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.”
For more than a decade now, several activists and non-governmental organisations have been attempting to spread awareness about the mercury contamination caused by Unilever’s plant in Kodaikanal. However, the issue began attracting media attention only recently, following a music video that gained traction on social media. The public interest in Kodaikanal’s plight may be nascent, but its predicament is not. For the past nine years, Unilever has been fighting a case against the Ex-Mercury-Employees Welfare Association that was formed by the factory’s former workers for exposing them to mercury and contaminating the ecologically sensitive area of Kodaikanal.
During another interview in March this year, Polman had spoken of how corporate organisations needed to “bring back ethical values,” as he expressed his concern for “the voices that can’t be heard”. Unilever’s own record in compensating its employees in Kodaikanal and decontaminating the town of mercury has been subject to intense scrutiny and criticism. Even as HUL continues to reiterate its commitment to a Swachh Bharat–a clean India– the company is battling allegations of having done very little to save either its workers or the environment. The only public statement from Polman about the Kodaikanal factory came in the form of an incoherent tweet, after #UnileverPollutes started trending on Twitter in the first week of August. Dismissing the accusations that were being levelled at Unilever, he said that they were “determined to solve” the issue, but needed “facts not false emotions.”