“I suffered from nose bleeding and headaches. And to top it all, I have been having fertility problems since I worked in the plant,” says SA Mahendra Babu with a wistful smile. He was narrating his story at the Kaviko Arangam in Teynampet on Saturday, telling us about the after-effects of his stint at Hindustan Unilever’s factory in Kodaikanal, which permanently affected not only him, but over 500 others. All of them once worked at the multinational's mercury thermometer manufacturing factory at the hill-station in Tamil Nadu.
The story of their unending woes goes back to 1983, when a mercury thermometer plant owned by Ponds closed down in the United States of America, and was moved to Kodaikanal after protests back home. India was virtually unaware of the liquid metal's toxic effects.
Acquired by Unilever’s subsidiary Hindustan Lever Limited, the factory was shut down after the discovery of a dumpsite containing 7.4 tons stockpile of crushed glass thermometers laced with mercury in 2001.
Navroz Mody, a 67 year-old Parsi originally hailing from Mumbai, currently living in Pondicherry, deposed before the Supreme Court mandated monitoring committee which was set up to look into the company’s wrongdoings. Then a neighbour of the HUL factory in Kodaikanal, Mody was among the first to notice waste-mercury lying on the floors of a scrap dealer's shop in 2001."When I first saw streaks of mercury at the shop in Kodaikananal, I thought it was the nearby hospital that was dumping used thermometers," he says, recalling the scene entrenched in his memory.
Soon enough he saw that a few blocks away, rising in piles up to the height of a two-storey building, were heaps of the same mercury laced glass waste. “Some of the mercury was sold to these glass bangle makers, because it provides an added cloudy effect in the bangles,” he says, chuckling at the thought of women wearing mercury-filled bangles. The scrap dealer told him then that the mercury was being sold at Rs 1 or 2 per kg and was being transported as scrap to neighbouring Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
Navroz Mody, at the panel discussion in Chennai
According to Dr. Rakhal Gaitonde, a public health expert, the evidence of mercury's damage to the environment and the workers was there for all to see. "At every level of exposure to mercury, there is some sort of damage. Threshold values of mercury which can cause harmful effects is 50 mg/ml, but recent studies show that it can cause problems in nervous system even at lower levels of exposure. Mercury has a tendency to accumulate in the body and the actual symptoms of the effects can develop even decades after the exposure. We have data to show that urine tests of workers showed exposure values as high as 300 mg/ml as well. What more evidence is needed to get compensation and rehabilitation for these workers?" he asks.
The factory produced 163 million thermometers using 900 kg of mercury annually. With thermometers exported back to the US and Europe, the toxic wastes remained in Kodaikanal. According to Babu, at least 104 female workers and wives of men working at the factory suffer from gynaecological problems. At least 30 people like Babu have been deemed infertile. At least 50, including 14 children, have died up to 2015, he says.
After the discovery, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered all the waste dumped in Kodaikanal to be sent back to the US. So in 2003, 289 tons of waste mercury was shipped off. "This was a significant development and the Tamil Nadu government was quite proactive then, but they seem to have slowed down now," says Dr DB Boralkar, a former member of the Supreme Court monitoring committee on Hazardous Wastes.
The same year mercury-waste was first found, one of the workers also chanced upon a packaging label which detailed the harmful effects of the mercury. “It mentioned that it could affect eyesight, kidneys, etc. If we had known this earlier, we would not even have worked for them,” says Babu. Ironically, one of the conditions mandatory for employment at the factory, he says, was perfect eyesight, “We got a year’s training from experts who came down from the US.”
A scrapyard where mercury was found in Kodaikanal
In 2011, At least 84 people were examined by an independent government body from the Inspector of Factories following allegations of the mercury poisoning. Later the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board shut the plant down after finding more dumped waste beyond the factory premises – in the forests of Kodaikanal. Following this, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee ordered Unilever to clean up their act. Though the TNPCB allowed the remaining equipment to be disposed to scrap dealers, what remained irreversible was the presence of the metal in the environment and bodies of workers who worked there.
According to environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, samples taken by the Department of Atomic energy at the Berijum lake, a reservoir about 20 km from thermometer factory, also showed presence of mercury. Even an environmental audit by Unilever states that at least 300 kg of mercury was discharged into the nearby Pambar Shola forests.
Dr. Usha Ramananthan, a senior legal scholar who has been following the case since its inception, felt that even in cases where there were proper regulations, the enforcement by the state or centre was poor.
“Companies like these literally walked away with murder, and to have no consequences for that,” she says, her voice trailing off. Workers were taught mandatory procedures like washing up before leaving the factory premises for lunch or home. “But they had 30 minutes for lunch. They would hurriedly wash up and eat,” she said explaining how incorrect post-factory cleanup by workers resulted in the toxic metal being transferred to the homes of the workers.
The Kodaikanal factory, which worked in two shifts, had at least 300 workers functioning at a single time. “The attrition rate was enormous. It was not that the workers would move on to other jobs. They were just not able to work after a point because they used to fall sick,” said Usha, pointing out that the factory had over 1,100 workers in its entire operation in India.
According to reports, just four days back, another worker from HUL, R Ganeshan, aged 39, died due to kidney failure allegedly from the effects of mercury. Working from 1991-93, he was one of the few to have demanded compensation in a case filed at the Madras High Court.
The situation seems to have remained the same over the years. “What we want is a clear policy which works for the economic rehabilitation for workers affected by the harmful effects of chemicals in industries,” says Mahendra Babu.
(Pictures courtesy: www.kodaimercury.org, Archanaa Seker)