30/10/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Buried Poison: Unilever Has A Lot To Hide In Kodaikanal

Nityanand Jayaraman

On 26 October 2015, Hindustan Unilever manager John George was caught on camera man-handling a News 7 media person R. Ravichandran. Ravichandran was one of many media-persons who were rudely pushed out of the now-closed mercury thermometer factory premises in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. They were accompanying a delegation of dignitaries - including Dindigul and Palani constituency legislators and the chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board - on a tour of the mercury-tainted factory premises.

I spoke to Ravichandran to hear his take on the Unilever officials' behaviour towards the media. He confirmed that media people were physically pushed out. But, he said "That is not what bothered me. My question is what do they have to hide from us? From 2001 till date, not a single media person has entered the factory premises. The officials said that day that the factory site is not contaminated and that all mercury wastes were exported in 2003. If the factory site is clean, and everything is okay, then why all this secrecy?"

"[T]he company has actively thwarted independent verification or scientific studies untainted by its influence or money."

The hostility of the officials' actions may be shocking, but it is consistent with the secretive manner in which Unilever has chosen to deal with the entire controversy. Currently, the company is facing dual allegations - of having poisoned the factory site and surroundings with mercury - a toxin that can cause brain damage and birth defects, among other health issues -- and of failing to compensate workers and their family members who are victims of mercury exposure.

On both counts, the company has actively thwarted independent verification or scientific studies untainted by its influence or money. Until the rap video "Kodaikanal Won't" made silence impossible for Unilever, the company's standard response to media queries has been a referral to a webpage on their website. The contents were identical in both the UK parent Unilever Plc's and Hindustan Unilever's websites - that Unilever maintains the highest environmental and occupational safety standards; that the illegal mercury waste found dumped in 2001 was an aberration; that it shut down the factory voluntarily after finding this out; that it is true that the factory site has elevated levels of mercury but that such levels have no effect on the environment; that workers were not exposed to mercury and do not suffer any effects relatable to mercury; and that a Committee of the High Court has confirmed that workers suffered no effects.

Interestingly, the Committee of the High Court not only finds no effects, it goes on to state that "the Committee does not recommend any further study." To support its recommendation, the Committee relies on the opinion of one Dr C S Pandav of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and a "peer-reviewed" article in the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The "peer-reviewed" article was written by Dr T Rajgopal, a doctor on Unilever's payroll. The Journal is an industry-funded magazine whose current secretary and business manager is Dr Kishore Madhwani of Unilever. Dr C S Pandav and two of the High Court Committee members, namely committee chairman Dr A K Srivastava and Dr S K Dave - are editorial advisory board members.

On the environmental front, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) had made it clear in 2004 (download report here) that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board should "make an assessment of extent of contamination." Ignoring this call for independent data and oversight, HUL directly hired Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) as its consultant. Dr Tapan Chakrabarti, who had been part of the SC team that issued this instruction in September 2004, had now become NEERI's Director. By mid-2005, he had landed key contracts for NEERI with HUL.

"Workers say they were instructed by the company to bury tonnes of mercury-bearing toxic wastes in several locations inside the factory."

On 16 August 2005, a two-member Tamil Nadu sub-committee of the SCMC, comprising Dr D B Boralkar and Dr Claude Alvares, wrote to the TNPCB highlighting the irregularity. "The decontamination is being conducted by NEERI in association with HUL, and HUL is directly financing the consultant. This is not in keeping with the SCMC's directions which require the work of remediation and rehabilitation be done through the Board." Strangely, within a month, this sub-committee was replaced by another one with three new members, which overlooked the violation and NEERI's conflict of interest.

Unilever's consultant NEERI was against imposing stringent clean-up norms on its clients. It argued in its report that "the benefits likely to accrue out of stricter norms are to be compared against the additional cost to HUL that may be incurred while undertaking such projects." And so, where HUL had originally stated it will remove 7358 tonnes of contaminated soil, NEERI has recommended that less than half that needed to be removed.

Ex-workers, on the other hand, say that even the 7358 tonnes is a gross underestimate. Workers say they were instructed by the company to bury tonnes of mercury-bearing toxic wastes in several locations inside the factory. "The company does not want independent verification because they know about the buried mercury, and they know that we know," said S A Mahindra Babu, president of the ex-Unilever workers Association in Kodaikanal.

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