Sofia Ashraf has made headlines around the globe with the ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ video. She is not new to setting trends and she talks to BOOM about singing for a cause, being called ‘a burkha rapper’ and more.
Working actively solution kodai #UnileverPollutes. For several years already. Determined to solve. Need others too and facts not false emotions
– Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever
This tweet of Paul Polman acknowledging the devastation caused by Unilever’s thermometer plant in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu has come after the spotlight was shone on the company’s mercury legacy in Kodaikanal by Sofia Ashraf’s rap video that has gone viral. The call for action has garnered 1.9 million views on Youtube within seven days of it being put up. The video has received global appreciation with even US rapper and singer Niki Minaj tweeting ‘Wow!’ and a link to the video.
The Voice Behind the Message
Sofia Ashraf the voice behind the song is a 28-year old rapper-singer-copywriter who shuffles between Mumbai and Chennai. Sofia has long been involved in campaigns on social issues—In 2008, she got involved with the Vetiver Collective, a Chennai-based voluntary organisation committed to bringing attention to social and environmental causes. Sofia says that she did a lot of research before she decided to write for the Kodaikanal cause. A meet with the workers who had been impacted by Unilever’s actions made the cause ‘real’ for her and then the ‘45 people who died due to mercury-exposure became more than a number.”
The entire Kodaikanal Won’t video was shot in a day in Chennai, and recording took another day. She says, “Very little money, activists who believed in the cause, affected workers and people who wanted to help in whichever way they could were behind the video – basically, everyone believed in the message, and wanted to do something about it.” Sofia exclaims the response to the video from being on the front page of the microblogging platform Reddit to Nicki Minaj’s tweet has been “beyond awesome.”
Sofia quit her job at advertising giant O&M before she shot for the video – thus avoiding the conflict-of-interest pitfall as Unilever is a client of O&M. She does not have any long-term plans but does want to focus on creating ‘real’ content and continue her experiment with music.
History of the Mercury poisoning at Kodaikanal
Unilever’s thermometer factory in Kodaikanal originally operated in Watertown, New York. In the early 1980s, this factory was shut down in New York and moved to the hill town of Kodaikanal. After operating for two decades with no oversight on its waste disposal and worker health policies, HUL was pulled up in 2001.
In March 2001, a group of activists headed by Greenpeace exposed HUL’s actions of dumping empty mercury bottles in the forests behind its factory, and sold 7.5 tonnes of mercury wastes to a local scrap merchant.
On March 23, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered closure of the factory for having violated the Environmental Protection Act, 1986. Two months later the pollution control board ensured that Hindustan Unilever removed the wastes from the scrapyard to the factory.
But five years into the clean-up the effort was diluted with the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute – which was engaged by Unilever – submitted a report in 2007 that argued that 10 mg/kg was unreasonably stringent. It recommended that clean-up be downgraded to 25 mg/kg.
Even as the clean-up was mounted the workers who had been impacted had no one to voice their cause. A 2011 Government of India report acknowledged that workers were exposed to mercury and are suffering from its effects. That report found that Unilever had violated safety norms, exposing workers to mercury. But the Madras High Court has not heard the matter since 2013.