Coke vs People: The Heat is On in Plachimada

Surendranath C
India Resource Center
April 14, 2004

With the mercury soaring high and all drinking water sources drying up fast in this harsh summer, the people's fight against Coca-Cola's water-guzzling plant at Plachimada village in Palakkad district, Kerala state, has turned more direct. This, despite Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Ltd (HCBL) suspending operations at the plant following a government order issued on February 21 to stop drawing ground water from the plant premises till June 15 when the monsoon rains are due.

In the wee hours of April 3, irate villagers blocked a tanker lorry bringing water to the plant. In the morning village women lined up on the road to fill their pots with the water captured from Coke. Later in the day the police swooped on the village and arrested 44 people including seven children.

"We have an acute drinking water crisis in the entire district and I have told the company that alternative sources of water, if found and used, should not be from areas where drinking water is scarce," district collector Sanjeev Kaushik said. "The order to the company was not to stop production but only to stop withdrawal of water from the plant premises and, as such, we are bound to help HCBL if it sought police protection for bringing water from elsewhere," Kaushik clarified.

"For the last two years the company has been stealing precious drinking water from deep down the earth and our wells have all gone dry," explained Mylamma, an elderly tribal woman who is one of the leaders of the water war against the multinational giant Coke. The people's struggle against Coke has crossed 750 days, and April 22, 2004, Earth Day, will mark the second anniversary of the beginning of the vigil by the struggling community in front of the Coca-Cola plant.

A few weeks earlier, another group of protestors had emptied a water truck into the parched paddy fields. In the drought-hit Chittur region where Plachimada village is located, three farmers have committed suicide within the last month, unable to bear the pangs of acute drought, crop failure and accumulated debts.

In this region where rains have been below normal for the third year in succession, Coca-Cola has been drawing at least 3,50,000 litres of ground water every day, as a study conducted under the orders of the High Court of Kerala recently found. At full capacity, the plant needed 1.5 million litres of water per day, according to Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB).

HCBL suspended production on March 12 saying that it would be "left with no option but to close down the factory in the long run." Nevertheless, on March 29 the board meeting of the Perumatty Grama Panchayat, the local self-government institution (LSGI), once again refused to renew the licence of the HCBL plant alleging that the company had failed to meet three conditions: stop using ground water, show proof of safety of products, and show proof of non-toxicity of solid wastes. But Coca-Cola declined to comply with the instruction saying that these charges were unfounded.

Defending the panchayat board's decision, its president A. Krishnan said last December the High Court had asked HCBL not to use ground water at all. A single bench of the High Court had ruled that ground water was a common property and that the state and local governments should not grant companies rights for excessive extraction.

"The Panchayat was duty-bound to protect the health of its people and ensure that products and process wastes from industries were free of toxic substances. We only demanded proof of this from Coke," he said. While the recent report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee had confirmed the presence of pesticides in the products of HCBL, the state pollution control board had earlier found toxic heavy metals in the solid wastes of the Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada, Krishnan pointed out.

Long-drawn legal battle

In its seesaw legal battle for the rights over self-governance, the Perumatty Grama Panchayat is once more pitted against not only Coca-Cola but also the state government. Even after being forced to shut down the Plachimada plant, Coca-Cola had recently got a reprieve by way of a stay order issued by the local-self government department (LSGD) secretary in Thiruvananthapuram against the Panchayat's decision not to renew HCBL's licence. However, on April 7 the High Court of Kerala stayed the Government order on a petition filed by Krishnan.

Under the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, the local panchayat has authority to issue or suspend a licence or impose conditions on an industry. The panchayat argued before the court that the State Government should be restrained from interfering with the panchayat exercising its constitutional and statutory powers.

Even as the legal battle is poised to take crucial turn, local people do not pin much hope on it "We have no illusions. The State government's instruction to Coke to suspend extracting water is only a temporary drought-relief measure and would be lifted the moment it started raining," said Veloor Swaminathan, a leader of the Anti-Coke Agitation Council. Despite Coca-Cola suspending operations, the council has persisted with its sit-in strike in front of the factory at Plachimada.

Opposite to the venue of the villagers' agitation, the workers of the factory and their family members have now put up another makeshift shed for holding the counter sit-in strike demanding reopening of the factory.

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