New Delhi: A professor at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIM-B) said Thursday that he had turned down a guest invite from a Gurugram college for its annual convocation ceremony on 15 June, because it had invited Sanjiv Mehta, the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) India, as chief guest.
He attributed his stance to a 2001 episode when an HUL thermometer plant in Kodaikanal was forced to shut down after the Tamil Nadu government reportedly found it had been dumping tonnes of toxic waste at its plant site.
HUL employees subsequently sued the company, seeking damages for exposure to mercury, while the firm has cited “independent studies” to claim “no worker from the factory has suffered ill health due to mercury poisoning”.
In his reply to Management Development Institute (MDI), Deepak Malghan, a UK-born professor of public policy ecological economist, said it was “utterly disappointing to see an institute of MDI’s stature invite the CEO of HUL to grace this solemn occasion”.
“As you probably know, Unilever has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people in Kodaikanal by refusing to take full responsibility for mercury contamination from its former thermometer factory…” he added.
“In 2018, I organised an event at IIM-Bangalore to discuss the history of Unilever’s culpability in Kodaikanal. Unilever retaliated by withdrawing an endowed visiting professorship at IIM-Bangalore and staying away from campus placement that year.”
— Deepak Malghan (ದೀಪಕ ಮಲಘಾಣ್) (@deepak_malghan) June 9, 2022
Speaking to ThePrint, an HUL spokesperson said that the organisation would not “like to comment on anyone’s personal decision to participate or not participate in any event”.
“On the issue of our former factory at Kodaikanal, we would like to assert that, over the years, a lot of misinformation has been spread. Hindustan Unilever has always taken, and will continue to take, responsibility for the remediation of our Kodaikanal site,” the spokesperson added.
MDI, a private management institute that currently ranks 11 in the management category of National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), refused to comment on the issue altogether and, in a statement to ThePrint, said: “The institute is currently busy preparing for the convocation”.
ThePrint reached Prof. Malghan by phone and text, but no response was received by the time of publishing this report.
Not the first face-off
In its statement, HUL reiterated that “independent studies have confirmed there has been no adverse impact on the environment outside the premises of the former thermometer factory”.
“There has been contamination in certain areas within the factory premises which require soil remediation. We have immediately commenced the soil remediation after receiving all the statutory approvals…” it said.
“Expert studies on employee health have been conducted since the factory’s closure, and all have concluded that the former employees did not suffer ill health due to the nature of their work.”
According to the workers’ union fighting the case then, 45 adults and 18 infants had died in the area due to poisoning caused by the factory’s waste. In 2016, the company agreed to an out-of-court settlement and gave an undisclosed ex gratia payment to its former workers as part of the deal.
Malghan had previously locked horns with the company in 2018. According to reports, the professor had sent an email to the IIM-B’s placement committee, asking them to disinvite HUL from the placement drive.
After receiving a written censure order from the director of the institute, Malghan had to withdraw his email.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)