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‘Kodaikanal Mercury Poisoning Episode Has Lessons for Current, Future Generations’

‘Kodaikanal Mercury Poisoning Episode Has Lessons for Current, Future Generations’

A protest agains mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal. Photo: By arrangement

Ameer Shahul is an investigative journalist turned public policy leader. In his first book, Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal, Shahul narrates the gripping story of how a Hindustan Unilever-owned thermometer factory unleashed a mercury poisoning catastrophe in Kodaikanal. In this book, Shahul recounts his personal experiences tracking the events as a reporter and Greenpeace campaigner in addition to interviewing ex-workers and their families, and investigating documentary evidence. 

In this interview, Shahul gives us a glimpse of what transpires in his book. The questions are in bold, and the answers are presented in full, with light edits for style.


Please give us a brief overview of your book and tell us how you came to write it.

The book discusses the environmental threats posed by the greed of large corporations. This universal phenomenon is explained by a disaster that occurred in our backyard over two decades ago. It also discusses how a local community confronted a global corporation through persistent efforts.

I have been involved with the issue for nearly two years and have subsequently been in touch with the local community and ex-workers who have been fighting for justice over the last two decades. When the two main contentious issues – worker compensation and factory site remediation – were resolved, I decided to document the story for the benefit of the larger community beyond the hill station, which will hopefully provide lessons for current and future generations.

In the first part of your book, you touch on Kodaikanal’s socio-political, geographical, scientific, and ecological history. Could you tell us about one challenge and one surprising thing you learnt while putting this together?

There has never been a dearth of information on Kodaikanal, which is available in books and journals, libraries, archives, and online. Since I wrote most of the first half of the book during the COVID-19 lockdown [March to June 2020], one of the challenges was that it was impossible for me to travel to the Tamil Nadu state archives in Chennai, the national archives in New Delhi, or the record centre in Pondicherry.

I was especially surprised to learn that the British colonial rulers had not established a cantonment in Kodaikanal, in contrast to most of the salubrious hill stations where they set up stations for their soldiers and officers to rest and recuperate. Another surprising fact about Kodaikanal’s history is that the Evershed effect of the sun was first observed from the Kodaikanal solar observatory, which was established in 1899.

What was the watershed moment when you started investigating the Kodaikanal mercury poisoning case?

There have been numerous landmarks, beginning with Navroz Mody’s discovery of the mercury dump in the scrapyard and the discovery of the mercury waste allegedly dumped on the sides of river streams by the company, and so on. However, the Department of Atomic Energy team establishing the poisoning of the atmosphere, flora, and fauna with the help of science – not once, but twice – was the watershed moment in the campaign. They were doing their job as material scientists, but it was a great service to the country and the environment. 

As I read your book, one thing that was extremely upsetting for me was the number of people who lost their lives in the prime of their youth. What was on your mind as you interviewed these victims’ families and heard these tragic accounts repeatedly?

The stories about the human side of the tragedy were immensely disturbing throughout and equally after I had met and spoken with everyone affected. It especially troubled me that a responsible, renowned global corporation like Unilever could delegate such a globally sensitive issue involving a toxic heavy metal like mercury to a group of local managers. It should be mentioned that mercury and its hazards have been in the news since the outbreak of Minamata disease in the 1950s.

Ameer Shahul
Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal
Pan Macmillan India (February 2023)

It appears that the story is not merely of negligence but one of many coverups: from the company lying about the quantity of mercury waste they dumped to publishing a health report to absolve themselves and letting many employees go on voluntary retirement. Tell us about your experience investigating these records.

I was physically present with the workers and the local community until 2004. So, I personally witnessed and challenged many of these acts of omission and commission. While writing the book, I hired a lawyer in Chennai named J.S. Kannan to assist me in obtaining government, court, and regulatory documents through RTIs and by filing applications. Many of these documents are also publicly available through a group of environmentalists and the local community. In some cases, the regulator has responded to RTI requests by stating that the requested document was destroyed due to a lack of storage space, etc. In many cases, one document led to another, and so on, providing me with a larger and more comprehensive picture of these omissions and commissions.

While describing your arrival at Kodaikanal as a journalist, you mention, “everyone had the same thing to say: they hadn’t expected this kind of trouble from a company like HLL.” In many cases of corporate negligence, as with the Kodaikanal mercury poisoning, factories that once felt like their “guardian angel” eventually become the angel of death. From your interactions with the residents of Kodaikanal, how do you think such experiences shape people’s outlook on corporations? Are these sentiments still strong, or do you see them waning with time?

Unilever had and continues to have a strong global reputation. It accomplishes many good things in a variety of fields and is still known as one of the world’s most responsible corporations. It ranks very high in comparison to many other global conglomerates. It had the same reputation in Kodaikanal as the events began unfolding in 2001-2002.

