Coke Versus Water, Not Congress Versus Left
Aveek Sen
The Telegraph
May 5, 2004

Plachimada: Mylamma and Vijayan Pillai are sitting in two round-the-clock pickets across the road from each other.

A third police picket keeps a wary eye on both. Over all three tower the high, wide gates of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Ltd.

Mylamma is a tribal widow and agricultural labourer in her fifties. She lives in the Vijaynagar colony in Plachimada village, adjacent to the Coke plant. She wants the plant to shut down immediately.

On the other side of the road, Vijayan, in his forties, is the plant’s lift-operator, and lives in Palakkad town. He is picketing to defend his job, in case Mylamma succeeds in shutting the place down.

The government has already closed the factory until June 15. Both of them, for diametrically opposite reasons, are thinking of boycotting the elections. Both feel “robbed” of what they are entitled to by right: Vijayan of employment, and Mylamma of a vital natural resource — water.

The Coke plant’s alleged indiscriminate extraction of local ground water sharply lowered the water levels where the surrounding communities live and farm. The ground water has also become contaminated and undrinkable.

Mylamma’s kindred — poor, farm-labouring Dalits and tribals — have had to stop cultivating paddy because of this shortage of water, and migrate elsewhere to look for work.

Palakkad is in the rain-shadow of the Western Ghats, and has faced severe droughts in recent years. In the Wayanad district close by — once rich with pepper, spices and coffee — severe drought and severer debt have driven 13 farmers to suicide this year. Farmer suicides are on the rise. A drought survey team from the Centre is going round the state as I write this.

But social worker and environmentalist C.R. Neelakandan feels surveyors from “outside” often get dazzled by Kerala’s riverine lushness and refuse to see the crisis of water management lurking in its heart.

This is why water is a major issue in Kerala this time. The state gets an average of 3,000 mm of rain a year and has 44 rivers. But something seems to have gone badly wrong with how the state is managing all this water. The problem is not exclusively rural or agricultural.

The cities and towns have been hit by ground-water depletion. Immense water-tankers, many of them run by private companies, constantly do their rounds in wealthy, urban Kerala, where people, mostly women, desperately crowd around them with their bright plastic pitchers.

So Mylamma’s “Anti-Coca-Cola People’s Struggle” is not just an inevitable Green-Left hiccup as Kerala gulps down globalisation. But “Plachimada” — as the anti-Coke movement is referred to here — is a crucial part of an emergent “water-literacy”, which is changing the nature of political resistance in the state.

Around the issue of water, significant pockets of Kerala’s civil society are evolving modes of local resistance — to environmental degradation, and to the denial of the rights to water and to livelihood — which mainstream political parties are being forced to reckon with.

In this, the roles of women and of the panchayats are crucial. Water, for the first time in Kerala, is a “development” issue.

Yesterday, I visited the beautiful and affluent village of Wazhakolam on the river Periyar. The villagers had organised a protest at their primary government school against a private firm called Nest, which has opened a water-extraction unit in the village, and supplies water to the Coke plant. It was attended by the Plachimada leaders, local members of the People’s Union for Civil Liberty and panchayat members.

But the villagers — many of them Muslims — were also aware of the bigger picture around their local concern. They knew about the long-term effects, on ground water, of sand-mining, industrial pollution, changing crop patterns and the civil construction boom. Men and women sat on two different sides of the aisle in the long, tiled schoolroom. There was a wonderful moment when each woman took out a pen tucked in her blouse and signed the petition against Nest that was circulated at the end.

The irony is that the Plachimada Coke plant, set up in 1998, was the darling of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) had then opposed it, but by this time it has got identified in the popular mind with the UDF’s interests. Also, for the LDF to take up the issue now as part of its anti-UDF campaign would be patently absurd.

This bizarre badminton-game with “issues” makes the entire LDF-UDF see-saw occasionally appear ridiculous to common voters like Mylamma and Vijayan Pillai. For them, the issue is “political” and real at a very different level.

“Lok Sabha? What Lok Sabha?” Mylamma asks, “All I see is that there is no water in my well any more.”

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