After a rap on its knuckle, Hindustan Unilever better walk the talk on its CSR claims

A Chennai rapper takes Hindustan Unilever to task for its toxic mess in Kodaikanal.
A Chennai rapper takes Hindustan Unilever to task for its toxic mess in Kodaikanal.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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Hindustan Unilever (HUL) spends big bucks on corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. The Indian unit of the global consumer giant Unilever is one of the few firms in India that actually spends 2% of its profits—as mandated by the country’s laws—on social initiatives ranging from women’s empowerment to environmental sustainability. Nearly two-thirds of Indian firms failed to do so last year.

In fact, in April this year, HUL said it would spend Rs100 crore ($15.6 million) on an initiative to conserve water.

But when it comes to cleaning up its own very toxic mess, the company hasn’t been so quick to open its coffers.

Last week, a video by Chennai-based rapper Sofia Ashraf highlighted how HUL—India’s largest fast-moving consumer goods firm—has failed its responsibility towards its workers and the environment in the verdant south Indian hill station of Kodaikanal where it once operated a thermometer manufacturing facility.

In 2001, locals and workers accused the company of dumping massive amounts of deadly mercury waste in the areas around its property and forced HUL to close down the plant. But 14 years have passed and the soil is still full of mercury, a fact that experts attribute to the lack of stringent environment laws in India.

An HUL spokesperson told Quartz in an emailed statement that the Kodaikanal issue is a long-standing case and that the company would like to see it resolved for all involved.

“There is still work to do here—which we are committed to fulfilling—as soon as a decision on the level of remediation required is taken by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and consent (is) given by them to start the soil remediation,” the spokesperson said.

“We have acted in a transparent and responsible manner since the issue first arose in 2001, when we immediately closed the factory on our own and launched an investigation,” the company added.

However, local activists claim that there is a nexus between the corporates and the government, and no independent assessment has been carried out in the area to gauge the impact of the contamination.

“As far as environmental issues are concerned in India, the person with might always wins. There is no will to enforce laws. India is a slave to corporates,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and activist.

How it started

This mess may sound the death knell for the lush shola forests that surround Kodaikanal.

The thermometer manufacturing factory was set up next to these highly bio-diverse forests in Kodaikanal by the American firm Chesebrough-Pond’s in 1983 to produce thermometers that were exported to the US before being sold to other markets. That facility was then taken over by HUL in 1998 after it merged with Pond’s India.

However, in 2001, locals and the non-governmental organisation Greenpeace discovered a scrapyard filled with about 7.4 tonnes of mercury waste, largely comprising crushed glass with mercury inside, located close to a school. They sourced this waste to the HUL plant. 

It was also revealed that the company had been dumping some of the mercury in the shola forests located on its property. HUL shut down the facility in 2001 and was forced to clean up the scrapyard, extracting some 5.3 tonnes of mercury waste that it admitted had originated from the plant.

But environmental activists and locals maintain that the dangerous wastes were spread across a far larger area that remains uncleaned to this day. Earlier this year, a study conducted by the NGO Community Environmental Monitoring revealed that lichen, moss and sediment samples taken from areas near the site of the factory contained dangerously high levels of mercury.

Cotton overalls as protection

Mercury is extremely toxic and causes severe damage to the body if absorbed, particularly to the kidney and the brain, resulting in life-long disabilities and even death. It is especially dangerous for pregnant women and can lead to the birth of children who are brain dead.

“Kidney damage has caused a lot of deaths in Kodaikanal, especially among young boys who were in their 20s and worked in the factory,” said Jayaraman.

While HUL has said that its workers did not face any adverse health effects from working with mercury, ex-workers have said that the company did not follow appropriate safety procedures while the plant was open, with employees given cotton overalls and caps as their only protection.

Some reports suggest that more than 30 people, as well as 12 children, have died since the plant shut down.

In June this year, ex-workers from the HUL factory gathered outside the company’s headquarters in Mumbai to protest the dangerously high levels of mercury that continue to endanger the lives of those who live and work in the vicinity.

Lack of laws

HUL’s apparent negligence in the Kodaikanal case echoes other instances of environment abuse by Indian corporations that continue to remain unresolved, largely because of an absence of regulations and laws to hold companies accountable.

“In India, there is no estimation of the number of contaminated sites. There are set standards for water contamination but we don’t have a definition for for soil and land contamination. There needs to be certain parameters which can tell if the land is contaminated,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment. He also heads the industry and environment programme.

“There also needs to be an enabling law that says who is liable for contamination and who should clean it,” Bhushan told Quartz.

According to Bhushan, chromium contamination is rampant in the city of Kanpur, because of the many tanneries that operate in the area.

“The grey area here is that there are no laws governing this. Bhopal is a classic case—the most iconic industrial pollution site. We were not able to hold Union Carbide liable for the environmental damage, although they paid the victims. So there is this big legal gap to hold companies liable,” Bhushan said.

A report (pdf) by professor and ecologist Madhav Gadgil in 2011 also highlighted how industrialisation is endangering forests in the Western Ghats with many factories pumping toxic waste in the groundwater through bore wells.

Gadgil, speaking to Quartz, specifically pointed to the case studies of the Lote village in Maharashtra and Plachimada in Kerala, where the impact of industrial contamination was high. In Lote, three such incidents were brought to light, but no action has been taken, the report noted.

But while the legal framework remains patchy, perhaps it is time that HUL and its ilk walk the talk when it comes to CSR.