This has changed over time, at least in Kodaikanal and the surrounding areas. People quickly realised that Unilever was not the great company that it was proclaiming to the world, and this realisation outraged people for a long time. However, many things change over time. In their daily struggle for survival, the people of Kodaikanal are also forgetting the past. In most cases, the company has chosen to remain silent to avoid escalation and confrontation in the aftermath of the controversy.

The story seems to be one that pieces together serendipitous discoveries that ultimately help find and establish the mercury poisoning case. What are your thoughts on this?

It has not always been serendipitous. I must highlight the efforts of people like Navroz Mody, Selvi Meenakshi a.k.a Meena Subramaniam and several others. There were significant efforts even behind the first instance of Mody discovering the scrapyard dump. People who picked up on the early warning signs chose not to ignore them. If they had, the case would not have reached its current outcome. It is all thanks to the campaigners who took advantage of the discovery and research results.

From the lens of a local resident, this is perhaps a story of outsiders in their home. Both destroyers and protectors of their home came from outside. Did such discussions come up in your conversations with the factory workers? How do you see this in the light of the goodness and malice of the human spirit?

That wasn’t the case. Both were, in fact, insiders. Until the tides began to turn, the thermometer factory was an integral part of the local community. It was a local business with local employees and managers. Locals were also among those who protested the company. Navroz Mody had lived in Kodaikanal since the company’s inception, Meena had moved there in 1986, and so on. Greenpeace, which came to the aid of the local community, could be considered an outsider, but its role was mostly secondary and supportive.

On a larger scale, both goodness and malice are inherent in humans. People prefer one over the other based on their culture, upbringing, and circumstances. I would not say that the company committed certain atrocities against the people with the intent to harm them. However, it can be said that it made many mistakes, either inadvertently or knowingly, at the expense of people and the environment.

From your experience writing this book, what measures should the government take today to create and implement policies that reassure workers of occupational safety and health? Do we need new policies, or are the existing ones good enough when implemented well?

Governments and regulatory bodies should conduct regular audits of hazardous raw materials and byproducts in factories that handle these materials, ideally with the assistance of local volunteer groups. Standard operating procedures for handling hazardous waste must be updated on a regular basis and implemented to ensure the long-term disposal of dangerous chemicals emitted by manufacturing processes. Similar to releasing industrial policies on a regular basis, industrial safety policies should be updated at least every five years. Hazardous waste management rules, as well as the Health and Safety at Work Act, require regular updates and serious implementation, with worker participation.

Ameer Shahul. Photo: Twitter/@ameershahul

What are your thoughts on the role of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) as a regulator in the Kodaikanal mercury poisoning case, and how would you compare it to today’s regulators?

When explaining the regulator’s role in the Kodaikanal issue, there were two distinct phases. The TNPCB handled the first phase reasonably well. This was the time when the regulator’s affairs were overseen by Sheela Rani Chunkath. She recognised the far-reaching consequences of the disaster and dispatched a team to the scrapyard to assess the situation, as well as instructed the company to allow the local community to observe the waste weighing process at the factory. She had even formed a Local Area Monitoring Committee composed of members of the local community as well as PCB officials. However, after she moved on from the board, the subsequent regimes were comparably ineffective. If they had been as cooperative as she was, the outcome of the remediation would have been different, with earlier cleanup at higher standards.

I think the story is a good example of the use and abuse of scientific research. On the one hand, you have the company trying to find a scientific basis to protect itself. On the other hand, you have the scientists and healthcare workers gathering evidence to prove Kodaikanal’s suffering from the ill effects of mercury poisoning. What are your thoughts?

Both Unilever and Greenpeace recognise the role of science in the final outcome of such disasters. Unilever quickly brought in a reputable consultant with experts from all fields of science and accounting, and conducted multiple sampling and analyses to produce its own reports. Greenpeace conducted a sampling in 2003. Even as Greenpeace awaited the results from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, the Department of Atomic Energy released its findings indicating high levels of mercury in flora and the surrounding air. The failure of the company-commissioned study by Dames and Moore to conduct the critical methyl mercury analysis in fish of Kodai lake was a glaring omission. But it turned out to be a charge against the company to demonstrate its dubious intention of not doing it.

Representative image of the Kodai lake. Photo: ram reddy/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

You mention how, at the end of the long ordeal, the Ministry of Environment and Forests brought out its remediation standards for polluted sites in March 2015, introducing arbitrary values as ‘screening’ and ‘response’ levels. Have there been any policy changes since? What does this tell us about our policies on occupational and environmental health?

The 2015 polluted site standards have become the point of reference for fixing the remediation standards in the 25-acre factory land’s contaminated soil. The damage to the ecosystem could have been minimised if the remediation standards had been decided by the regulator earlier, perhaps in 2003 or 2004. It could also have aided in the achievement of higher standards because the reference point at the time was the Dutch standards, which were far more stringent. The 2015 standards are extremely lax and must be revised as soon as possible.

Joel P. Joseph is a science writer.

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