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Kodaikanal's Environmental Crisis: The Unilever Connection and the Fight for Justice. Book Review

Heavy Metal: How A Global Corporation Poisened Kodaikanal

Author: Ameer Shahul

Published by Pan Macmillan India

Non Fiction/Investigative Journalism

Pages: 396

MRP: Rs. 799/-

Thank you Pan Macmillan India for a media copy of the book

Kodaikanal, the beautiful hill station in Tamil Nadu, has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. The town, which was once a popular tourist destination, is now facing a grave environmental crisis. The cause? A multinational company that exposed the town to toxic mercury poisoning. The factory in question belongs to Hindustan Unilever Limited, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch multinational company, Unilever. The factory was used to manufacture thermometers, and in the process, it released tons of toxic mercury into the air and soil. It was only when a group of former employees of the company came forward with evidence that the company was forced to take action.The former employees and a group of environmental activists started a campaign to get the company to take responsibility for the pollution.The former employees, along with a group of environmental activists, started a campaign to get the company to take responsibility for the pollution.

The company initially denied any wrongdoing and claimed that production had only been temporarily suspended. However, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board discovered that the company had actually disposed of 5.3 tonnes of glass waste containing mercury to a scrap dealer, and many truckloads of this waste had been shipped out over the years and were untraceable. The buyers of this hazardous substance were from various cities, including Kodaikanal, Mysore, Coimbatore, and Bangalore. The closure of the factory provided some relief, but it was not enough as the levels of mercury outside the factory were almost 40 times higher than the normal levels prescribed by the IAEA. The contaminated vegetation continued to release mercury into the atmosphere, and elevated levels of mercury were found in water, sediment, and fish samples from Kodai Lake even after four years of the factory's closure. The company reached a compensation agreement with the workers, but the details of the settlement were kept confidential. The total amount of mercury dispersed into the environment over 18 years was estimated to be around 19.68 tonnes. The impact on the environment and wildlife in Kodaikanal was severe, and it was predicted that the toxic legacy would continue to affect future generations. The author questions whether the corporate bosses would have escaped punishment in a developed country like the First World,

Ameer Shahul's book Heavy Metal starts from the very beginning, through Watertown, U S A , where the company was initially polluting the water, and even writes about Chesebrough’s and Chesebrough-Pond’s, where it all started. While a whole lot of the book doesnt directly talk about the incident, the author takes us through Unilevers history, Greennpeace’s History, The Science behind all the toxicity, the courtroom drama and the cleanup of it all. Reading about various different things like how Vaseline was discovered, about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy settlement was quite an experience. Reading about Greenpeace’s action plan during HLL’s AGM for shareholders was like reading a script for a web-series. Quite gripping.

The book may come across as a form of promotional material for Greenpeace on occasions, but this is likely due to the author's past employment and justifiable partiality to the organization. Nonetheless, the book presents an adequate historical and contextual background for readers to gain insight into the events without portraying HLL as a villain.

The environmental crisis in Kodaikanal caused by Unilever's subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Limited, is a tragic reminder of the harmful effects of corporate negligence on communities and the environment. Despite the company's initial denial of wrongdoing, the efforts of former employees and environmental activists eventually led to some accountability and compensation for the affected workers. However, the toxic legacy of the factory's mercury pollution is expected to continue affecting Kodaikanal for generations to come.

The incident raises important questions about corporate responsibility and accountability, and whether the outcome would have been different if it had occurred in a developed country. Ameer Shahul's book "Heavy Metal" provides a comprehensive overview of the events leading up to and following the crisis, as well as the larger historical and scientific context of mercury pollution.

It is crucial that we continue to hold corporations accountable for their actions and demand transparency and responsible behaviour. The people of Kodaikanal deserve justice and a healthy environment, and it is our responsibility as global citizens to work towards a more sustainable and just future.

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