Heavy Metal review: How an MNC exposed Kodaikanal to mercury poisoning

Ameer Shahul’s book is the first account in English of how a global corporation circumvented safety guidelines and triggered devastation

Heavy Metal-Kodaikanalmercurypoisoning-AmeerShahul
Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal By Ameer Shahul Pan Macmillan India pp. 396, Rs 799

How many times have you heard that the private sector is more responsible and efficient? And more caring for employees’ interests. We know that this is not wholly true. It certainly was not the case when Union Carbide’s now-shut pesticide plant rained death on Bhopal in 1984. A much less remembered but equally deadly corporate onslaught on unsuspecting employees and people took place in Tamil Nadu at the dawn of the 21st century.

Ameer Shahul’s well-researched book, Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal (Pan Macmillan India), is the first in English on that onslaught: mercury catastrophe. It was in 2001 that an activist accidentally stumbled upon a massive dump of broken mercury thermometers at a scrapyard in Kodaikanal. Unknown to everyone, the guilty party was Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer factory located not far away in the Tamil Nadu hill resort. As a startled local community and green activists got into the act of getting to the bottom of it all, a stinking scandal unravelled.

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The factory had opened in 1984 when M.G. Ramachandran was the chief minister, aided partly by his tirade that the Centre was not aiding Tamil Nadu’s industrialization. In the initial stages, workplace safety was given paramount importance. The situation changed dramatically once the export-oriented factory’s owner, Chesebrough-Pond’s, was taken over by Unilever and in India by Hindustan Lever.


Violation of safety norms

Hindustan Lever first got the factory registered as a “glass manufacturing unit” rather than one dealing with hazardous metals. This meant that normal safety precautions were dumped. Soon afterwards, instead of following laid-down procedures on disposing mercury waste arising from broken thermometers, the factory found an easier way — sell it to scrap dealers. Obviously to buy silence, the company generously donated to local political parties and civil society organizations.

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Once the safety procedures were given a go-by, factory workers began to fall seriously ill and die. Nobody initially connected the dots. But once Navroz Mody discovered in Christmas 2000 that the company was irresponsibly disposing of the glass waste, probably for some one-and-a-half decades, the ugly truth emerged, sparking widespread anger.

From the first protest on February 28, 2001, activists began to unearth many spots where mercury waste had been buried carelessly. A panicked company hurriedly cleared many dumps, bringing back the mercury waste to its premises. As government agencies got involved, the factory was shut in March 2001. By then, it was clear that dangerous levels of intake of mercury had killed up to 28 employees and left a large number seriously ill, including many who had developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

A colossal crime

The company issued brazen denials of wrongdoing. It first announced that production had been “temporarily suspended”. But the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board estimated that the company had disposed of 5.3 tonnes of glass waste containing mercury to a scrap dealer. And truckloads that had been shipped out over the years were now untraceable. The buyers of this dangerous substance were from Kodaikanal, Mysore, Coimbatore, Bangalore (now Bengaluru) and beyond.

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Closing the factory was an important but minor reprieve. The mercury levels observed in the lichen and moss samples outside the factory were almost 40 times the normal levels prescribed by the IAEA. Air outside the factory had up to 2,640 times more mercury than the normal levels prescribed by global agencies. This meant that people in the surroundings of the factory had been breathing 2,640 times more mercury than normal. The contaminated vegetation had been re-emitting absorbed mercury into the atmosphere. Analysis of water, sediment and fish samples from the Kodai Lake showed elevated levels of mercury even four years after the stoppage of operational emissions from the factory. It was a colossal crime.

A combative, unrepentant company

Once the company’s acts of criminality were exposed, it offered no apology. On the contrary, it readied to battle those who had taken it on. It could hire the best of lawyers and win over some in high places. On the contrary, the ex-workers’ association struggled to meet the bare minimum expenses of its office-bearers to travel to Chennai for court hearings and other minimum legal and logistical requirements.

Fortunately, backing the committed lawyers and former employees were a group of dedicated activists, including from Greenpeace, as well as upright officials from both the Tamil Nadu and Central governments. As Shahul, who followed the disaster closely as a journalist and an activist, says in the book, a criminal investigation should have been carried out. Unfortunately, this never happened.

It was a battle that saw science, medical science, law, data and human perseverance pitted against one of the world’s largest corporations in an all-consuming fight that lasted a full 15 years. To the disappointment of the activists, several victims of mercury poisoning had not kept any records to prove they had been employees of the company; others had not stored their medical records; and many had no interest in being part of a case that, in their opinion, would be a waste of time and resources.

Devastation of a catastrophic degree

It took months to comprehend, analyse and summarize the information under various heads in order to draft a suit. Eventually, an airtight petition was ready in March 2006. Fighting Hindustan Unilever was easier said than done. Unmindful of its wrongdoing, the company planned to press ahead with the legal challenge until a directive at the end of 2015 from the top of the global corporation, shamed by international exposure, forced a U-turn. It is clear from the book that there would have been no justice but for the tenacity of the activists, lawyers and sincere officials.

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An agreement was signed on March 4, 2016 between the representatives of workers and the company. On the firm’s request, it was agreed to keep details of the compensation as confidential. It was said to be the second highest compensation sum ever awarded in Indian corporate history, after the $470 million paid in the case of Bhopal gas tragedy. By the time it was all over, it was concluded that 11 tonnes (10,974 kg) of mercury had spread in the environment over 18 years. And the total mercury which disappeared through gaseous dispersal and through glass waste would be as much as 19.68 tonnes (19,686 kg).

But the toxic legacy in Kodaikanal was much worse. The region’s flora and fauna have been severely hit. Kodaikanal, a scenic area once the throng of tourists, has suffered a devastation of a catastrophic degree. The author says the tonnes of mercury dispersed in the town will continue to affect generations living in Kodaikanal. And the fact is that like in the case of Union Carbide, nobody went to prison for the deaths of innocents. Would the corporate bosses have gotten away in the First World? The book doesn’t say but the answer is obvious.