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How a global corporation poisoned a south Indian town

Ameer Shahul is an author, and public policy expert working at the intersection of sustainability, healthcare, and technology. His recent book, Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal (in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu) explains how a major multinational corporation was responsible for mercury poisoning and reveals the terrible effects it had on the people of Kodaikanal. The year 2001 marked a significant turning point for Kodaikanal as a thermometer factory owned by Hindustan Unilever came under the spotlight. The factory in Kodaikanal owned by Hindustan Unilever, part of the worldwide Unilever group, became the center of national attention when a significant accumulation of broken mercury thermometers was discovered at a nearby scrapyard. This alarming discovery raised serious concerns about the improper handling and disposal of hazardous mercury waste by the factory. As evidence of mercury poisoning among the factory workers started to emerge, the local community, with support from environmental watchdog Greenpeace and several public-interest organizations, embarked on a 15-year-long battle against the multinational conglomerate. Their efforts finally led to an undisclosed settlement being paid to approximately 600 former workers as compensation for the damage caused by the factory's operations. He spoke to Akasha Usmani.

Akasha Usmani (AU): Can you provide a brief overview of your journey with this book? What is the goal that you would want to pursue through writing this?

Ameer Shahul (AS): This is an incident which happened almost about two decades ago. Rather it was exposed two decades ago, it's been coming to a conclusion with the decision in the High Court and International Green Tribunal Supreme Court. I think this will be a benchmark for many of the similar issues in this region, not just India but any region. There are many issues which need to be addressed in many parts of the country. People are fighting similar larger issues which need attention. So, I hope and wish for people who are working on similar issues to take it to the conclusion and get their interest as they develop.

Ameer Shahul - Author of the book "Heavy Metal: How a Global Corporation Poisoned Kodaikanal"

AU: What was the extent of the mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal and what is the situation right now?

AS: The extent as you will see is devastating and 28 deaths have been recorded and probably it could be much bigger if you look at the accounts which are not properly documented. I think the important factor which we need to know about is there is an issue which is by and large coming to closure, and this is not something which needs to be concluded with this. Kodaikanal, the damage has been very extensive and devastating, some other studies which have come up recently have shown that mercury remains in the soil, and it is not going to go away from the soil for the next century at least, that's a modeling study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad. Similar studies suggested that the level of mercury has travelled within the soil down slopes. Nobody is questioning the extent of damage caused by the mercury over there, as it is going to be there, and it is going to be there for quite some time.

AU: Can you provide insights on the psychological toll experienced by the individuals and the local communities?

AS: At multiple levels, people who have faced this issue at that point of time while working in the factory and then the expose happened and some of the events unfolded so they have been severely impacted by stress disorders and that is something which is not properly documented. There have been psychological issues impacting people and issues like dementia, Alzheimer's disease and so on happened. Those have a huge impact on people on the psychological side.

AU: This is a clear case of corporate negligence, what do you think the impact of cases like these coming out in the limelight has been on multinational corporations on dealing with such hazardous material? Has there been any impact and to what extent?

AS: Corporate negligence, corporate liability, and corporate accountability, these are very related terms which one needs to be concerned about in the current situation. While we expect a lot of things from corporations in terms of their due responsibility, we don't find that happening delivered from the companies but if you ask whether the corporations are held liable for that beyond fixing accountability, I think that has unfortunately not happened. One could be that the legislation is pretty gray in that therefore you are not able to fix the liability and therefore punish the companies for their negligence. The solution to this is to fix the status, fix the law, fix the legislation so that there could be some amount of accountability and then accountability can be put in terms of liability to the company, and they should be made to pay for the negligence that they are responsible for.

AU: How would you define the role of environmental activism in holding these multinational corporations accountable?

AS: Times are changing, we used to be in a space of progression as far as environmental laws are concerned in India a while ago, unfortunately, what is happening in the recent past is that we are moving away from environmental responsibility. The other area of environmental disaster when you move away from environmental responsibility, we enter the industrial disaster. In our earnestness and keenness to create employment and generate economic development we neglect environmental responsibility so that leads us to the path of destruction from industrial disasters or natural calamities which is coming out of this climate change at the end of the tunnel. It is certainly not a welcome path but unfortunately, that is where it's leading to.

AU: What do you think is the next step for Kodaikanal in the context of this particular incident?

AS: In the book I have left a couple of messages, one is that while the issues of ex-factory workers have not been resolved there are the issues of the larger community in Kodaikanal and the ecosystem. The impact on the community and the ecosystem has not been addressed properly and I think it would be appropriate if someone could pick this up and try to work on that so that it can be addressed. The other message which I am leaving through this book is not just the people of Kodaikanal but the larger people beyond Kodaikanal that this is a wakeup call for similar incident in your places, in your surrounding if you’re living nearby some factory or in the suburb there is some similar operation, be careful, be vigilant. Look around for the signals coming from the factory and try to act as early as possible so that you can avoid such disasters in your backyard.

The primary part is awareness - how do you create awareness? This is one example where you can make people aware of the dangers of an extent like this, documentation comes up when you pick up early signals, when you find the need to document on how the factory is operating and what are the conditions in which the factory is operating, does the factory has certain kind of permissions and license and if it's not there then why it is not so these documentations at the earliest you need to start collecting

AU: Thank you so much for joining us. It was an absolute pleasure to engage in a conversation with you.

AS: Thank you.

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