New Media Helps Galvanize Tamil Nadu to Fight a Toxic Legacy

The eighth in a series of reports by Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center on the global implications of water, energy, and food challenges in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

KODAIKANAL, India – In the dogged community of eco-activists, journalists, local leaders, and artists that find common ground defending Tamil Nadu from rapacious development and rampant pollution, Nityanand Jayaraman stands out.

The only son of a central government Revenue Department administrator, Jayaraman spent his middle-class boyhood living in three Tamil Nadu cities where he developed an allegiance to justice and the earth. His undergraduate engineering degree from PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore and Master’s degree in journalism from Ohio University in the United States provided plenty of technical horsepower. The rest comes from within.

Tall and articulate, well-informed and restless, Jayaraman is highly regarded in southern India as an environmental writer and public interest activist. He is as equally adept at conducting penetrating investigations of institutional malfeasance and mismanagement as he is organizing demonstrations that force government and business executives to action.

That reputation has a clear starting date. On March 7, 2001, Jayaraman and several colleagues made public the findings of a three-month investigation of shoddy waste disposal practices at a thermometer manufacturing plant here owned by Unilever, the London-based consumer products multinational that makes Dove soap, Klondike ice cream bars, and other household goods. The calamity was unfolding in the unlikeliest place: a tourist town high in the Western Ghats, the forested mountain range that forms the border between Tamil Nadu and neighboring Kerala.

Jayaraman learned about the plant’s unsafe disposal practices from a friend who lived in Kodaikanal and worked for Greenpeace. With the help of another friend who was a photographer, he documented in pictures and video a seven-ton mound of broken, mercury-laced thermometers illegally stored under a blue tarp in a scrap yard in the middle of this hill town of 36,500 residents. The two also discovered empty barrels and mercury-contaminated wastes strewn on a steep hillside behind the factory.

Mercury is a proven neurotoxin capable of causing brain damage, liver and kidney injuries, birth defects, and systemic illnesses even at low levels of exposure.

“We knew how dangerous these wastes were, and how big this story could become,” Jayaraman said in an interview. “We let plant workers know what we found. We organized a big demonstration to make sure that it would be on television and the company could not deny it.”

A video shot that day shows hundreds of workers chanting and marching in protest through Kodaikanal to the plant gate on St. Mary’s Road. A young and vocal Jayaraman, then 32-years-old, is already there to confront one of Unilever’s senior Indian plant managers.

“Are you going to be taking responsibility as a responsible organization?” Jayaraman demands.

“I would not like to comment on this now. I’m not authorized to speak to you now,” the manager replies.

Jayaraman persists. The manager, aware that he’s being taped and the crowd surrounding him is growing larger, keeps talking and blurts a statement that is entirely unfounded. “There’s no waste which is going outside this factory,” he says.

A Turn in the Tide?

That day produced a cascade of notable consequences for Unilever workers, the company, Jayaraman, and especially for Tamil Nadu’s public interest community.

State investigations and intensive reporting by Jayaraman and other journalists laid bare a haphazard 18-year operating history that began when the plant opened in 1983. Kodaikanal was chosen for the plant because its cool mountain temperatures were supposed to make mercury much easier and safer to handle. The factory produced nearly 10 million mercury thermometers annually for markets in North America and Europe. But it did so with scant attention to safety.

“We knew how dangerous these wastes were, and how big this story could become”

Hundreds of workers complained about serious health effects from exposure to mercury. Workers concluded that mercury exposure led to at least 45 premature deaths among their colleagues, most of them in their 20s and 30s. Environmental investigators found mercury at elevated concentrations in land and water across Kodaikanal.

The story is not unique to Tamil Nadu, and India has a painful history of industrial accidents. Authorities and industrial executives have generally been slow to address mounting levels of water and air pollution during a three-decade-long push for resource-intensive, Western-style development.

The exposure at Kodaikanal in such a public way seemed to reverse some of this indifference in Tamil Nadu. Three weeks after the big demonstration in 2001, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board revoked the factory’s operating license and the plant shut down. Unilever formally closed the plant the following June.

