Journalist, corporate communications professional, and environmental activist, all rolled into one is Ameer Shahul, who painstakingly carried out a thorough post-mortem of a two-decade-old poison case that scarred the ‘paradise’ called Kodaikanal in his absorbing story telling in his maiden book Heavy Metal.
Unilever, the global conglomerate, set up a factory in Kodai, a place with a salubrious climate to manufacture thermometers, raising hopes of jobs and prosperity. Within no time, it turned into a nightmare for hundreds of employees, who unknowingly got trapped in the deadly poisoning by mercury.
Thermometers contain mercury, whose expansion and contraction gives us the body temperature -- a positive application that all of us are aware of. But, the first time, I got a sense of the damage that the same mercury can cause was following a news story on high levels of mercury detected in one of the drinking water sources of Hyderabad city in the late 1980s.
The report quoting a study by researchers at the Osmania University put out by PTI got translated in Urdu newspapers as ‘Peene ka paani mein Zehar’ (Zehar meaning poison). The next day, scores of residents thronged the news agency office demanding the veracity and implications of the report. A quick connect with the researchers who claimed that the levels were higher than permissible limits but could be contained calmed down the worried people. I learnt then that severe mercury poisoning could cause Minamata disease, which affects the nervous system.
Ameer Shahul has brought the issue of environmental pollution and the ‘callous’ attitude of some MNCs in India back into focus for discussion. This he has achieved through meticulously documenting the entire saga of the mercury poisoning by the thermometer factory and its deleterious health consequences, the legal tangles, and the decades-long people’s struggle against the muscle of big corporations.
Starting from the infamous Bhopal Gas tragedy of December 1984 involving Union Carbide, global corporates have not endeared themselves to the cause and concern of the local environment or public health as they have focussed ruthlessly on exploiting low-cost labour to rake in big profits.
Despite juggling various careers over the past three decades, the author has kept a close track of the developments on the infamous chapter in India’s environmental history from the time it hit national headlines in 2001 with the unearthing of a massive dump of broken mercury thermometers at a local scrapyard in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. Shahul has marshalled his investigative skills, and contacts with Greenpeace, of which he is an activist, to pore over literature, reports, interviews with affected families to document and bring out the truth.
Heavy Metal takes off on a strong foundation, quoting the letter written by a group of 50 awardees of the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the Green Nobel, to the then CEO of Unilever Plc, Paul Polman, who was savouring the freshly gained recognition as the winner of the Champion of the Earth Award by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), asking Unilever to accept responsibility for the devastation of the pristine South Indian hill station of Kodaikanal, where hundreds of people were suffering from mercury related ailments since the 1980s.
In the chapters that follow in the 396-page book, the author weaves together a logically constructed argument with a plethora of documentary evidence, letters, reports, and legal proceedings to present a strong case on how the corporate colluded, tried to influence, hush up andany deny wrong doing.
Given the seriousness of the issue, reading the book requires patience. But ignoring these issues in the future can have disastrous consequences.
India is emerging as a global destination for manufacturing in the changing geopolitical scenario, hence the lessons from the book, especially the Kodai case, can be a lesson to be on guard and save the environment and avoid climate change impacts.
The book is a compelling read and Shahul must be commended for documenting an eminently forgettable environmental blot that had a tragicimpact on people’s health.
Check it out on Amazon.