Response to Tharoor from S. Faizi, Environmental Expert Member, Kerala Groundwater Authority

Mr.Shashi Tharoor
Afras Ventures
230 Park Avenue, Suite 2525
New York, NY 10169

March 5, 2009

Dear Mr Tharoor,

I have read with interest your response to the Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee’s criticism of your being in a PR project of the Coca Cola company in India, in Hindu and the full text on a web site that carries your PR material. I do not have a grain of opposition to your being in the cola PR outfit, for it is natural for people like to you to be in places like that. However, I am writing this public response to you in order to address the misinformation contained in your letter, outdoing even the PR staff of the company, and the unwarranted sweeping remarks you have made on Kerala development.

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The High Court Division Bench verdict in favour of the company that you have referred to was made subsequent to a single bench verdict against the company. And the Division Bench verdict is being challenged in the Supreme Court by the Perumatti Panchayat and by the people’s groups agitating against the company. The CWRDM-lead report was flawed in many respects, as is being argued in the SC, which is also an issue of concern for CWRDM scientists as the institution has suffered an erosion of credibility. The very assumption of the report, in estimating the total groundwater availability in Chitoor block, that 20 per cent of the rainfall can be recharged is flawed as the Central Groundwater Board’s (CGWB) assessment in 2003 had put the recharge in areas such as Chitoor at 5-8 per cent. While the committee report put the annual recharge in the block at 74.1 million cubic meters (mcm), based on the CGWB’s scientific estimation of recharge rate it is only between 16.6 to 33.2 mcms. The report also suppresses the domestic and agricultural water needs. The central question in the High Court case was not as much about pollution and depletion of water resources, land pollution by heavy metals, or the right to life provision of the Constitution, as about the power of the local panchayat to ask for the closure of the factory. The Groundwater Dept, in a report on the groundwater of Palakkad dist prepared in 2006, presented an alarming picture of the state of groundwater in Chitoor block.

The legal status of groundwater has rightly become that of a public resource with the enactment of the Kerala Groundwater Act which came into force in 2003. However, this law (as well as several other points from the environmental jurisprudence) was not considered in the High Court case. Groundwater was considered as a private resource, while the said law asserts it as a public resource over which the appropriate agencies of the State have control in public interest. And this change in the legal status of groundwater is also going to be examined by the apex court.

You attempt to deny the toxic sludge. However, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC), in its report following its site visit in August 2004, had determined the presence of heavy metals (cadmium and lead) in the sludge, and this was distributed by the cunning company to the unsuspecting farmers as ‘fertiliser’. And the State Pollution Control Board had directed the company to cease operations. The pollution of the well waters around the factory was reported by independent labs and the SPCB also confirmed it by asking the people not to use the water of the panchayat well it had tested.

I visited the area two weeks ago as a member of the expert committee attached to the State SC/ST Commission and found the situation of the local people, ST/SC in particular, extremely worrying- there is hardly any water in the wells and where it is present it is not usable. Pollution of drinking water is a crime under the SC/ST (Atrocities) Act. On 14-9-2004 the company agreed to provide piped water to the residents of the area and the KPCB had constituted a committee to oversee this activity. This was upon the instruction of the SCMC, obviously as a compensation for the water crisis caused by the company and it was not contingent upon the functioning of the factory. The company reneged on this agreement too.

Polluter Pays Principle has become an integral part of our jurisprudence. The Rio Declaration (principle 16) upholds this as well as the liability and redress provision of the Biodiversity Convention (I had been a negotiator in the formulation of both), among other multilateral soft laws and treaties. And this is squarely applicable in the case of Coca Cola at Plachimada. This was why the Kerala Goundwater Authority, after study by a subcommittee, recommended to the govt at its 13th meeting in Oct 2008 that compensation should be obtained from the company, on behalf of the people, for the pollution and groundwater depletion it has caused. It also recommended to make a comprehensive, multidisciplinary assessment of the damage caused by the company to the environment, human health and agriculture. Bringing an offender to justice is in the best common interest of business lest the law abiding competitors are left at a disadvantage.