Still, though the extent of the environmental contamination has been confirmed by state and university investigations and Unilever reached an out-of-court settlement in March 2016 to compensate 591 injured and deceased workers and their families, the company insists to this day that contamination was not as serious as authorities have said.

In a statement last September, Unilever asserted that its Indian plant managers “did not dump glass waste contaminated with mercury on land behind its factory. Glass scrap with residual mercury had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometers away from the factory, in breach of our guidelines. [Hindustan Unilever Limited] immediately closed the factory and launched an investigation. There were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment. This has been confirmed by many independent studies. There was limited impact on the soil at some spots within the factory premises which required remediation.”

A Broader Pattern

Jayaraman seethes at what he says are false assurances. The facts he and others say they confirmed about the extent of injuries and environmental contamination disprove the company’s assertions. But Unilever’s dismissive attitude mirrors the institutional insouciance that many of Tamil Nadu’s industrial companies and regulators display for safety practices and waste management oversight, even after the Kodaikanal incident. The result is dangerous and persistent contamination and pollution, especially of surface and groundwater reserves.

One instance is the Tamil Nadu Chromates and Chemicals Limited plant in Ranipet, north of Chennai, the state capital. The plant, which employed 500 people and manufactured chromium- and sulfur-based chemicals for the leather tanning industry, was closed by state authorities for excessive toxic contamination in 1995 after 20 years of operation. Almost nothing has been done to clean up 227,000 metric tons of chromium wastes, which, according to health studies, are toxic and carcinogenic.

“Toxic pollutants have permeated the Indian landscape, especially the waterways”

An investigation last year by The Hindu, a major Chennai newspaper, found that 1,000 acres of nearby farmland have been idled because groundwater is contaminated with chromium and too dangerous to use for irrigation. Water supplies for nearby villages are also contaminated. Although the national and state governments have identified Ranipet as a zone of intense toxic contamination, neither government has allocated funds for cleanup.

According to Pure Earth, a New York-based environmental group that works around the world to assist in toxic waste cleanups, “Toxic pollutants have permeated the Indian landscape, especially the waterways, where untreated industrial waste is often dumped. Add to this the estimated 32 billion liters (8 billion gallons) of untreated sewage that flows into the country’s rivers every day, and you have a ticking health bomb.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is aware of how resource-intensive development is scarring his nation, launched a national environmental cleanup program in 2014. But investment in clean air and water is not nearly sufficient.

How much might it cost? $50 billion, according to Govindasamy Agoramoorthy, a researcher at the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology. “Given the fact that the government alone cannot solve the pollution predicament, it is essential to reform policy so that a useful tri-sector partnership involving government, NGOs, and industries could be established to ease the crisis. Without it, India cannot escape from its enduring environmental nightmare,” he wrote in a prominent 2012 essay for Environmental Science and Technology.

So Much to Do

That last point is not lost on Jayaraman and the orbit of people from all parts of civil society that come in and out of his office in Chennai. Collectively, and often with Jayaraman serving as mentor, many have made a name for themselves by springing into action to curb existing threats and block new ones from arising across Tamil Nadu. Securing clean water and limiting water pollution are growing civic priorities.

Their work is endless. A succession of natural, man-influenced, and man-made disasters has battered the state over the last two years. A flood drowned most of Chennai in 2015, causing chemical and sewage waste lagoons to overflow into streets, streams, and the Bay of Bengal. A cyclone and the deepest drought in over a century struck in 2016, causing more damage to streams and forests and more disruption in freshwater supplies. Then in January 2017, two tanker ships collided in a channel north of Chennai, uncorking a huge spill of heavy oil that spread in thick mats onto beaches and damaged nearshore fisheries. Residents accused the Indian Coast Guard of being too slow to react.

Jayaraman was already involved in the area where the oil spill occurred. He and several young activists work with fishing communities to block and reverse the degradation of Ennore Creek, a wetland surrounded by coal-fired power stations and petrochemical plants.

