In 2015, rapper Sofia Ashraf, social activist Nityanand Jayaraman and filmmaker Rathindran R Prasad came together to make a video, titled Kodaikanal Won’t, that hit out at Unilever for not cleaning up mercury
contamination and not compensating the workers in its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal. The video went viral forcing the company to compensate 591 of its ex-workers.
“Their factory in Watertown in New York State, on the banks of the Black River, was found to be contaminating the environment. The US and the Canadian governments raised this up, the company cleaned up its mess and set up a similar factory in Kodaikanal.
This is where environmental racism comes in. If it is bad for the US, shouldn’t it be bad for India, too? When they set up the factory here, they claimed it was a glass manufacturing unit. And they located it in a place where people needed jobs, and right near the water source for the plains — the Pampadum Shola — into which they dumped their mercury, knowing fully well what mercury does to the environment.
Workers who handle mercury need immense protection, but here, they let unprotected workers handle it — only because they were brown-skinned. It took a viral song to bring out their responsibility, and they compensated the workers. But once that heat died down, when asked for a clean-up that matches world standards, they say they will clean it to a level which is 20 times less than what is acceptable in the UK. In the UK, for soil in a residential area to be considered safe, there must not be more than 1mg of mercury in 100g of soil. And in Kodaikanal, they say they will clean it up so that there remains 20g mercury in 100g of soil. And this is not residential soil, but forest soil, which acts as a water source. This, again, shows their double standards.”