Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Four Days after a Rap Song sung by Sofia Ashraf went viral, corporate giant Unilever was forced to response to the allegations made against them. Social media has forced Unilever to take up the issue that was not picked by mainstream media for last 14 years. Unilever dumped mercury in Kodaikanal without proper safety measures, which led to many deaths and children are still born with diseases. In March 2001, Unilever thermometer factory was shut down for environmental violations.
Mercury is a brain-damaging, birth defects-causing nerve poison; that it is so poisonous that it should not be handled or inhaled, even touched. Mercury targets the Central Nervous System – the brain – and the kidneys and is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and children.
Read the first article published on the issue: Dear Unilever Shareholders, We Made You Rich And Your Company Poisoned Us!
On Tuesday, Unilever published a response on its website stating that they “continue to take this issue very seriously and it’s one we are keen to see resolved.” But activists claim that the “clarification” by unilever reeks of insincerity and is factually wrong on many counts.
Activists working in support of ex-mercury workers and Kodaikanal residents have asked the company to offer something that would make people believe they are truly interested in resolving this issue.
The organisations have said that Unilever’s dilatory tactics in addressing environmental and worker liabilities is harming the environment and people’s lives. They have called on Unilever to offer an honourable settlement to workers, stop pushing the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to dilute clean-up standards. Unilever is spending more money to deny the existence of the problem than would be required to address the long-term health care needs of its workers. video and social media testimonies from workers are testimony to the lingering effects of mercury.
Nityanand Jayaraman who is leading this movement who also wrote on this issue on The Logical Indian, is punching holes in the claims made by Unilever.
1. Point: Unilever claims that “Extensive studies have shown that there is no harm to workers. . .”
Counterpoint: Unilever fails to mention the findings of a Government of India report that was submitted to the Madras High Court.
Unlike earlier reports that were based on questionable secondary furnished only by the company, the GOI report was based on expert investigation of the factory premises, and clinical diagnosis of exposed workers and their family members. This report claims: “Medical examination of the workers by medical personnel has revealed typical symptoms of mercury poisoning as evidenced by the witnesses presented during investigation.” (Page 121) Report of GoI. http://kodaimercury.org/final-report-of-the-goi-committee/
2. Point: : In March 2001, when it was found that crushed glass containing mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer, HUL closed the factory and launched an investigation.
Counterpoint: Unilever did not shut down the factory voluntarily. They were ordered to close the factory by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.
3. Point: In December 2014, the CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) invited NGOs for consultation on the soil remediation standard, but the NGOs did not participate.
Counterpoint: The TNPCB had been directed to set up a Local Area Environment committee (LAEC) including NGO representatives, ex-workers representatives and residents for consultation regarding remediation. However, of the five non-governmental representatives in the LAEC, four people that were contacted said they received no invitation to any consultation from CPCB in December 2014. A senior official in TNPCB also admitted that no person from TNPCB attended that meeting.
4. Point:: HUL will commence work once the soil-cleanup standard is set by the CPCB and TNPCB and they are given approval by the TNCPB.
Counterpoint: Unilever fails to point out that the reason for the delay is public opposition to its efforts to dilute the clean-up standards. In 2001, Unilever said it would clean up the soil to a high Dutch residential standard of 10 mg/kg of mercury in soil. The company is pushing TNPCB to dilute the standards to 25 mg/kg– 25 times less stringent than what would be permissible in the UK, their home country.
14 years is a long wait. Nithyanand is hopeful though. “We have come this far, there’s a little more to go,” he says