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From Bhopal to Kodaikanal- Two stories of corporate culpability

English: Kodaikanal topo map

English: Kodaikanal topo map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Two stories of corporate culpability that have followed parallel trajectories.

When the annals of corporate accountability, culpability and negligence in India are compiled, the erstwhile Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) is sure to top the list. But not far behind will be Hindustan Unilever (HUL). On4 March, HUL reached an out-of-court settlement with 591 of its former employees from the now defunct thermometer plant in Kodaikanal. The very fact it did is an acknowledgement that the workers were exposed to occupational hazards, something it had stubbornly denied for over a decade.

The story of these two large multinationals, and their refusal to be held accountable, has followed a similar trajectory. UCC, now Dow Chemicals, was responsible for the disaster at its Bhopal fertiliser factory on 2 December 1984 that killed and maimed thousands and is still known as the world’s worst industrial disaster. Yet, 31 years after that cold winter night when methyl isocyanate (MIC) from the plant suffocated and killed thousands in one night and left many more impaired, the chapter is not closed. The deadly chemicals used in the plant have remained on the site of the closed unit, leaching into the groundwater and poisoning the soil.

The HUL story is similar, even if on a smaller scale. The company claims it is being magnanimous by settling with the workers. In fact, it has been forced to do so by a determined and concerted campaign over more than 14 years by environmental and workers’ groups. What finally seemed to have tipped the scales, it appears, is the wildly popular rap song by singer Sofia Ashraf titled “Kodaikanal Won’t” that got 3.5 million hits on the internet and triggered a torrent of tweets to the chief executive officer of Unilever, Paul  Polman. Without such international pressure, it is likely that the battle between the company and the workers would have dragged on in courts in India and abroad.

Also, as in Bhopal, while some monetary compensation has been given (glaringly inadequate in the case of Bhopal), in both cases the environmental fallout has not been addressed. UCC allowed lax standards in its Indian plant that would not have been permitted in the US, where it was registered. An accident was waiting to happen. And when it did, the company successfully pushed through a pitiful amount as compensation, and then stubbornly refused to pay any attention to the polluted soil in its closed plant.

In the case of HUL, Chesebrough-Pond’s relocated the mercury-based thermometer-producing factory to Kodaikanal from the US in 1983 because of stringent laws about the use of mercury in that country. In 1987, HUL inherited the factory as part of Unilever’s takeover of Chesebrough-Pond’s. No one would have known about the company’s violations of occupational health and environmental regulations if some alert local citizens had not discovered glass shards with traces of mercury in the forests near the plant. Thereafter, 5.3 tonnes of similar waste was found in a scrapyard. It is this discovery and the outrage amongst the local people that followed that led to the plant being closed, and HUL acknowledging that the scrap was disposed contrary to the company’s policy. What was clear even in 2001 was the company’s policy of denial, and only partial acknowledgement when faced with incontrovertible evidence. Even today, after settling with the workers who had filed cases in a court in India and one in London, the company remains in denial.

While compensation for negligence is one side of accountability, equally important is responsibility for clearing up the mess. In both Bhopal and Kodaikanal, the companies have tried to skirt around this issue. In 2003, determined campaigning by environmental groups in India and abroad compelled HUL to ship 290 tonnes of mercury waste from the factory’s surroundings to the US, the first case of “reverse dumping.” But this was not all of the waste. The soil in and around the factory still contains unacceptably high levels of mercury. HUL has agreed to deal with this. But instead of adopting standards it would have had to follow in the country where it is incorporated, the UK, it has chosen to stick by the far lower standards set by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, thereby exposing the hypocrisy of its extravagant claims of corporate responsibility.

While this murky history of multinational companies comes as no surprise, what we must also acknowledge is the laxity of our own institutions that are tasked to enforce pollution and occupational health standards. UCC and HUL are not the exceptions in India. Given the state of our enforcement agencies, hazardous industries across the board are cutting corners, endangering lives and poisoning our air, soil and water—and getting away with it.

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