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A rap video taking on Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever's Indian subsidiary over mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal goes viral on social media

Sofia Ashraf (centre) in a frame-grab from Kodaikanal Won't. Photo: Jhatkaa.org

Chennai-based rapper Sofia Ashraf is no stranger to socially conscious music, having gained attention in 2008 when a video of her rapping about social justice while wearing a burqa went viral.

Kodaikanal Won't, a rap video taking on Unilever's Indian subsidiary over mercury poisoning in the Tamil Nadu hill station town of Kodaikanal, is her latest. The tune, set perhaps incongruously to Nicki Minaj's risque hit Anaconda, was released by the public mobilisation group Jhatkaa.org, ex-mercury workers association, and the Chennai Solidarity Group, last month-end.

Within two days of being launched, the rap song written and performed by Sofia and directed by Rathindran R Prasad has gone viral. The video, produced as a collaborative, grassroots, community-based effort, attracted over 3,00,000 views in its first 48 hours. The accompanying petition also surged to over 12,000 signers within 24 hours.

The song has been retweeted by Nicki Minaj, and the peppy and searing rap performance is reaching the world with tweets from Nandita Das, Varun Grover, and Vishal Dadlani; and is trending on Facebook India, Twitter India, and Reddit globally.

It has also been featured on The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The New Indian Express, FirstPost, the Newsminute, IBNLive, BuzzFeed, ScoopWhoop, VH1, Bitch Media, and many other Indian and international publications.

The video draws attention to what the Hindustan Times calls “a 15-year-old campaign against Hindustan Unilever over its thermometer plant in Kodaikanal, which was shut in 2001 after Greenpeace and other organisations proved that tons of mercury-contaminated glass from the factory had been sold to scrap dealers, subsequently poisoning the local ecosystem.”

Hindustan Unilever admitted it sold scrap glass containing mercury from its facility in Kodaikanal, which roughly translates to “gift of the forest” in English, to a scrap dealer in breach of its own guidelines. However, the company continues to dispute the claims of former workers who have argued their health was adversely and irrevocably affected by exposure to mercury during their time at the factory.

Jhatkaa.org campaigner Sonam Mittal said, “The way that we win this campaign is through mass engagement. Unilever is a consumer brand that depends on the trust of the Indian public to meet its bottomline. If enough of us sign on, and hold Unilever accountable, the company will have no choice but to meet the ex-workers’ demands. That’s why we invite all Indians to get involved in this campaign at https://www.jhatkaa.org/unilever/ or leave a missed call on 8880109020.”

An official press release from Jhatkaa.org said, “Unilever CEO Paul Polman is usually extremely active on the social media microblogging platform Twitter, and often tweets about the importance of ‘business as a force for good.’ However, he is yet to respond to any of the hundreds of tweets that are questioning Unilever’s actions in Kodaikanal.”

Unilever’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Ltd, too has yet to respond to the issue. CEO and Managing Director Sanjiv Mehta, who is also a member of the Corporate Social Responsibility Committee of the company, is duty bound to address the welfare of his ex-employees and must react proactively, the press release said.

Social activist Nityanand Jayaraman said, “Unilever's misdeeds in Kodaikanal are no longer secret. Mr. Polman must remain true to the assurance he gave his shareholders that the company is keen to settle with the workers expeditiously.”

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