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Toxic Tours

Toxic Tours - IV: Mercury rising in Kodaikanal

By Shailendra Yashwant

Broken mercury thermometers and other toxic waste from the thermometer-manufacturing plant in Kodaikanal can be found in waste-pits alongside the factory premises and in scrapyards bang in the middle of the town. Even as Greenpeace and other agencies investigate the problem, the placid residents of this picturesque hill station seem unaware of the consequences of mercury contamination.

Text and photographs by Shailendra Yashwant

I was visiting Kodaikanal in Tamilnadu after a very long time. The last time I was up in these hills as a youngster, I had just finished the classic Lord of the Rings and I imagined I saw hobbits behind every tree in these tall cool tropical forests.

This time I was pursuing another bizarre tale: Kodi, a contaminated toxic hotspot. It was hard to believe but I had been persuaded to investigate a depository of unknown quantities of waste mercury. My friend drew an analogy of a sponge soaked in mercury when he spoke of Kodi and he was dead serious.

It's a pleasant six-hour drive from the temple town of Madurai in the plains to Kodi. You gain height suddenly and drastically and by the time you have passed the small board identifying the 'Tiger Shola', you are surrounded by tall tropical evergreen forests, which act as watersheds for the streams and lakes of the plains .

Kodi is a school town. Boarding schools, day schools, convent schools, missionary schools, students and scholars thrive in Kodi; it's quaint, quiet and peaceful. Even the hard-core picnickers like the weekend crowd from Coimbatore and Chennai are calm and muted up here. The towering forests with a permanent mist hanging over them, give Kodi a very peculiar character.

So does the TV tower, which incidentally stands out like a huge arrow marking out our eventual destination. The TV tower is to the northwest of the town, which spreads itself across the various ridges of the Palni hills, connected by steep and narrow roads. The segregated Sholas have been christened with names like Tiger, Bombay, Pambar (Snake) by the Kodi
residents. The Shola behind the TV tower is known as the Pambar Shola, after the small stream and waterfall Pambar that flows through it.

Adjoining the TV tower is Hindustan Lever's (HLL) mercury thermometer manufacturing plant, a 100% export-oriented unit. Every single thermometer manufactured in this facility is exported to the US and the waste-mercury, primarily from broken thermometers from the strict quality control points, is usually stored in landfills on the factory site.

The factory has been in operation for over 15 years in Kodi and the measure of its impact on the local population is that almost every fifth resident is either an ex-worker or associated with the factory in some way or the other. They know it as the Ponds factory, because of its previous ownership. HLL, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch multinational, Unilever, acquired it in working condition from its previous owner in a well-known early corporate merger.

Mercury shot into infamy following the spread of what was know as the 'cats dancing disease' in the small fishing village of Minamata in Japan in the 1950s. The strange disease that inflicted humans and animals alike was the result of heavy metal poisoning caused by eating fish and shell fish contaminated by mercury. The symptoms included uncontrolled convulsions, loss of control over limbs, trouble swallowing, writing or doing any daily chores. The villain of the piece was an acetaldehyde-manufacturing unit that was discharging its waste mercury into the Minamata bay.

Minamata exemplifies the first-ever case of environmental devastation caused by toxic chemicals. It is now a well-researched and documented fact that mercury affects the human brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver. The liquid metal, which most of us know as the silver liquid inside thermometers, is particularly dangerous to foetuses, women of child-bearing years, pregnant women and young children.

The Pambar Shola, like other Sholas here, is a unique tall forest, teeming with biodiversity. As we slip-slid our way down the steep outfall under majestic trees through the mist, I was joined by the ever-present holy cow, which showed me a shortcut through the forest department fencing. From there we scrambled our way back to the top behind the factory walls.

The rusting blue barrel was a dead giveaway. On closer examination it revealed discarded bottles of raw mercury, product of Bethlehem, a US firm, broken thermometers, some of which were burnt off with tar, and assorted typical chemical-industry garbage. The undergrowth was thick and littered with over-the-wall discards. There was no way we could have even started digging for waste-pits, three or four of which were alleged to be situated behind the factory. Worried about the degree of contamination and lack of our own protection-gear, we beat a hasty retreat.

At the next stop I saw the inanity of our earlier fears. Welcome to reality TV.We were in middle of Kodi town, a thickly-populated area set in terraces along the hills. We stopped one level below the top of the beautiful church. A narrow street past eateries and small shops led us to the scrap-yard, a small, open-air temple to the famous recycling industry of India.

Amongst assorted steel and wood, industrial and household discards, roughly divided in Bad, Worse and Worst categories, were at least five visible sacks of broken thermometers.

The unmistakable crushed and broken white glass of thermometers glittered in the sun. Near the gate was an open sack spilling more of these thermometers. A closer look revealed small glinting black balls of mercury all the way across the street that looked over the lower level of this terrace.

Apparently, faced with a labour-problem, and unable to dig pits on the recently notified forest behind the factory, a supervisor hit upon the recycling idea. The broken thermometers from the factory were sold to the scrap merchant who in turn, using his marketing savvy, unleashed it on unsuspecting customers. The primary use was of course for effective fencing. These small and dangerous glass-pieces sprinkled over walls were a good way to keep petty thieves and rowdy kids at bay. A few migrant bangle-makers are said to have used the same glass to blow bangles. And god alone knows what else!

My earlier experience as an ambulance-chasing news photographer has dulled my sense of reaction to any kind of visual catastrophe, but those diminutive mercury balls rolling around in the soil around the scrapyard had me suitably intimidated. Even my friend, recently educated on the dangers of mercury contamination, was a little wary about prodding more bags.

As we drove back through the forest down the hills the next day, the analogy of the sponge soaked in mercury seemed apt and gave me the shivers. Another aspect that disturbed me immensely about Kodi was the complete ignorance and apathy amongst its seemingly educated and concerned people, from the scrap merchant to those behind the high walls protected by the glass-pieces.

We started seeking out ex-workers. Local connections led us to a number of them who had recently come out of the closet to confess a variety of physical disorders. Some complained of nervous disorders like palpitation, anxiety, everything from skewed blood pressure to inability to conceive. As stories about the working conditions in the factory began pouring out, people started talking and the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC), Greenpeace and a number of other local groups began to get proactive.

Ironically, mercury thermometers are being phased out in the US, in recognition of the danger of having even a small quantity of the deadly mercury for household use. More and more large stores sell the safer digital thermometers.

Another twist in the mercury saga, interestingly linked to the Kodi story, was the rejection of a shipment of waste-mercury from Maine, USA, by the Indian government, following a vociferous protest by citizens' groups both in India and the US. When environmental watch groups in Maine discovered that huge quantities of waste-mercury from a local plant were slotted for dumping in India, they quickly alerted local groups in India and together brought pressure on their respective governments to stop the trade in hazardous waste, the bane of the third world.

Interestingly a local paper was quick to point out the link between the American waste mercury and the Kodi plant. Unfortunately, the reporter failed to ask the most obvious question: what does the Kodi plant do with its waste?

I bade farewell to my friends and new acquaintances in Kodi, who were setting out for a long and bitter battle with yet another multinational: demanding a clean-up and liability for the damages they had caused to the environment and health of the people of Kodaikanal.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)