It’s been over a decade since mercury hastily dumped by the Unilever’s mercury thermometer factory at Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu was first discovered.
In April this year, fourteen samples of lichen, moss and sediment still showed high levels of mercury.
Factory workers have been demanding compensation and rehabilitation for years, but it’s always fallen on deaf ears. After repeated calls for action to take responsibility for the effects of the dumping which is seen even today, Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf, has come out with a special song addressed to Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman.
Set to Nicki Minaj’s hit song “Anaconda”, Ashraf sings that Kodaikanal will not back down until Unilever steps up and takes responsibility.
Performed as a part of Justice Rocks, an annually-held event in Chennai that is used by youngsters to experess themselves and challenge corporate golobalisation, this year the focus has started with Unilever.
“It’s a zero budget video,” says Sofia with pride. Everyone pitched in and voluntarily decided to be a part of the video, she says.
She however, admits that though the video looks like a full frontal attack against the corporate, she decided to do her bit in the hope that some change would come of being a part of the video.
“I do believe in corporates. I believe they have a sense of liability attached to them. The people running this corporation are human beings with feelings too,” she says.
“Unilever is not evil,” she says adding that considering the corporate did speak of sustainability, it should be doing something for those affected in Kodaikanal.
Interestingly, this is not the first time Ashraf has been part of causes demanding corporate responsibility. In 2008, she was a part of Justice Rocks and sang “Don’t work for Dow” in a rap duel with Ajay Maniraj. Annuallly held, Justice Rocks functions like “Unsponsored Concerts” where instead of using corporate sponsors to conduct events , here in these events satire and an unsponsored format to reach out to youngsters.
“The reason Dirty Dow was held was because they were planning to recruit at Anna University and IIT. Close to 500 people attended the concert,” says environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman. Soon after, Dow themselves withdrew from visiting IIT for recruitments that year. Michigan-based Dow Chemicals had taken over Union Carbide in 2001
Sofia Ashraf singing “Don’t work for Dow”
Over the years, Justice Rocks has remained truthful to its cause. From its first event in 2007 called “Lever Fever” unsponsored by Unilever and “Chillout” on climate change unsponsored by the Fossil fuels industry, amateur musicians and standup comedians have voluntarily contributed their voice to reaching such social issues to a larger audience.
The music is catchy. The lyrics are meaningful. But why rap? Sofia Ashraf says that since she was more of a writer, she always preferred to rap. “Rapping for me is a chance to express and talk about things that mean something to me. Any rapper will rap only about things that matter to them,” she says.
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 rushed glass thermometers laced with mercury in 2001.
Mercury has a dangerous effect on the nervous, digestive and immune system and to lungs, kidneys, eyes. However, it is more dangerous as it biomagnifies as it climbs up from the bottom to the top of foodchain, reports the US Geological Survey.