November 17, 2021 02:02 am IST

The settlement in the Kodaikanal mercury poisoning case, which came to light 15 years ago after the release of contaminated waste materials into the environment, brings partial closure to a long-running struggle between the community and a major industrial corporation. >Hindustan Unilever Limited has come to an agreement with 591 former workers and their families for payment of ex gratia amounts towards livelihood and skill enhancement. The Madras High Court has taken the settlement on record, and the disbursal of the fund should bring some succour to those who suffered various health setbacks that they believe are related to mercury exposure. The closure is the culmination of a sustained campaign by environmental activists and concerned citizens for these 15 years, which > got global attention after a rap song on the plight of those affected went viral on the Internet. The HUL case highlights the often neglected questions of occupational health interests of workers, and poor diligence shown by governments in allowing industries that handle toxic materials without satisfactory management processes. Many workers in Kodaikanal were >claiming for over a decade that they fell ill after working in the thermometer factory , but received little government support. That is unsurprising, considering that occupational health receives low priority in policymaking, while environmental concerns are counterposed to rapid growth of industry as an obstacle. The Kodaikanal story should convince Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, who said his Ministry would no longer be a “roadblock”, that a culture of superficiality in making impact assessments is unsustainable, even counterproductive.

There is also the > unresolved issue of the clean-up of the unit , of environmental remediation and the standards to be adopted. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has to ensure that the decontamination meets the highest standards adopted anywhere, and in any case, not less than the new standards being considered by the Environment Ministry as part of its guidelines for contaminated sites. While many national institutions have gone into the issue of fixing a remediation standard, there appears to be clear divergence between what the Ministry’s draft of 2015 proposes — a soil clean-up standard of 6.6 mg per kg for residential purposes — and the much higher quantum of 20 mg/kg that is under consideration by the pollution control authorities. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct a fresh and transparent review of the ecological issues arising from any mercury residues in Kodaikanal, an important segment of the southern Western Ghats, before a decontamination plan is finalised. The pollution issue in the hill town arose from the open sale of 5.3 tonnes of mercury-contaminated scrap from the factory to a dealer; several tonnes of scrap was moved by the company from its yard in 2001. Government and industry should now endeavour to regain public trust, and this is possible only through credible scientific scrutiny and community participation. Crippling pollution cannot be justified as a small negative externality that must be endured for short-term growth.

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