in the Nilgiris
almost two decades, Hindustan Lever Limited’s thermometer factory
in Kodaikanal functioned without alerting the employees or the people living
in the region about the dangers mercury posed. But its fortune has run out.
A Rs 1,000-crore lawsuit is on its way
you are planning a summer vacation at Kodaikanal, the Princess of Hills
nestled in the Nilgiris, you should know that the Department of Atomic
Energy (DAE) has found that the mercury level here is 1.32 mg per cubic
metre, about 2,640 times higher than the normal level of 0.5-10 nanogram
per cubic metre.
Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu
nearly two decades, the Hindustan Lever Limited’s (HLL) thermometer
factory has been dumping mercury wastes down the hillside into the Pambar
Shola forests. Mercury vapours escaping from the obsolete factory has
had adverse effects on the lives of its more than 1,000 workers. The extent
of contamination can be gauged from the fact that DAE discovered traces
of the deadly metal on lichen samples from inside the forests, the region’s
precious water source. Slowly the years of rampant chemical pollution
are taking a toll on the employees. Already 17 workers (average age 32)
have died of mercury poisoning.
Queen in Distress: danger lies beneath Kodaikanal’s
Photos Rana Chakraborty
For almost two decades,
Hindustan Lever Limited’s thermometer factory in Kodaikanal
functioned without alerting the employees or the people living in
the region about the dangers mercury posed. But its fortune has
run out. A Rs 1,000-crore lawsuit is on its way
families living around the factory are grappling with serious health problems
as a result of poisoning. Women have been affected the most because they
would be at home and would continually be subjected to mercury vapours
being forcefully blown out by the fans in the factory workplace. Kodaikanal
has an alarmingly high number of renal diseases. “I lost both my
kidneys because of mercury poisoning and had to replace it at the Madurai
Kidney Centre,” says Shanti Jaya Mary, 28. Her husband, John Kennedy,
who worked in the factory for 18 years, is suffering from a host of ailments.
Two of their three daughters have a severe thyroid problem while the other
has growth deficiency.
family’s health has already cost us Rs 9 lakh. We are in debt and
the only earning member is my mother-in-law. HLL should give us compensation,”
Peter J. Sundarajan who used to work in the air-passing unit of the factory,
where mercury vapours are present in high quantities, says his rib bones
have become brittle. His gums bleed and he suffers from giddiness. These
are again symptoms of mercury poisoning. Yanasundari used to work in the
factory and says that mercury vapours would settle down on the clothes
of workers. She has twice delivered stillborn babies.
Devraj Edward, 62, goes he carries a framed photograph of his son. Wilburt
Brito was 23 when he died of kidney failure. He was a daily-wage worker
at the factory, earning Rs 25 a day.
first complained of recurrent headaches. Then there was blood in his urine
and he would feel nauseous. After Dr. Balaji at the government hospital
diagnosed his illness we used to regularly take him to Madurai Kidney
Hospital for dialysis. But the cost of a kidney transplant is approximately
Rs 6 lakh and I did not have that kind of money. HLL killed my son and
we will drag the company to court,” says Edward.
1,000-plus workers of HLL’s thermometer factory have formed the
Ponds Hindustan Lever Limited Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association
and are preparing for a legal battle to press for compensation, rehabilitation
and remediation of the mercury-poisoned environment.
are preparing and planning to file a Rs 1,000-crore lawsuit against HLL,”
says S. Raja Mohamed, general secretary of the association. “We
are also calling on the Indian government to prosecute HLL for the murder
of at least 17 workers,” says Navroz Mody, former toxics campaigner
of Greenpeace India.
and the activists of the Palani Hills Conservation Council came to know
of the pollution by HLL when they discovered mercury wastes in a scrap
yard in the busy Moonjigal market. The mercury scrap was weighed and found
to be approximately 7.4 tonnes.
of Contention: Sundarajan’s ribs have become brittle
due to poisoning
the people of Kodaikanal mounted protests. Their efforts bore fruit in
March 2001, when the company was forced to close down the thermometer
factory. “We are fighting for our survival and we will fight to
the last,” says K. Gopalakrishnan of the workers welfare association.
workers’ association had planned to approach the court for compensation
before HLL’s annual general meeting scheduled to be held on June
24. “We have made a comprehensive database of 500-plus workers,
including 105 women, and their severe health problems as one of the preparatory
steps towards filing of the case,” says Mohamed. But at the Hazardous
Waste Monitoring Committee (HWMC) meeting held at the Tamil Nadu Pollution
Control Board’s (TNPCB) office on May 3, it was decided that TNPCB
should recommend Indian Toxic Research Centre, Lucknow, to do a comprehensive
epidemiological health survey of all affected workers and the local community.
can be sure that when we file our case it will be the strongest challenge
ever mounted against a multinational company for failing to maintain the
same safety and disclosure standards that they are required to in their
home countries,” says Gopalakrishnan.
the subsidiary of Unilever, manufactures ‘35 power brands’
in India like Surf Excel, Pepsodent, Lux and Brooke Bond Red Label. In
1984, the year Bhopal gas disaster took place, a second-hand mercury factory
owned by Cheseborough Ponds was relocated from Watertown, New York, to
a site in Kodaikanal at an altitude of 2,000 metres. In 1997, HLL acquired
Ponds India Ltd and the ownership of the factory changed hands.
Mary has lost her kidneys
1984 and 2001, long after the plant’s ‘safe life’ period
had expired, 165 million thermometers were manufactured for export to
countries around the world. But HLL never informed the community or workers
about the dangers of exposure to mercury. From HLL’s own records
it is clear that by the time the factory closed down, approximately 20-30
tonnes of mercury were ‘lost’ during manufacturing processes.
This was in addition to the mercury vapours released by the plant while
claims much of the mercury waste recovered from the scrap yard (289 tonnes)
has been shipped back to the US. But the fact remains that hundreds have
been affected by mercury poisoning. John George, factory manager at Kodaikanal,
says that HLL’s position is clearly stated on Unilever’s website.
What can one make of a position that started with this line: “Our
thermometer unit at Kodaikanal does not send any waste mercury or mercury
contaminated waste outside the factory” and ended up admitting that
the company had indeed shipped at a very conservative estimate 98 tonnes
of mercury-contaminated glass to unsuspecting recycling agents all over
professes its commitment to exhibit “highest standards of corporate
behaviour” and “follow best practicable means for minimising
adverse environmental impact arising out of its operations”. Incidentally,
Senthil Kumar, one of the three labourers contracted by HLL’s thermometer
factory to remove mercury waste from the factory died seven months ago.
article is published under the fellowship programme of the National Foundation