Sofia Ashraf – Indian Rap Activist Won Her Battle Against Unilever

This activist rap video took on Unilever, one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world, and won big for the mercury-poisoned ex-workers in Kodaikanal, India.

An Indian rapper has gone viral with a music video calling on consumer products giant Unilever to clean up alleged toxic waste from a forested southern hill station.

Sofia Ashraf’s video, posted online by a nongovernmental organization called Jhatkaa, or “shock” in Hindi, has had more than a million views on YouTube, drawing attention to accusations against a thermometer factory in the town of Kodaikanal that closed down 14 years ago.

A man arrives at the Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) headquarters in Mumbai May 14, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) headquarters in Mumbai –  REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of the consumer goods company, has denied wrongdoing. It disputes claims of former workers who say their health has been damaged by exposure to mercury.

The company said it shut down the factory in 2001 when environmental activists including Greenpeace “brought to Hindustan Unilever’s attention the fact that glass scrap containing mercury” had been sold to a scrap dealer about three kilometers from the factory.

“We have been rigorous in establishing the facts and several independent expert studies have concluded that there were no adverse impacts on the health of our people at Kodaikanal. We have also taken action to ensure the clean-up of soil within the factory premises,” a Hindustan Unilever spokesperson said in an email.

“There is still work to do here – which we are committed to fulfilling – as soon as we have received final consent from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to start the soil remediation.”

Set to the beat of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”, and retweeted by Minaj herself, Ashraf also asks Unilever to compensate workers.

“Kodaikanal won’t step down, until you make amends now,” she raps.

(Reporting by Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Mumbai; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Sofia Ashraf is an Indian Tamil rapper and singer. Her songs address the negligence of corporations that fail to clean up industrial disasters. She is now the most famous rap activist in India.

The ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ video went viral on YouTube and touched nearly 1.8 million views within one week of being published.

Chennai rapper Sofia Ashraf has made headlines around the globe with the‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ video, catching the eye of international singer Nicki Minaj as well.

Set to Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’, the former creative supervisor at Ogilvy & Mather rapped to highlight water pollution in Kodaikanal and the people affected by mercury poisoning due to Unilever’s thermometer factory there.

Ask Ashraf how she got involved in the cause and she says, “There are three NGOs—Vetiver Collective, The Other Media, Kodaikanal Workers’ Association—who have been fighting this cause for quite some time and they roped me in to write a song as part of their ongoing campaign which they have been doing for years. They also roped in to help with the online petition. I came in a creative capacity to write the song. Obviously, these are people who believe that those who are involved have read about the cause, understand the cause and firmly believe in the cause otherwise it doesn’t make sense.”

After going through the research material and doing some groundwork of her own, Ashraf believed that this was a cause worth fighting for and a very important one.

Published on July 30, ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ video went viral on YouTube and touched nearly 1.8 million views within a week. The attention the video garnered on social media brought it to the attention of Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman who tweeted on Thursday saying,

Working actively solution kodai #UnileverPollutes for several years already Determined to solve.Need others too and facts not false emotions.

Ashraf did not expect the huge response that the video received.

“Well, we were hoping for the best. But this has exceeded our expectations and become better than the best! Not in our wildest, best case scenario did we expect to make it to the front page of Reddit or to have Nicki Minaj retweet it! We are so happy that it has reached Mr. Paul Polman as he tweeted about it this morning and we are halfway there as far as the campaign is concerned. We are now just waiting for the clean-up and the compensation to happen because then we’ll feel like we’ve really achieved something,” she said.

Though HUL has responded to the allegations, Ashraf says that some of what they have stated is misinformation.

“For instance, HUL has stated that the moment they found that the factory flouted local guidelines they shut it down. This is not true. The reality of it is that they were made to shut down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) as they were flouting laws. HUL has also stated that the TNPCB was dilly-dallying— that’s not true either. Initially, HUL agreed to clean up using the Dutch Intervention Value for mercury at 10 mg/kg. But this is ridiculous because UK standards are 1 mg/kg. Since Kodaikanal has a sensitive eco-system we require a higher standard which is the UK standard. Unilever came back and said they would clean up at 25 mg/kg and the delay is because the Kodaikanal workers Association and TNPCB have been refusing to accept this. We want a proper clean-up to be done with a higher standard and we won’t step down till they do it!” states Ashraf emphatically.

Ashraf says that the ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ video is just one part of a struggle that been taking place over years with the help of NGOs and Kodaikanal Workers’ Association.

“I’ll be glad to help in any way that I can. I am not consciously taking on the role of a social activist rapper. It’s just that the cause was dear to me and I rapped about it. Anything I can do that will make a difference, I will definitely do it!” says Ashraf.


Author: Reuters/Nivedita Bhattacharjee & Nick Macfie, DNA India/LATHA SRINIVASAN

Video source: AJ+

Photo credits: / Danish Siddiqui


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