CHENNAI:They are far and few. But the voices seeking justice in Kodaikanal, where the Anglo-Dutch MNC Unilever is accused of dumping mercury at its erstwhile thermometer plant, have reached closer home for the transnational giant.
When the Unilever shareholders met on April 30 at Leatherhead in Surrey, the UK, Saleh Mamon, a retired headmaster, whose grandfather hailed from Gujarat, stood up to question the company over the alleged contradiction between Unilever’s stated policies and practice with regard to the Kodaikanal issue.
Mamon attended the meeting as a proxy after learning about the issue at Kodaikanal, where a thermometer factory that was set up by Ponds, later acquired by Unilever, had severely polluted the soil and groundwater with mercury, considered to be the third-most dangerous element after arsenic and lead.
In his annual report to shareholders, Unilever CEO Paul Polman stressed on ‘Unilever Sustainable Living Plan’ that has three goals — improving health and well being, reducing environmental impact and enhancing livelihoods.
“But the question that arises is why has it not resolved the problems at Kodaikanal, which have harmed and are continuing to harm the environment and poisoned people with grave health consequences, including children born to ex-workers. For me, Kodaikanal were not to be treated as legal issue only, but more importantly a moral issue and of social justice. I said so at the meeting,” Mamon said in his e-mail to The New Indian Express.
Mamon had raised questions, including the need for an independent assessment of the extent of contamination; the need for a monitoring mechanism on the spread of contamination, particularly to the ecosystem of Pambar forest; the correctness of adopting a much lower standard for clean up when compared to the UK or the Dutch standards; the need for a thorough, independent epidemiological study to assess the mercury poisoning of former workers and an interim framework of medical care and living allowance for them.
But the reply, he noted, was too general in nature. “He appreciated the concerns. He felt that the newspaper reports were biased... (He said) there were many obstacles in the way including NGOs and also people who had never been to that place,” Mamon said.
There were shareholders of Indian origin present during the meeting, but not one asked a follow-up question. “I think the shareholders have very little knowledge of these issues because in the UK, the corporate media rarely cover issues such as Kodai,” he added.
This non-chalance does not surprise veteran campaigners. “Most shareholders don’t make investment decisions on ethical grounds, they want to see a return on their investment,” noted professor Eurig Scandrett of the Queen Margaret University, the UK, who has been actively part of the campaign for justice at Bhopal.
However, he hastened to add that efforts like those of Mamon will come of use. “When shareholders realise that Unilever is neglecting its international responsibilities, they’ll see it as a financial risk and put their money elsewhere. Unilever’s CEO will be more concerned about the threat of shareholders abandoning the company than the health of Indian workers. That is why shareholder action is important,” he explained.
In many ways, the professor added, Unilever is the same as Dow Chemicals and many other corporations who trumpet their social responsibility, but refuse to be accountable for the damage they cause to their workers and neighbours.
“If Unilever is so confident that it has done everything required to mitigate pollution, then it should back an independent assessment of the contamination and the health impact on its former workers, and commit to carrying out its recommendations,” said Scandrett.
City-based environment activist Nithyanand Jayaraman said such efforts by their loosely-organised collective called UK Campaign for Justice in Kodaikanal were aimed at spreading awareness about the issue, especially among the young population. “We are expecting the company to assume responsibility for its actions,” he said.
Rise & Fall
■ Plant set up in 1983 by Chesebrough-Ponds, bought over by Unilever in 1986. Machinery came from the US
■ The factory produced around 75,000 thermometers a day
■ Directed to shut down in 2001 after Palani Hills Conservation Council and Greenpeace exposed the company’s attempt to sell glass contaminated with mercury to a scrap dealer
■ In 2003, 300 tonnes contaminated waste extracted. 280 tonnes partially-treated mercury sludge sent back to the US
■ Company reportedly admitted that over 3.5 tonnes of mercury remained spread all over its site
■ Standard for clean up in UK: 1 mg/kg of soil; Netherlands: 10 mg/kg. At Kodaikanal, it was set at 25mg/kg