A struggle against Coca-Cola and the exploitation of scarce groundwater
resources for its sake, is gaining momentum in Sivaganga in Tamil
Nadu. On April 28, more than 7,000 people, a substantial number of
them women, defied a ban order to participate in a rally against Sakthi
Sugar Mills at Padamathur, about 20 km from the district headquarters
town. The sugar mill has entered into a contract with the transnational
soft drink maker to prepare and package some of its products using
groundwater resources, 75,000 litres a day according to the mill authorities.
The protesters raised slogans against attempts to appropriate a common
natural resource and deprive the people access to it. Leaders of the
movement explained the implications of the mill's deal for the local
community with respect to its irrigation and drinking water needs.
The police registered cases against 1,900 persons for defying
the ban order and taking part in the rally, organised by a committee
formed jointly by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Campaign
for Right to Livelihood and Food Security (Tamil Nadu), a few self-help
groups (SHGs) of women and Dalit organisations. Unlike at Plachimada
in Kerala where the simmering resentment among the local people
manifested itself as an angry protest only three years after the
bottling plant began operations, the agitation in Sivaganga was
a pre-emptive one. The sugar mill had planned to operate the unit
from April 14.
The rally was preceded by a three-month long campaign during which
the committee distributed handbills, put up posters and organised
meetings and street plays to create awareness among the people of
the potential impact of the bottling unit's operations on their
water resources, which are already under pressure owing to years
of drought and sand-mining on the riverbeds. Youth and women's organisations,
particularly SHGs of women, played a significant role in the campaign,
said M. Arjunan, secretary of the district unit of the CPI(M).
Explaining the local community's apprehensions, Arjunan told Frontline
that the packaging unit might resort to indiscriminate exploitation
of groundwater, which would lead to scarcity of water for drinking
and irrigation purposes. He alleged that the unit had plans to dig
borewells up to a depth of 3,000 feet (900 metres) on the Vaigai
riverbed, besides using the unutilised part of the quantum of water
permitted (49 lakh litres a day) specifically for industrial use
by the sugar mill. Arjunan said that the plans would affect the
water supply to Sivaganga, Manamadurai and Thiruppuvanam towns and
about 80 villages covered by the Comprehensive Drinking Water Supply
Scheme, the requirements of which are now met by water from the
Vaigai riverbed. The scheme covers more than 3.5 lakh people. Exposed
to acute drought conditions for several years, the people of the
district, particularly in the villages, have had little access to
The protesters also apprehend that chemical waste discharged from
the unit may cause environmental problems and diseases. They say
that effluents let into a canal during a trial run of the unit caused
the death of a couple of cows and a score of sheep in Kannaarkudiyiruppu
village, close to the factory. Waste products from the factory,
with a pungent smell, have already affected their water sources,
the protesters complain.
The demonstrators demanded that the packaging plant be banned,
the sugar mill be permitted to draw water only on the basis of its
actual average use for the permitted purpose during the last 15
years, and a study group comprising environmental experts and representatives
of political parties and agriculturists' associations be formed
to monitor the way the sugar mill was using its borewells.
Arjunan said that though the organisations involved in the struggle
had brought the issue to the notice of the government through letters
and memoranda, it had not spelt out its stand. The struggle would,
therefore, be intensified.
The sprawling Ramnad district, of which Sivaganga district was
a part until the early 1980s, was known for its perennial water
famine. Although post-Independence development initiatives and the
decentralisation of administration after the trifurcation of the
district brought about some changes, these were not enough to provide
clean and adequate drinking water to the people of this rain shadow
region. In several towns, piped water is supplied on alternate days
or once in three days.
Ganesan (55) of Thiruppachethi village, a sugarcane farmer who
owns about 3 hectares of land, said that for the past several years,
farmers in the area who supplied cane to the sugar mill were passing
through a difficult phase. Payments for supplies were not made promptly
and the mill management blamed the delay on adverse market conditions.
The payment of wages to over four lakh agricultural workers employed
for harvesting was delayed for months. About 13,000 growers had
been affected by the payment delays, Ganesan said. He said that
because of the delay in harvesting for want of money to pay wages,
the recovery rate of cane also had fallen considerably. Ganesan
said that the agriculturists were not against the mill as such.