He’s also been active with groups at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu, where the 2,000-megawatt Kudankulam power plant, India’s largest nuclear generating station, has attracted some of the country’s biggest environmental demonstrations over reactor safety concerns and discharges of heated water into fishing grounds.

In central Tamil Nadu, in the Cauvery Delta farm district of Neduvasal, an active opposition campaign has erupted over the national government’s approval of a private plan to develop oil and natural gas resources. Supported by local young people, thousands of farmers have demonstrated since mid-February against the development. Water pollution and air contamination in this water-scarce region are central concerns.

New Organizing Tools

Jayaraman has his hand in these and many other of Tamil Nadu’s most visible environmental clashes. His carefully reported and detailed article on hydrocarbon development in The Wire in February 2017 filled in needed details for local government officials and protesters in Neduvasal, for example.

More recently, Jayaraman and his allies have relied on graphic designers, web entrepreneurs, young artists, videographers, and photographers to disseminate details and messages in new ways.

“There are many others that are still fighting to change the system, and that is evident now more than before”

The protests at the Kudankulam nuclear plant gained credibility and energy from striking black and white photographs by Amirtharaj Stephen that have been widely displayed on the streets of the state’s southern cities.

The Ennore Creek protesters have been aided by a music video conceived by Jayaraman, “Chennai Poromboke Paadal,” that features T.M. Krishna, one of India’s most acclaimed singers. The video laments the damage caused by development and industrial pollution to the creek and estuary.

Frustrated by Unilever’s strategy of denying responsibility for injuries and damages to land and water at Kodaikanal, Jayaraman asked Chennai rapper Sofia Ashraf for help. She wrote a song critical of Unilever, and put it to the music of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” With Jayaraman’s help, Ashraf shot a three-minute video, “Kodaikanal Won’t,” and posted it to YouTube in July 2015. The video went viral and received international media attention after Minaj saw it and tweeted her appreciation to nearly 20 million fans.

Unilever scrambled into action, assuring its investors of the company’s commitment to socially responsible business practices. It also convened talks with injured workers and the families of deceased workers. The out-of-court settlement was reached the following March.

Influential citizen movements like these are steadily pushing Tamil Nadu industries to be more mindful of their operating practices.

“There have been some changes at the policy level,” said Jayaraman. “The Central Pollution Control Board has issued guidelines for affixing liability for remediation of contaminated sites. The National Program for Remediation of Polluted Sites has taken on the remediation of eight contaminated sites nationally as a priority. The Central Pollution Control Board has identified 33 sites, including Kodaikanal, in its list of contaminated sites awaiting cleanup.”

But the 16-year struggle with Unilever is a clear example that progress is grudging. Ultimately, Jayaraman said, government needs to more eagerly embrace its responsibilities to regulate companies and enforce the law. “Corporate behavior will not change unless companies see a credible deterrent in the form of stringent enforcement of liability for environmental violations.”

With so many instances of serious pollution, it is natural to ask whether Tamil residents will throw up their hands, but Jayaraman insists the opposite is true – public support for environmental accountability is only growing.

“It is not the case that Tamil residents have grown weary,” said Jayaraman. “Some communities may have lapsed into silence, but there are many others that are still fighting to change the system, and that is evident now more than before.”

The conflicting demand for water, food, and energy is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. Global Choke Point, a collaboration between Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center, explores the peril and promise of this nexus with frontline reporting, data, and policy expertise. “Choke Point: Tamil Nadu” is supported by the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai. Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth Trust, Nityanand Jayaraman, and Amirtharaj Stephen provided expertise and invaluable guidance. 

Keith Schneider is senior editor and chief correspondent at Circle of Blue and helped develop the Global Choke Point project. A two-time winner of the George Polk Award and other honors for his work, he also reports on energy, agriculture, the environment, and policy for The New York Times, where he has served as a national correspondent and contributor since 1981.

Sources: Basel Action Network, Environmental Science & Technology, jhatkaa, The Hindu, Pure Earth, The Logical Indian, Unilever, Vettiver Collective, The Wire.

Photo Credit: Used with permission courtesy of Dhruv Malhotra and Amirtharaj Stephen.