#UnileverPollutes: A Protest Rap Song From India Seeks To End 14 Years Of Injustice - Homegrown

#UnileverPollutes: A Protest Rap Song From India Seeks To End 14 Years Of Injustice

The art of protest songs has long since been a creative outlet for artists and activists to take a strong stand against society's ills and downfalls. A few of these examples range from the use of songs during the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Movement by Bob Dylan to India's own culture of protest songs, even the subject of  the National Award winning film, Court. The latest entrant in this list now seeks resolution not from war or social inequality but from one of India's oldest enemies - industrial pollution.

[You can view the rap song in question, below.] 


The multi-talented Sofia Ashraf, who has previously spoken to Homegrown about her fascinating personal journey with identity and duality, has released a new rap song titled 'Kodaikanal Won't'. Set to Nicki Minaj's 'Annaconda', the song narrates the story of the Unilever thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, and the alleged mercury pollution, which has devastated the region and the lives of the factory's former workers. The song skilfully intends to raise awareness for the hundreds of workers and residents of the region and evoke an emphatic response from the company's Indian parent. But if the song isn't enough, the facts of this case will immediately make you recall the aching ghosts of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Read on for a little more context.

The Factory

Cheseborough-Ponds shifted a thermometer manufacturing plant from the United States to Kodaikanal in 1983, after facing protests back home. The plant was subsequently taken over by Unilever, functioning in full swing till 2001. The factory produced close to 75,000 thermometers a day using 900 kgs of mercury, annually. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board shut down the factory after the discovery of a dump site, which contained 7.4 tons stockpile of crushed glass thermometers laced with mercury. The expose is said to have been lead by the Palani Hills Conservation Council and Greenpeace, when the company was found trying to sell the waste dump to a scrap dealer where the lethal mercury was being sold for prices of Rs. 1-2 per kg. The US Environmental Protection Agency states that the discharge of one gram of mercury annually into a 20-acre water body is more than sufficient to render the fishes unfit for consumption.Dr. Rakhal Gaitonde, a public health expert, stated that the damage of mercury on the environment and health of workers was there for all to see, with every level of exposure causing some sort of damage. "We have data to show that urine tests of workers showed exposure values as high as 300 mg/ml as well. What more evidence is needed to get compensation and rehabilitation for these workers?," said Rakhal, giving an example of the devastating damage suffered by the locals. SA Mahendra Babu, a worker from the factory states that atleast 50 people, including 14 children have died due to the same, right up till 2015. Babu, who suffered from nose bleeds and headaches, further stated that atleast 30 people, including himself had been deemed infertile, while 104 female workers and wives of factory workers suffered from gynaecological problems.

The Campaign

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board was able to extract 300 tonnes of contaminated waste in 2003. The board then got the company to ship 289 tonnes of the waste back to the United States. While the state government was lauded for its hard stance then, a softening in its approach has been seen in the recent years with Unilever stating on its website that ‘there were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment’ and ‘this has been confirmed by independent studies’.
The claim has been proven wrong with multiple parallel studies conducted by various agencies and associations. The latest study conducted by Community Environmental Monitoring, showed that the mercury from the factory had contaminated the surroundings including the ecologically sensitive area of Pambar Shola and the Pambar River. The delay and denial by the company has seen many activists and organisations taking up the cause including, the Vettiver Collective (the driving force behind this #UnileverPollutes campaign) and Other Media.Unilever is one of the largest FMCG companies in the world and it’s the largest FMCG company in India. Kodaikanal is something the company wants to put behind and not let it come out,Archana Sekar, one of the volunteer behind the campaigns told Homegrown. Activists seem especially perturbed by the company’s hypocrisy where with an advertising budget of $8 billion seek to spread the message of being a socially responsible company and its double standards when it comes to the conversation around a cleanup. “If you see Mr Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever on Twitter, he will once in a while talk to other CEOs about how companies should be responsible and talks about inclusive capitalism. Kodaikanal is something terrible on their track record,” said Sekar to illustrate the need for the company to deny the Kodaikanal factory movement. Nityanand Jayaraman, a social activist and writer who was said to be instrumental in getting the factory shut down  in 2001, stated, "For all its talk of social responsibility, Unilever has behaved no different from Union Carbide in Bhopal.”
While Unilever adheres to a cleanup standard of 1 mg/kg of soil in UK and 10 mg/kg soil in Netherlands, it has been allowed 25 mg/kg of soil at Kodaikanal. Sekar also points out how the compensation being offered to the victims was also not adequate and with two cases pending in the Madras High Court, the activists felt the need to reach out through the social media campaign. They hope that the video relates to the young consumers of Unilever’s products and appeal to them to support their movement.  
“Sofia had always been a friend of the collective. We thought that now was a good time to increase the pressure on the company and we approached her asking if she would be interested in doing the video,” states Sekar as they hope to take the message of #UnileverPollutes to the company and its consumers. The past few months had seen a resurgence of the Kodaikanal question with the company’s stance being questioned even in UK, the home of Unilever. In HUL’s AGM in June, a shareholder questioned the CEO on the matter, with the latter promising resolution on it. But the activists say that the company has not sought any active resolution, choosing to hand the matter back to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.

Sign the petition to support this movement. You can find out more about the movement and the struggle on Kodai Mercury.

Words: Devang Pathak 


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