"Kodaikanal won't", a rap video released by the NGO Jhatkaa.org which takes on Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever's Indian subsidiary over mercury poisoning in the Tamil Nadu city of Kodaikanal, has gone viral on social media.
The tune, set perhaps incongruously to Nicki Minaj's risque hit Anaconda, is the latest from Chennai-based rapper Sofia Ashraf, who is no stranger to socially conscious music, having gained attention in 2008 when a video of her rapping about social justice while wearing a burqa went viral.
The video is part of a 15-year-old campaign against Hindustan Unilever over its thermometer plant in the Tamil Nadu hill station of Kodaikanal, which was shut in 2001 after Greenpeace and other organisations proved that tons of mercury-contaminated glass from the factory had been sold to scrap dealers, subsequently poisoning the local ecosystem.
Hindustan Unilever admitted it sold scrap glass containing mercury from its facility in Kodaikanal, which roughly translates to “gift of the forest” in English, to a scrap dealer in breach of its own guidelines.
However, the company continues to dispute the claims of former workers who have argued their health was adversely and irrevocably affected by exposure to mercury during their time at the factory.
The rap video, released by the Jhatkaa.org as part of its social justice campaign, highlights Hindustan Unilever's stance on the issue and rebukes the multinational for shirking its responsibility to both the environment and its workers.
In a statement highlighting the importance of social media in bringing attention to the issue, Jhatkaa campaigner Sonam Mittal said “the way that we can win this campaign is through mass engagement".
This is why Ashraf was asked to compose and perform the rap song.
A recent study by Chennai-based NGO Community Environmental Monitoring revealed that the decommissioned thermometer plant is still leaking mercury into the local ecosystem. A lichen sample taken from a stream that flows from the factory into the Pambar Shola Reserve forest had a reading of 53 mg/kg (milligrams per kilogram), while a moss sample had a reading of 8.68 mg/kg.
According to a study by the US Environmental Protection Agency, a reading of 14 to 57 milligrams per kilogram body weight constitutes a lethal dose for an adult.
Prominent social activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has been campaigning against Hindustan Unilever for a decade-and-a-half, said the company's “misdeeds are no longer secret. Mr Polman (Unilever's CEO) must remain true to the assurance he gave his shareholders that the company is keen to settle with the workers expeditiously."
Jayaraman also said in an interview with HT that, while he had doubts about whether more people had understood the ramifications of the video, the fact remains that a "significant percentage of people have become aware about Kodaikanal."
"The coverage by mainstream media is quite rare. We have been trying to get their attention for 14 years now but nothing happened. That is why social media was chosen as a medium for spreading the message. Our target was a young audience,' he added.
The rap video has attracted a lot of attention on social media over the past few days and brought the campaign into the spotlight. And while the subject matter is considerably different from its inspiration, which was an ode to women with curvy backsides, it seems Sofia Ashraf's rap has got even Nicki Minaj's support.