Since its release in 2014, Nicki Minaj’s hit single “Anaconda” has spawned countless covers, but none have been met with as much enthusiasm and passion as Sofia Ashraf’s “Kodaikanal Won’t.” The video, which was released last week, calls for consumer goods company Unilever to address the effects of mercury poisoning caused by its factory in Kodaikanal, India.
“Kodaikanal won’t, Kodaikanal won’t, Kodaikanal won’t step down ’til you make amends now,” the hook rings. Over a catchy beat made familiar to us first by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Ashraf raps: “Prolonged exposure got many men killed / There’s children born being seriously ill / The environment is polluted still / Now that’s some toxic sh*t.”
Fourteen years ago, Indian subsidiary Hindustan Unilever shut down its thermometer factory after the mercury poisoning came to light through several employee health complaints. The company initially denied allegations that it had caused mercury pollution, but after glass waste containing mercury was found near the factory, which was created in 1983, the company admitted it was responsible for the waste and cleaned up the toxic scraps from the site.
Unilever, however, maintains that its mercury waste did not cause any lingering negative effects. “There were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment. This has been confirmed by many independent studies,” the company says on its website.
Former employees disagree, noting that their health issues are proof that they were harmfully exposed to the element. They reported health problems ranging from kidney and liver disease to loose teeth and hair. A Bangalore health study found former workers with “gum and skin allergy related problems which appeared to be due to exposure to mercury.”
In her rap, Ashraf mentions that families and children are still suffering the health consequences of the poisoning years later. Studies confirm that occupational exposure to mercury can cause nerve tissue damage as well as mental health issues. “The problem with mercury is that there’s a whole spectrum of diseases, so it’s not one thing,” said Dr. Thomas Duplinsky, researcher and professor at Yale University. The people of Kodaikanal aren’t the only ones suffering. When exposed to mercury even in small amounts, flora and fauna are harmed, too. The toxin penetrates soil and water, poisoning fish and the animals that feed on them.
Protests against the Kodaikanal factory started less than 20 years after what many call the world’s worst industrial disaster. In 1984, a Union Carbide factory leaked at least 30 tons of toxic gas, filling central India’s Bhopal and surrounding towns. Thousands died or were injured in the tragedy, and locals continue to see the effects today in children who have physical or mental disabilities.
Some in Bhopal think the country didn’t learn its lesson after the Union Carbide disaster. “There are four issues in learning — one is the infrastructure of the government, second is rules and regulations, third is enforcing of the rules and regulations, fourth is the total awareness of the subject,” the director of Bhopal-based Institute of Industrial Management for Safety, Health and Environment, Dr. S.A. Pillai told the International Business Times. “If these four issues are taken care of, this type of disaster will not be repeated. Are we on that track or not? If you ask me, I will say no.”
Ashraf’s video has gotten a lot of attention on social media, garnering over 1.2 million views in less than a week. Activists are demanding that Unilever follow through on its responsibility to Kodaikanal by cleaning up the pollution and compensating families for health expenses. In response, the company tweeted that studies found no harm to workers or the environment, but that they are working to find a fair resolution.
Unilever CEO Paul Polman, who frequently tweets about business as a force for good, has not publicly addressed the issue since “Kodaikanal Won’t” went viral. “We all have role to play. What happens in future depends on what we do in present,” Polman wrote in one recent tweet. Now, he’ll have to play a big role in righting the wrongs inflicted upon the people of Kodaikanal.
Rupali Srivastava is an intern with ThinkProgress.