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Mercury Poisoning and Corporate Misdeeds in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu - The YEARS Project

Mercury Poisoning and Corporate Misdeeds in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu

I came into this world in 2001 as the child of Indian Tamil immigrants in Ontario, Canada. At the same time an environmental disaster of epic proportions unfolded at what used to be home for my parents. Seemingly out of nowhere, residents of the small hillside city of Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, were rushing to the hospital with rare and inexplicable illnesses

Earlier that year global conglomerate Unilever, constructed a thermometer factory conveyed as an opportunity to boost the hillside town’s economy through increased employment and land payments. A few short months after the factory was producing at full capacity, people in the surrounding area started falling severely ill. Initially, the nature of the factory workers’ illness baffled medical professionals. Patients shared symptoms — headaches, chest pain, eye pain, and more. Heads quickly turned to mercury poisoning as the potential source of this mystery plague. For this level of mercury exposure, Kodaikanal’s residents had to do more than just work with the substance — they would have to be practically living in it.

Unilever’s unit in Hindustan is a monopoly, partially funded by the Indian government and subsidized through economic agreements. With these economic kickbacks came the expectation and responsibility for the company to keep their operations clean and support surrounding communities. Unilever claimed to have abided by protocol to contain the dangerous substances handled within the factory. However, an official investigation by the Indian government found that the source of the mercury poisoning was actually the town’s main water resource itself. The mercury deposited into the surrounding bodies of water was 25 times higher than what is considered safe for human beings. Any skin-to-skin contact with this water could result in extreme side effects, including death, and whether ingested orally or intravenously through water or medication, can cause severe long-term health issues. A worker’s group representing the 591 factory workers reported that 45 employees died as a result of mercury poisoning as well as 18 family members of employees. In response to the affected workers, Unilever quickly reached a scant settlement which covered only a fraction of the medical bills of the affected community members.

The settlement didn’t even consider the cost of clean up nor the deep health and environmental ramifications that would plague coming generations. What started as an operation to supposedly help the Kodaikanal economy instead caused deep financial and physical pain to the city and its residents.

Fifteen years later Unilever had moved on, but the people of Kodaikanal could not. Tamil artist and activist Sofia Ashraf penned “Kodaikanal Won’t,” a rap song laced with scathing commentary on the disaster in Tamil Nadu, set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. The video received over 1 billion streams across the internet, and millions of people around the world were compelled by Sofia Ashraf's artistic storytelling, and the rawness of the accompanying video — myself included. From 2001, in the time it took me to grow up and cycle through different phases, and experience the joys of life, the residents of Kodaikanal were still stuck in a world of pain, immobilized by the disease forced upon them 15 years ago. 

Once more, Unilever’s actions in Kodaikanal were called into question, with Ashraf’s bold lyrics sparking a movement by environmentalists and social justice activists. The Hindustan division reached a new agreement with the factory workers union, compensating residents and Kodaikanal’s government as well as adhering to the union's requests. The terms included providing a rehabilitation program for the affected workers to rejoin society. After nearly 15 years of pollution, Unilever Hindustan finally published a statement taking ownership of the mercury spill, and claimed to begin the process of removing mercury from the surrounding water.  Unfortunately, this would prove to be short-lived. More recently, Unilever retracted their official statement acknowledging the mercury poisoning, claiming it ultimately was not their responsibility to settle with the factory workers. They now allege that they cleaned up the glass and mercury after their 2001 factory closure, and other actors were involved in the pollution.

The tragedy of Kodaikanal exemplifies how social media and external global pressures influence major corporations to take accountability beyond settlements. Corporate responsibility extends beyond base reparations for an affected population. Corporations must work with and listen to people and their voices to avoid a repeat of the tragedy in Kodaikanal. The concept of corporate sustainability as a performative, reactionary measure, has grown immensely over the last two decades. Cover-ups and forced settlements are just some of the tactics that these mega-corporations use to attempt to reverse the reputation damage they incur through negligence and consequently, human and environmental abuses. 

Corporate environmentalism continues to be a socio-economic issue as minority communities are disproportionately affected by cooperative misdeeds, and limited resources. Lower-income neighborhoods are often ‘dump-sites’ for industrial and manufacturing waste as companies capitalize on needs for economic reinforcement, even at the cost of human lives.  We’ve seen an uptick in corporate climate pledges over the last decade, while these same organizations continue to pollute — business as usual. Massive organizations such as Google, Amazon, Meta, and Toyota as well as oil and gas companies promote corporate sustainability through climate mitigation plans, but they often seem to be little more than performative acts. Not to entirely discount their value, though.

Unilever’s Climate Action Plan, for example, has attainable goals. So to achieve them, we must continue to hold these corporations accountable. As long as corporations find it profitable, they will continue to cut corners, at the cost of people, at the cost of us, and the planet we inhabit. We are all stakeholders of Earth, and as such, we must take measures to protect our home and each other. It only takes one voice, like Sofia Ashraf’s, to seek and enact change. 

The 591 workers in Kodaikanal may not have entirely gained justice for what they underwent, but we can keep fighting for others like them, and tell their stories.