Would it be a stretch to say we are more at risk from scientists without integrity and crony regulators than we are from mercury or other toxic chemicals?

Prakash Javadekar at Parliament house during the monsoon session in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Prakash Javadekar at Parliament house during the monsoon session in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

It is not just the Ambanis and Adanis that have friends in high places. Recent developments suggest that Hindustan Unilever (HUL) too has influential friends who are willing to go beyond the call of duty to help it. On December 29, 2015, former minister of state for environment Prakash Javadekar added another act to demonstrate how he won’t allow environmental concerns or due process to hinder the “ease of doing business”. In a letter to Rajya Sabha MP Anbumani Ramadoss, Javadekar had recommended that “instead of deliberating further on the proposed [clean-up standard] … the existing recommendation of CPCB which has all scientific basis needs to be complied with and remediation procedure needs to be initiated.” The letter additionally claims that “the reports of the Scientific Experts Committee [SEC] and CPCB vis-a-vis the standards prevalent in other countries have been examined in the Ministry.”

This letter (view in full here) was submitted by the Union Government’s counsel to the Madras High Court on July 12, 2016, in support of a plea by HUL where it asked the court to direct the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to approve 20 mg/kg as a standard for cleaning up Unilever’s mercury contamination in Kodaikanal.

Javadekar’s letter is problematic at many levels. First, by demanding an end to deliberations on the proposed clean up standard, it suggests that discussions till date are complete and comprehensive and that nothing new can be added at this stage. Second, by endorsing the recommendation of CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) as one with “all scientific basis”, it seeks to dismiss the concerns of Kodaikanal residents and environmentalists as unscientific nonsense.

The words “science” and “scientific” are often used as weapons to dismiss public opinion, and exclusivise decision-making. It suggests that only institutional scientists are capable of practising science, and that public concerns are by and large unscientific until proven otherwise by institutional scientists. The Kodaikanal case study, however, hints at how integrity is integral to science, and that where such integrity is lacking, public scrutiny and participation may be the only tools that can prevent commercial decisions from passing off as science.

A point-by-point examination of the assertions by Javadekar will demonstrate that “ease of doing business” is merely a euphemistic phrase for “crony capitalism”.

A history

In 1983, a second-hand mercury thermometer factory was shut down in New York and relocated to Kodaikanal. The factory location is surrounded by biodiverse forests which form the catchment of the River Vaigai. In 2001, the factory, which was owned and operated by HUL, was shut down for serious environmental violations. HUL later admitted to having discharged more than 1.3 tonnes of mercury into the nearby forest. Mercury is a deadly poison that affects the brain, kidneys and the developing foetus. Just one gram a year deposited atmospherically over a 20-acre lake can over the years render the lake fish too poisonous for consumption.

The contaminated factory site continues to leak mercury into the neighbouring Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. Local residents and environmentalists want the factory to be cleaned up till no mercury is left.

Since 2007, HUL and its consultant, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), are insisting on a clean-up that will leave behind 20-25 mg of mercury in every kilo of soil. They claim this is sufficiently protective of human and ecosystem health.

In 2002, HUL had proposed 10 mg/kg as the appropriate standard to protect human health. NEERI’s argument for diluting the standard from the originally proposed number is revealing: “… techno-commercial aspects are also to be considered … The benefits likely to accrue out of stricter norms are to be compared against the additional cost [to Unilever] that may be incurred while undertaking such projects.”

Ironically, HUL’s proposal is 20-25-times weaker than the levels considered safe for residents in the UK where Unilever is headquartered. NEERI’s proposal was summarily approved by the SEC without demur. It is this SEC that is referred to in Javadekar’s letter. And it is this standard that was first proposed in 2007 that Javadekar is pushing for.

Deliberations ongoing

Javadekar’s suggestion that no further meaningful deliberations on the subject are likely is incorrect. Indeed, a number of recent developments including within the Ministry indicate that far greater clarity has emerged on the manner in which remediation should be conducted.

In October 2015, Bala Barathi, a state legislator from Dindigul – a constituency in the foothills of Kodaikanal – wrote a strongly worded letter to the TNPCB. “The unquestioning acceptance of Unilever’s substandard clean-up proposal by the Scientific Experts Committee has thrown into question the expertise and integrity of the Committee members,” she said, urging the TNPCB to seek a second opinion from independent scientists.

All three scientists who submitted written opinions upon TNPCB’s request questioned the methods and assumptions used to derive the clean-up standard, and recommended a far more stringent remediation to reduce soil mercury to naturally occurring background levels. A view on these opinions is pending, even as TNPCB remains without a chairperson for the third consecutive month.

Based on science?

Did CPCB have all the scientific basis needed to recommend 20 mg/kg as a standard? Did the ministry, as indicated in Javadekar’s letter, actually have access to reports from the CPCB and SEC on the matter?

The SEC till date has not offered any argued opinion to the TNPCB. And going by CPCB’s own admission to an RTI question, it appears that the CPCB too has not relied on any scientific method to arrive at its recommendation. Theresponse dated November 13, 2015, states: “CPCB has not conducted any meeting with stakeholders for fixing of standards for cleanup of contaminated sites at Kodaikanal. Further, CPCB has not sought participation of scientist, scientific bodies and members of TNPCB to advice on clean-up process.”

Since CPCB’s recommendation was sent to TNPCB in April 2015, much has happened. On December 22, 2015, a week before Javadekar’s letter to Ramadoss, the Ministry of Environment & Forests received the final draft of a document titled “Guidance Document for Assessment & Remediation of Contaminated Sites in India.” In January 2016, CPCB published the “Guidelines on Implementing Liabilities for Environmental Damages due to Handling & Disposal of Hazardous Waste and Penalty.”

The latter document notes that “… in the absence of an Indian specific criteria, alternative accepted criteria such as the Dutch standards, Canadian standards and/or USEPA standards may be used.” MoEF’s “Guidance Document” in turn recommends a Canadian standard of 6.6 mg/kg for soil mercury in residential/parkland areas. Both the environment ministry and CPCB documents state that if the site is located in an ecologically sensitive area, the target level should be made more stringent.

The guidelines contained in both documents, if followed diligently, will pave the way for a world-class remediation with high standards for clean-up, public participation and enforcement of polluter pays. When world-class is within reach, why are CPCB and Javadekar keen on short-circuiting the ongoing deliberations in TNPCB? What motivates our public servants and elected officials to sell India short and allow Unilever to get away with a clean-up that would not be allowed in the country it is headquartered in?

Would it be too much of a stretch to say that we are more at risk from scientists without integrity and crony regulators than we are from mercury or any other toxic chemical?

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. He has been involved in the campaign to hold Unilever accountable for its mercury pollution in Kodaikanal since 2001.