16 May, 2015. CHENNAI — Prompted by the lingering legacy of mercury pollution by Hindustan Unilever’s now-closed mercury thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, social activists and policy advocacy groups in Chennai have called for a national policy for cleaning up polluted sites and compensating people affected by pollution. The call was made at a panel discussion titled “Unilever’s Toxic Legacy in Kodaikanal – Towards Clean-up and Compensation.”
Expert panelists, including Dr. D.B. Boralkar (Member, Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on Hazardous Wastes), legal scholar Dr. Usha Ramanathan and public health expert Dr. Rakhal Gaitonde, responded to presentations by representatives of pollution-impacted communities from Kodaikanal, Cuddalore and Kodungaiyur.
All three presentations highlighted how indigent victims were required to prove pollution and health effects while scientific and academic institutions either remained silent or worked with the polluter. “The state has an industrial policy and will facilitate the setting up of polluting factories even if it required forcible acquisition of land. But when the factories end up hurting the environment or people, the state is absent and people are left to suffer for decades,” the organisers said.
Dr. Ramanathan underscored the sentiment saying, “Disaster, risk, toxicity, hazardous substances – these are all now acknowledged as being part of the running of industry. Yet, when workers and those in the vicinity of the hazard become victim to the industrial process, they are faced with denial, neglect and a policy of abandonment. Rather than mitigate the harm done, the offending company sets about mitigating any fallout on its reputation. This is what we saw in Bhopal, and this what we are seeing in Kodaikanal.”
Dr. Boralkar said that detailed recommendations for remediation of contaminated sites have already been submitted by the SCMC to and accepted by the Apex Court. Pointing out that he had personally visited the Kodaikanal site in 2004, he said that the Tamil Nadu Government had set a precedent in ensuring the export of nearly 300 tonnes of mercury wastes to the US. “The Tamil Nadu Government should regain that lost momentum and set an example for the nation by now carrying out comprehensive clean up in Kodaikanal using the framework of science, public participation and polluter pays,” he said.
Dr. Gaitonde pointed out that when it comes to human health, if it is established that people have been exposed to toxins, a amechanism to provide for monitoring, interim medical assistance and economic assistance should automatically kick in. “Nearly 15 years after the factory shut down, we still do not have a realistic estimate of the damage to workers, their families and the environment of Kodaikanal. This despite a number of cases of premature death among workers and childhood abnormalities in their families. The minimum that is required is a credible assessment of the health impacts of the toxins on workers, their families and the community in Kodaikanal,” he said.
Unilever, for its part, admits to having contaminated the factory site and its surroundings with mercury. However, while its studies show that water, land and vegetation in and around the factory are poisoned, it claims that its workers have escaped exposure and suffer from no health effects attributable to mercury.
Organised by Indian Institute of Public Policy, Poovulagin Nanbargal and The Other Media.
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