The Unending Fallout of Unilever’s Thermometer Factory in Kodaikanal

18 August 2015

On 3 February 2015, Paul Polman, the chief executive officer of Unilever—a British-Dutch multinational consumer goods company—came to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. The conglomerate was allegedly keen on investing in one of Modi’s pet projects: the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a national campaign by the government of India that aims to provide 4041 statutory towns with health and sanitation facilities. A day later, national newspapers reported that the company had promised to spend 100 million euros—around Rs 700 crore—on Swachh Bharat by the end of 2020.

During an interaction with the media that followed his meeting with Modi, Polman said that Unilever, unlike its competitors, was already a “Make in India”—a catchphrase for another one of Modi’s initiatives designed to transform India into a global manufacturing hub—company since it had 40 operational factories in the country. He went on to add that India presented an attractive opportunity for Unilever and that he was “involved in issues on a new climate economy,” since the country “could grow one per cent faster if it is able to solve the problems of planetary boundaries such as climatic change and water availability.”

But Polman’s words were a marked contrast to the role Hindustan Unilever (HUL), the Indian subsidiary of Unilever, played in Kodaikanal—a popular hill station in Tamil Nadu where the company’s now defunct thermometer factory had already done its part in damaging India’s “climate economy.”

Atul Dev is a former staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: climate Kodaikanal Unilever labour mercury poisoning factory