Heavy Metal: A gripping take on an industrial tragedy, and of green resistance

Two monolithic institutions are central to the narrative of Heavy Metal, namely, Unilever and Greenpeace. Photo: amazon.in

Vulnerable local communities, greedy companies, shady bureaucrats, and corrupt politicians. All leading to gruesome consequences – a pattern often seen in the green resistance stories that come out of India, making the majority of the industrial tragedies predictable narrations.

Readers find this pattern repetitive among the very few books that come out of the country on issues of corporate accountability and liability.

Ameer Shahul’s Heavy Metal stands apart from this genre on three distinct merits: the research that has gone into the making of the book is robust, its fascinating and informative global sweep, and the thriller-like unfolding of the story.

The book starts with the fascinating journey of a dilapidated factory from the US to the Indian hill station of Kodaikanal. That some worn-out plant and machinery could travel across the proverbial seven seas itself could sound incredulous. But it would not surprise those who are well versed in the methods that corporate houses employ to get around the tightening regulations, in their effort to milk every additional ounce of returns from their investments.

Two monolithic institutions are central to the narrative of Heavy Metal, namely, Unilever and Greenpeace. One is a global corporation with a strong footprint across all continents whose products touch the lives of billions of people every day.

The other is an awe-inspiring watchdog whose struggles to protect the planet in troubled locations and an inspiration to people across countries.

Shahul chronicles the stories of Unilever and Greenpeace, going further into revealing how both entered India and established their presence here.

These passages are vivid, well-researched and narrated with anecdotes. Like well-etched characters from an epic, these two organisations loom large over the pages of the book, each pursuing it’s destiny in entirely different directions - one for profit and the other for peace.

The acute dangers of mercury and its presence in our close environment are not known enough to ordinary people. Heavy Metal does a service to the average reader, throwing light on this important aspect through historical facts, up-to-date events and scientific information.

The narrative grips the reader as it progresses to the discovery of mercury dump first in the scrapyard and subsequently in the woods. The lead campaigner Navroz Mody’s chance discovery of the dump at a scrap dealer’s place in the heart of the town is the turning point in the story, and that of Unilever as well. More tense moments would follow with the protests, more unearthing of dumps and protests, leading to the shutting down of the factory.

Interestingly, it was science which came to the aid of the campaigners for nailing down the factory’s responsibility for the elevated levels of mercury found in the area. Lichen and moss, among the most ancient living things on the planet, also have the ability to serve as bio-monitors of pollution. A fascinating series of every-day coincidences led to a team from the Department of Atomic Energy conducting a study in Kodaikanal using lichen and moss samples from the surroundings of the factory and the analysis thereof.

In parallel, a Greenpeace team was also conducting another study on similar lines. These studies yielded tell-tale results of high levels of mercury in plants in locations closer to the factory, with mercury levels in the samples decreasing as the distance from the factory increased.

The studies also proved that mercury levels in air at the location were 2,640 times the normal value.

The “reverse dumping” episode of sending back 300 tonnes of mercury waste to the US for permanent retirement was a moral victory for the environmental activists in general and Greenpeace in particular. Shahul narrates this sensational episode of shipping back industrial waste from a developing country to a developed country from where it originally came, in a crisp, racy fashion.

The drama associated with the “reverse dumping” and the international coverage it received are among the high points of the book.

The story of workers ends on a positive note, with the litigation by the ex-workers of the factory seeking compensation in the Madras High Court leading to a favourable outcome – it resulted in a settlement, the amount paid by the company remains undisclosed. It opens up another unexplored area, the long-term impacts of the dispersed mercury on the sensitive ecosystem of Pambar Shola and the local community.

The question sounded by the author, “If a site is pumped with twenty tonnes of toxic elemental mercury continuously for more than eighteen years, leading to the gaseous metal filling the surrounding air with amounts greater than 2,600 times of what is normal, wouldn’t it impact the plant and animal population of that habitat” would echo in reader’s ears as he closes the book. 

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