Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Mercury contamination: Rejoicing victory over Unilver, activists say Kodaikanal cleanup norm "3 times lower"

Anti-mercury contamination campaign by activists in Kodaikanal
By Our Representative
In a move that has cheered activists fighting against mercury contamination in the southern tip of India, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has been “forced” to agree to provide ex gratia payments to 591 former workers/association members and their families towards livelihood enhancement projects and skill enhancement programmes.
Activists of Jhatkaa.org and Chennai Solidarity Group, who were behind the campaign, which ended in a compromise with the management following a petition in the Madras High Court, said, at least 12 of the 45 dead workers died as a result of kidney failure at young ages because of mercury exposure, "though death certificates refused to identify this as the reason."
In a statement issued following the “victory”, Jhatkaa.org said, “Results of analyses conducted by a Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) laboratory in 2015 of mercury levels in sediment, moss and lichen collected from outside the factory revealed high levels of the toxin indicating that the factory was actively leaching poisons into the environment.”
“Air and water­borne mercury emissions have contaminated large areas of Kodaikanal and the surrounding forest”, it alleged, adding, “Eight months after we launched our viral Kodaikanal Won’t music video and petition, HUL announced that they are going to compensate their ex-workers in Kodaikanal.”
“Though delayed, this compensation will help ex-workers repay past debts, meet medical expenses and finally start rebuilding their lives”, the statement said, adding, “This is a huge victory but we’ve only won half the battle. Now, we need to urge Unilever to clean up the harmful mercury they dumped in Kodaikanal 15 years ago which continues to slowly poison forests , water bodies and people in the area.”
Seeking support for an online petition for this, the statement said, the DEA’s “extensive scientific study suggested the standards to which mercury remediation needs to be done in residential areas — 6.6 mg/kg. This means that for every kilogram of soil, no more than 6.6 mg of mercury can be present in it.”
“Instead, HUL is pushing for a clean up standard of 25 mg/kg -- three times weaker than should be allowed! Why? Because they think they can get away with weak standards in a developing country like India. This cleanup standard is so weak that it wouldn’t even be allowed in the UK, where Unilever’s head office is based”, said Ruchita, a senior activist with Jhatkaa.com.
“Ultimately, the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) will direct the standard of cleanup. However, HUL keeps pushing for a weak cleanup standard so that they can save a bit of money in the process, hence stalling the process for years”, the statement added.
Countering Unilever CEO Polmans’ claim that his is “a responsible and environmentally just company”, the statement said, “As the global head, Polman has influence at all levels of the company. If he comes out in favour of a strong clean up standard, it’s not something that his subsidiary Hindustan Unilever will be able to ignore. And if HUL agrees, then the Pollution Control Board can go ahead and finally give the go-ahead for a high cleanup standard.”
Rachita, said, “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. Because of our collective actions, we were able to hold a multi-billion dollar corporation accountable. People power won in the end.”
“Though delayed, this compensation will help ex-workers poisoned by mercury repay past debts, meet medical expenses and finally start rebuilding their lives”, she said in an email circulated by her.
She said, “Jhatkaa members continuously tweeted at CEO Polman and bombarded dozens of Unilever Facebook pages demanding immediate action. Thousands even pledged to boycott Unilever products till the time they cleaned up their mess in Kodaikanal. This public scrutiny resulted in HUL accelerating the stalled negotiations with the ex-workers. Our efforts made a real difference in the lives of the hundreds of ex-workers and their families.

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