By Bhanvi Satija:
Malarkodi, a 46-year old woman worked for 18 years as a sweeper, at the Hindustan Unilever Kodaikanal Thermometer factor in Tamil Nadu. Today, she suffers from various nervous tremors, gynaecological problems and hearing impairment. Bhawani, another ex-employee at the same factory was a victim of six miscarriages. The cause of the ailing conditions of these two women is the same: a lack of safety measures at their workplace.
Between 1982 and 2001, there was a thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu; the workers of this factory were exposed to mercury in the workplace due to inadequate protection from toxic mercury. In the 18 years of operation, the factory exposed about 600 workers to toxic mercury – at least 45 of whom have died prematurely, and many others are suffering from nervous disorders, dental problems, vision and hearing impairment and skin problems. In this period, the factory also caused widespread mercury pollution through improper disposal of broken thermometer waste containing large quantities of mercury. It sold much of this waste to a junkyard in Kodaikanal and also dumped large quantities in the forest behind the factory. The plant was eventually shut down in 2001, after the Anglo-Dutch multinational faced massive protests.
Ever since the shutdown, workers have protested outside Hindustan Unilever offices in Mumbai twice – in 2007 and this year. In 2007, the ex-workers had joined to form the 559-strong Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association and in 2006 filed a PIL suit in the Madras High Court. The association demanded an economic rehabilitation scheme, healthcare treatment and a monitoring programme at the company’s expense for everyone who ever worked in the factory. It also demanded that the company be prosecuted. HUL, however, denied that any of the health problems of the workers or their families were the result of mercury exposure in the factory. The Madras High Court had constituted a five-member expert committee to decide on the mercury workers’ health claims. The committee had later failed to find sufficient evidence to link the current clinical condition of the factory workers to past mercury exposure in the factory.
Recently, a study done by the Chennai-based NGO, Community Environmental Monitoring has found high levels of toxic mercury in vegetation and sediment collected in the vicinity of the factory. The study further confirmed that HUL’s factory site is still contaminating the air and leaking poisons into its surroundings, including the ecologically sensitive Pambar Shola and the Pambar River. “The factory site continues to release mercury into the environment,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, advisor to Community Environmental Monitoring, to The Hindu.
At the same time, this year a shareholder took note of the plea of the protestors and raised the issue at the company’s Annual General Meeting. “I had been privy to the issue and protests since 2007, and had raised the issue at the meeting. After I raised the issue, CEO Harish Manwani informed all shareholders that the matter would be attended to immediately, and that he wouldn’t mind an out-of-court settlement taking into account the company and workers affected”, said Deepika D’Souza, an environment consultant and a shareholder who attended the AGM, to CatchNews.
The CEO’s statement at the AGM has given some hope to the protestors. However, the company, in its official statement has never fully accepted responsibility and continues to state that “There were no adverse effects on the health of the employees or the environment.” In fact, the focus of the AGM was also, supposedly, on how to avoid a Maggi-like fallout and not about the plea of the ex-employees.
Will the people of Kodaikanal also find space in the next generation EVS classes? Or will justice be provided? Only time (and Harish Manwani) can tell.