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How We Took On A Multi-Billion Dollar Corporation To Show That “People Power Works”

By Bhavik Lathia:

jhatkaaHow do you tell the story of a victory? Do you focus on the victors or the villains? The underdogs or the favorites? The game changers or the spoilers? The long race or the finish line?

How those questions are answered can impact the narrative that people know and repeat. So I’m going to start off by strongly prefacing the story I’m about to tell. What’s below is just one tiny part of a long struggle that resulted in victory. Yes, the events in this story are significant, but they’re not the only significant events. I want you to read my words, but I also want you to stay curious and read the words of the so many others who have contributed to the win I’m going to tell you about.

I’ll start at the end:

This week, 591 Unilever ex-workers in Kodaikanal won justice for themselves and their families. Over the past few decades, many of them had seen their lives torn apart because of the mercury they were exposed to in a factory owned and operated by Hindustan Unilever (HUL). Factory officials weren’t clear with their workers about the harm caused by mercury exposure and workers weren’t provided with sufficient protective gear as they handled the toxic element.

HUL’s mercury thermometer factory was shut down in 2001 due the work of some brilliant activists, and that’s how long ex-workers have been fighting for justice. From this beginning, their demands have been clear: 1) Unilever must honourably compensate all impacted workers and families, and 2) Unilever must clean up the mercury contamination in Kodaikanal to rigorous standards.

Today, the ex-workers won on their first demand and this long-delayed compensation will make a world of difference. It will allow HUL’s ex-workers to repay past debts, meet medical expenses, and finally start rebuilding their lives.

This victory belongs to the ex-workers who have been agitating and organising for the past 15 years. This victory belong to the activists on the ground who have been relentless in their support of the ex-workers’ demands. And this victory belongs to the hundreds of thousands of individuals across the planet who got involved in this campaign last July and August, taking online action to hold Unilever’s global CEO Paul Polman accountable.

This is where comes into the story. is an Indian public mobilization group, and our toolset consists of technology, timely campaign strategy, and people power. Using these tools, we launch and run campaigns for the public good on a wide range of issues – from net neutrality to air pollution to human rights.

Last July, we partnered with activists in Chennai to bring the HUL ex-worker’s demands to social media in a big, splash-y way. We helped launch a parody music video, online petition, and Twitter action targeting Unilever global CEO Paul Polman.

None of us expected what happened next.

The music video, set to the beat of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda‘, went internationally viral, generating over 35 lakh+ views and our petition has over 90K signers from 100+ countries. It was also featured in The NYTimes, The UK Times, The Hindu, Buzzfeed, and many, many other media outlets around the world. Nicki Minaj even tweeted about it. And Paul Polman publicly responded to our campaign on Twitter, using our hashtag #UnileverPollutes and getting into a heated back-and-forth with our supporters.

During August, as the music video was going viral, our friends in the UK – 38 Degrees – also engaged their list of 20 lakh+ members on this issue. All of this resulted in a meeting with Unilever Global Senior Vice President Sue Garrard during which we delivered our collective 1.5 lakh+ petition signatures and presented the ex-workers’ demands (along with thorough documentation of this issue).

Since then, we’ve kept active pressure on Unilever both online and offline, and both publicly and behind the scenes. We launched a #WontBuyUnilever consumer awareness campaign, which reached over 5 lakh individuals on Twitter alone, and one of our members confronted Paul Polman about his company’s inaction at the Paris climate talks in December. We relayed his story to our members, which unleashed a fresh wave of angry messages at Paul Polman. In these ways, and so many others, we sustained our pressure on the Unilever global CEO.

And all of this, together, forever changed the narrative surrounding this 15-year struggle for justice. What once seemed like a longshot hope became a possibility. And this week, possibility became inevitability as the ex-worker’s signed documents guaranteeing them fair compensation.

The key lesson that is drawing from this victory is that people power works. And we’re excited to continue lifting up the hundreds of thousands of voices who have joined this campaign since last July to ensure that Unilever now cleans up its mercury mess in Kodaikanal, immediately and to a high standard.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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