P. Muniyandi, president of the Sivaganga district unit of the
Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, said that the mill did not pay the
government-fixed price for sugarcane. (It was Rs.782 a tonne in
2002 and Rs.832 this year.) Several people in the village said that
the effluents discharged by the mill into a canal had spoiled its
water, which they generally used for non-drinking purposes. The
water damaged their vessels and clothes.
The senior general manager of the sugar mill, K. Arumugam, said
that the deal with Coca-Cola related only to the soft drink packaging
unit and that there was no plan to bottle drinking water. He said
that the unit would use only the surplus of water available to the
mill. Of the permitted quota of 49 lakh litres of water a day, the
mill had been using only 7 to 10 lakh litres, he said. The water
required for the packaging unit - about 75,000 litres a day - would
be drawn only from the two wells it had already been using, Arumugam
said. There was no plan to dig more borewells. He felt that there
was no need for any apprehension that the plant would cause large-scale
depletion of water resources.
Arumugam said that the Sivaganga unit was one of the five sugar
mills run by the group, which also had stakes in the textile, transport
and finance sectors. He said that the sugar industry was passing
through a difficult phase. The poor financial position was responsible
for certain payment delays, he said. He added that several sugar
mills were trying to diversify operations and that it was in such
a context that the group's deal with the beverage giant had to be
seen. "Ours is an allied business and already Coca-Cola and Pepsi
are our customers. Last year we sold sugar worth Rs.40 crores to
Coca-Cola. This year we hope to increase our sales to Rs.60 crores,"
He denied that there was any trial run. However, the building
and the machinery for the Rs.20-crore unit were ready. The unit
would commence operations after the government cleared the project.
He does not expect any difficulty in getting permission. The plant
will have a production capacity of 600 bottles a minute. He said
that the water allotted was for `industrial use' and that the packaging
of beverages came under the `industry' category. Moreover, it was
allied to the main product, sugar, which would be used by the plant,
he said. A recent report, prepared by the Executive Engineer, Public
Works Department (PWD), had observed that the water drawn by the
sugar mill would not cause depletion of groundwater. Arumugam said
that the packaging unit would have an effluent treatment arrangement,
like the one the sugar mill had. He denied charges relating to waste
disposal by the sugar plant.
Even as fears about the factory extracting water indiscriminately
are sought to be shown as exaggerated concerns, scientific studies
in places such as Plachimada have proved that these apprehensions
are not entirely misplaced. A study team of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya
Parishad (KSSP) has indicated that the Plachimada bottling plant
could lead to an environmental disaster in the area if steps are
not taken to check the exploitation of groundwater resources. K.
Sreedharan, a member of the team, observed that the company could
be extracting water from the limited quantity of groundwater available
between the layers of rocks underneath. Although such an aquifer
might be spread over several square kilometres, it is unlikely to
get recharged owing to the peculiarities of the terrain in a rain
shadow region. Under such circumstances, large-scale exploitation
of water would affect farming in the neighbouring areas and result
in other borewells drying up.
Although a comprehensive scientific study of groundwater availability
in the Sivaganga region is yet to be made, the PWD report indicates
disturbing trends. In the Thiruppuvanam panchayat union, where the
two wells of the sugar mill are located, the groundwater reserves
have fallen significantly - from 13,351 hectare metres in 1985 to
7,463 hectare metres in 1992. The report reveals that the intensity
of groundwater extraction has increased rapidly. The quantum of
water drawn as a proportion of the water remaining underground,
increased from 3 per cent in 1985 to 6 per cent in 1992.
Although the report does not mention figures of the extent of
extraction since then, it reveals that the intensity of extraction
has accelerated in the decade since 1992. Water extraction, as a
proportion of the water remaining underground, was 12 per cent in
2003, double the level in 1992. The data, though sketchy, indicate
that the packaging plant is being set up at a time when groundwater
availability in the area is falling rapidly.
State general-secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association
(AIDWA) U. Vasuki, who participated in the April 28 rally, told
Frontline that the government's response to the situation
was not adequate. It should come out with a clear water policy that
would protect the State's water resources from being exploited by
multinationals and safeguard the people's right to livelihood, she
It was not surprising that women played a crucial part in the
struggle; after all, they bear the burden of fetching water in an
environment of famine. The recent upsurge of resentment against
the U.S., following its invasion of Iraq also appears to have given
an added edge to the struggle against the U.S.-based multinational.
The above article was published in Frontline magazine and can
be found at http://www.flonnet.com/fl2012/stories/20030620001904400.htm