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Children of a lesser god?

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  13 March 2016 12:00 AM GMT


D. N. Bezboruah

Afew days ago, there was news about how Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) had agreed to compensate nearly 600 former employees who had been exposed to toxic mercury in a thermometer factory that had been relocated from New York to Kodaikal in Tamil du by another investor in 1984 following environmental concerns in the United States. The thermometer factory, located in Kodaikal (about 430 km from Cheni), had to be shut down in 2011 after Greenpeace activists found mercury waste in the garbage dumps of the hill town. As many as 591 workers of the thermometer factory had alleged that they were exposed to toxic vapour in the production stage, causing severe ailments. The workers had launched class action litigation against exposure to hazardous chemicals stating that no warning had been issued to them by the company. Thereafter HUL came to an understanding with the ex-workers association on March 4 this year. On March 9, the settlement was recorded before the first bench of the Madras High Court, which appointed lawyer Suhrith Parthasarathy as the nodal Commissioner to implement the settlement. The employees’ association lawyer, R. Vaigai said, “a substantial amount would be paid to each of the 591 workers of the company as ex-gratia payment, along with other compensations entitled to them.” However, she declined to give details of the settlement saying that the matter was still in the court. The Madras High Court has directed the company to disburse the settlement amount before March 28, the next date of hearing.

Anyone who imagines that the fight is over is sadly mistaken. “There will now be a global campaign to ensure that Unilever cleans up the mercury-contamited site in Kodaikal up to intertiol standards,” said environment activist Nityand Jayaraman. According to environment activists, up to 25 milligrammes of mercury per kilogram of soil will be left behind after the clean-up. This is about 250 times higher than turally occurring background levels, and will harm the environment, especially because the factory site is located on a ridge surrounded by the densely forested Kodaikal Wildlife Sanctuary, according to the activists. The thermometer factory came into the HUL fold in 1987 when the Anglo-Dutch parent Unilever acquired Chesebrough Ponds.

This is yet another case of gross discrimition in thinking of what is permissible in respect of ‘citizens’ of the United States on the one hand and human beings of a country like India or any other second- or third-world country. The thermometer factory of New York had to be relocated somewhere else in the world because it was inconceivable that citizens of the United States of America should be subjected to the toxic conditions that a thermometer factory could create. So, as soon as it was discovered that the thermometer factory could create toxic conditions, it was moved to Kodaikal in Tamil du. There were people trying to tell the world that what was ucceptable for the US in terms of the health of human beings, was perfectly in order in countries like India! In other words, here was an attempt to tell the world that life was cheap in India, and therefore, one could cut corners with issues like toxicity and what such toxicity could do to the lives of people. The one major mistake that HUL made was to locate the thermometer factory in Tamil du rather than somewhere in one of the northern States of India. HUL must have realized rather late in the day that Tamilians are, by and large, a smarter and more intelligent lot, and will not tolerate anyone trying to fool around with their lives. What is perhaps even more important is that south Indians tend to be better informed about their legal and constitutiol rights than most other people and the level and promptness of legal aid is better in the south than it is in the north. Not only has HUL been compelled to close down its thermometer factory in Kodaikal, but the 591 workers of the plant had maged to secure “substantial amounts” from HUL “as ex-gratia payment along with other compensations entitled to them.” We are not yet aware of what the “substantial amounts” are, but it is safe to hazard a guess that these amounts are bound to be far less than what 591 American workers would of been able to extract from the company if the thermometer factory had been located in New York and if mercury waste had been found in garbage heaps anywhere in the United States. That is how the cost of human lives is assessed in the present-day world: by how much an individual worker can be expected to earn within a predictable lifespan and in the country where the worker lives. Since salaries and wages in the United States are far higher than what people earn in India, the life of an Indian worker will invariably be regarded as much cheaper than the life of a worker in the United States. Among the things that have not been worked out satisfactorily is what the cost of an Indian life would be if the Indian happened to be working in the United States.

The episode of the thermometer factory of Kodaikal in Tamil du took me back to the Bhopal gas tragedy that took place in the small hours of December 3, 1984. It was a tragedy that was caused by Union Carbide’s subsidiary pesticide plant in the city that accidentally released 42 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyate (MIC) gas, exposing more than 500,000 people to the toxic gas. Thousands died immediately from the effects of the gas. Many more were trampled in the panic that followed. The official death toll was 2,259. But another estimate is that 8,000 people died within two weeks plus an additiol 8,000 who died in the months following. The Bhopal gas tragedy has been listed as the world’s worst industrial disaster. That was the first time I realized the vast difference in the estimated cost of human lives across the world. That was the first time I realized how cheap first world countries regard life to be in second and third world countries. Four years after the tragedy the Supreme Court of India reached a settlement with Union Carbide. The company had to pay $470 million to the Indian state. That this amount was chicken feed for the company is best underscored by the fact that at that time Union Carbide had a turnover of about $9.5 billion—20 times the amount Union Carbide was required to pay to India. In return, there would be no prosecutions. I still remember that the verdict was announced not in open court but ‘in camera’. I have never been able to understand why the highest court in the country should be uble to announce a major verdict in open court.

This brings us to the question of why a country like India, with the kind of information technology at its command, should repeatedly fail to prevent foreign investors from setting up plants and factories in our country that they would not set up in their own countries because of the health hazards associated with the intended products. The only ratiol explation for such gross errors of judgment is that despite all our pious talk about India being the world’s largest democracy, the government has still not been able to evince the kind of respect for people that one has a right to expect in a democracy. The culture of governce in the country is still strongly influenced by the colonial culture that our bureaucracy imbibed from our British rulers. As a result, the common man in India cannot expect even elementary consideration as a human being, not to speak of any respect from the ruling class. Even 69 years of independence have not changed attitudes of our rulers to the people who put them in power every five years. For the administration to be thinking of the people and how proposed industries are likely to affect the lives of people it is essential for the people themselves to demand and secure the kind of respect that citizens are entitled to in a democracy. We have let almost seven decades go by without the requisite efforts in this direction. We must make sure now that we do not let seven more decades go by during which the prevailing anti-people attitudes of our rulers will get even more deeply entrenched. This is the kind of tragedy that none of us can afford.

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