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Over 45 Dead And 600 Poisoned, And It Took 14 Years For This Company To Respond!

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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. These horrific accounts narrated in this story have been overlooked for many years, and the victims are yet to receive justice as their calls fall on deaf ears.

Image Credit: Developedment
Image Credit: Developedment

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.

This case is a stark reminder of the Bhopal disaster, in terms of the non-accountability of those responsible. 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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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