Your reference to the Global Compact was interesting. But you have carefully withheld the information from your readers that this was a project that was fiercely opposed by the civil society organizations. It was not a legitimate UN activity, negotiated and agreed by a policy setting body such as the GA. It was part of a series of initiatives to diminish the importance of the need for corporate bodies complying with the domestic laws of the countries, by introducing and promoting a voluntary code of conduct. It was also part of the move to whittle away the powers of multilateral bodies such as UNCTAD, supported by the developing countries. As a corporate boss you will be proud to have promoted the Global Compact, but its real twin role as a greenwash and as a means to belittle the importance of legal compliance is obvious to the public. Corporate responsibility is a crooked term, what the citizens expect from the corporates is corporate accountability to the laws of the country. If Coca Cola, for example, is willing to comply with the laws of the country, pay for the public resources it has used at the market rate and pay compensation for the damages it has caused that will more than suffice, we don’t need the Cola to take any responsibility for our development.

As for your remarks on Kerala’s development scene, it was certainly uncalled for. Kerala is one of the most globalised societies in the world, and we were at the centre of open global trade until 500 years ago when the Europeans came as savage invaders displacing the Arab traders. Your accusations of Kerala as ‘over-politicised’ and this as a reason for an imaginary discouragement of investment in the state are amusing right wing cliché that fit very well with the intellectual immaturity that characterizes your writings. It is an insult to India’s unity that you are ashamed that Keralites work in other parts of the India. It is diametrically opposed to the spirit of Kerala’s globalism that you are ashamed of our people working in the Gulf and other countries. But you are saying this sitting in an American city and heading a business firm in Gulf. And you claim to be a Keralite when your web site proudly announces your fluency in English and French but does not even mention Malayalam though our language and its literature has a longer history than English. But such contradictions are typical of an intellectual simpleton’s writings. The Kerala model of development is an unavoidable term in the international development discourse, not the least the UN’s, but you are blissfully uninformed even about this. In child mortality, for example, we fare better than the US city you live in. Empowerment thru political conscientisation is at the core of the relatively high development indices we have achieved. Your understanding of India, as seen in your writings, is no deeper than a western tourist’s.

Let me refer to just a couple of such writings. In one of your articles you have chauvinistically chided Indian women for giving up sari for western dress. Even such chauvinistic opinions I have no problem in tolerating but the fun is when you see the photo of the author of the silly article dressed in western suit and neck tie totally alien to traditional male attire! And in a subsequent article you narrated an anecdote where your Danish boss in the UN abused the Indian kurta you wore as a surgeon’s coat and that made you resolve not to wear the traditional Indian dress any more. As a committed supporter of the UN cause and as a some times participant in UN events, I take offence in the incident you narrated and your acceptance of the same. As a multilateral body the UN respects the multiple cultures, and if someone derogatively talked about a country’s traditional dress he should not have been on the UN staff any longer, if someone had set a norm like that it should have been brought to the attention of the concerned decision making body. UN events indeed are also the occasion you find the most fabulous traditional dress of women and men from west African nations, the various Arab traditional dresses fromMorocco to Yemen, the elegant sheravni, sari and churidar from south Asia, and so on. I myself presided over a youth conference organized by Unesco/UNEP in Moscow in 1987 (part of Tbilisi+10) wearing a white cotton kurta/pyjama, and nobody cared about what I wore (I wouldn’t have allowed it either). And your sectarian mindset blamed the Punjabis for giving masculine names for their daughters, forgetting that what you have done with your own name isn’t anything different. Sasi is how the masculine name is spelt in Kerala while Shashi, the way you spell it, is a feminine name in north India!

Your reply talks of the anti-Cola activists scoring some political point. No one can read any party politics in their letter, the Plachimada anti-Cola struggle is beyond divisions along party politics. The ruling LDF supports the Plachimada cause as much as the opposition UDF. And in the struggle itself you find people of all political affiliations and creeds. We are all one on the issue of justice, but you cannot perhaps understand that. But if you are talking about politics with your ambition to get a seat in the forthcoming Parliament election in view, I wish the Congress party gives you a ticket, for it deserves you. That will be a good self punishment for the Congress party for having allowed you once to embarrass the country with your UN election.

Best regards


R2 Saundarya Apartments
(Environmental Expert Member: Kerala Groundwater Authority; Chairman: Indian Biodiversity Forum)

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