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Calling out Unilever on mercury pollution

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Unilever“Unilever has behaved no different from Union Carbide in Bhopal”.

A petition hosted by online campaigning platform Jhatkaa.org urging Unilever to settle the company’s mercury-related liabilities in Kodaikanal in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has reached its target of 5000 signatures in less than a week.

And got a further major boost with the launch of a music video titled “Kodaikanal won’t. . .”.

Written by Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf, the song is being used by social activists to expose Unilever’s claims to responsibility as hypocritical.

Unilever’s mercury thermometer factory in the South Indian hill town of Kodaikanal was shut down in 2001 for environmental violations.

And according to campaigners, for the last 14 years, the company has ignored demands for remediation of its mercury-contaminated site and compensation of mercury-affected workers.

Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman is often seen urging other corporates to follow his lead on ‘business as a force for good’.

But in Kodaikanal, he has, it seems, failed to walk his talk.

The verdant hills, forests and grasslands of Kodaikanal are a popular tourist destination in South India but they hide a toxic secret.

Unsafe practices connected with handling and disposing of hazardous material at Unilever’s mercury thermometer factory exposed hundreds of workers to toxic mercury and has contaminated the local environment.

Campaigners say dozens of workers have died prematurely, and hundreds of others and their families are struggling to cope with illnesses they believe are caused by exposure to mercury.

The tonnes of mercury released into Kodai’s environment by the company has polluted the soil and water – and could affect generations to come unless it is cleaned up to exacting standards.

Ex-workers say that Unilever’s toxic act is already claiming lives and affecting the futures of a second generation of victims.

The company, for its part, has acknowledged that mercury contaminates the environment but denies that its past practices and its failure to clean up is hurting people.

Sofia Ashraf ‘s rapper video was uploaded to Youtube by eminent Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna at an event titled “Union Carbide to Unilever: The Myth of Corporate Responsibility.”

Ex-workers and video director Rathindran Prasad spoke at the event.

Swayer Corporation’, Rathindran Prasad’s other production screened at the event, is a story of a young activist out to kill the CEO of a bad and evil chemical corporation. En route to his target, he meets an old man. His world begins to crumble as conversations unfold. The film that was first screened at Cannes 2015.

The music video set the tone for a discussion on whether corporations could ever behave as socially responsible entities.

“The music video speaks the language of today’s English-speaking youth who constitute a substantial chunk of Unilever’s consumer base,” T. M. Krishna said.

“With its punchy lyrics and fantastically pieced together visuals, the video has all the potential to go viral.”

Unilever spends USD8 billion on marketing itself as a socially responsible company – and even a day’s budget would be more than sufficient to start addressing its liabilities in Kodaikanal.

“Unilever prides itself in its image and is very active on social media, but it has done nothing to prevent this public relations nightmare from exploding,” Sonam Mittal, campaigner with Jhatkaa.org, said.

“For all its talk of social responsibility,” Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and social activist said, “Unilever has behaved no different from Union Carbide in Bhopal.”

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