This Viral Video Brought Justice To Victims Of A Major Environmental Disaster In India

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If you are still in doubts whether social media has the power to change the world, then this story might sway your opinion. In 2015 a video was released by a little-known Indian rapper by the name of Sofia Ashraf, but it was no ordinary piece of artistry. It was made not for her own financial gain, but to raise awareness about a major environmental disaster that was literally killing people and making many others very sick.

Fifteen years ago, Unilever set up shop in Kodaikanal, in the south of India, and brought major economic opportunity with it. But Hindustan Unilever did not treat its workers the way a major corporation would elsewhere in the world. They were dumping mercury in the town and Unilever workers were made to handle the toxic substance without protective gear.

While the factory was eventually forced to shut down in 2001, the damage was already done: 30 ex-workers and 15 children have died. Hundreds of ex-workers and families in the city continue to suffer with major health problems due to the widespread Mercury poisoning. Many families cannot afford medical bills. Mercury is very toxic to babies and young children and is known to cause deformities. The contamination also continues to impact forests and groundwater.

Indian grassroots activist organization Jhatkaa.org decided to take on Hindustan Unilever and its worldwide CEO Paul Polman and get them to take responsibility. In August 2015 they teamed up with Chennai-based rapper and activist Sofia and made a video called ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ which was set to the tune of another famous rapper’s hit song.

Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ became the backbeat for what was to become a turning point in this catastrophic environmental and healthcare disaster. Not only has the video been viewed over 3.7 million times on Youtube, it also amassed a much bigger support network worldwide for the campaign Jhatkaa launched and gave them a major victory. The video itself went viral after 2 days!

During the Climate Change conference in Paris 2015, a representative from the organization confronted Paul Polman, who brushed off the incidence saying it “was 15 years ago, and well, there was no pollution. We have developed Kodaikanal and given people there a better life.”

With over 100,000 signatures on their campaign, and a Retweet of the video from Nicki Minaj herself, the pressure could no longer be ignored by the corporate giant doing damage. Eight months after the campaign was launched and relentless social media sharing by activists and supporters of the ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ video, Unilever finally announced they are going to compensate the ex-workers.

“This is a huge victory for human rights, workers’ dignity, and corporate accountability. While the compensation is 15 years delayed, it will help ex-workers poisoned by mercury repay past debts, meet medical expenses and finally start rebuilding their lives,” said a statement on the Jhatkaa campaign page.

Altogether 591 ex-workers signed agreements with HUL guaranteeing them fair compensation, but the residents and activists leading this campaign also want the corporation to do their due diligence and clean up the mercury from the town to stop it doing further damage.

It is undoubtedly an inspiring display of human courage which can create massive change that impacts many people’s lives. Sofia Ashraf recorded a video message expressing how shocked and humbled she was to be part of a movement like this, saying “nothing that I’ve done in my sh*tty privileged life has counted for anything except this moment.”

This is not an isolated incident, as we are seeing more and more horrendous man-made environmental disasters. In the US, the very last place you would expect something like a Kodaikanal Unilever incident to happen, we are still dealing with the serious ongoing effects of water contamination in Flint, Michigan.

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On April 20, three government employees became the first to face criminal charges for a decision to cut corners and save money, which has now resulted in tens of thousands of people in the city of Flint, and has placed even more of the national spotlight on the country’s infrastructure problems, which have become a focal point of some of the Presidential candidates during this election year.

This, along with Kodaikanal and many other incidents around the world are placing increasing emphasis on the effects of climate change and how it is an issue of paramount importance. We now see regular media reports on the environment, progressive world leaders tackling this issue head on, and even the entertainment industry exposing the problems of the real world.

A movie released in the fall of 2014 called ‘Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain’ starring Martin Sheen, Kal Penn and Mischa Barton tells the true story of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, where a factory set up in a small town by a major American corporation (much like Unilevel in Kodaikanal) brings great economic opportunity, but also ends up being the very source of illness, suffering, poverty and even death.

We’re quite sure we won’t have to wait long for a Kodaikanal movie, but in the meantime, we should all be encouraged to know that among all the awful ways social media is used, it can be a powerful and meaningful tool for change in the world.


 

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