Message in a Bottle
PLACHIMADA -- Whizzing along the road in the little Tata Indica, driven
prestissimo by the imperturbable Sudhi, we crossed the state line
from Tamil Nadu into Kerala, branched off the main road and ended
up in the settlement of Plachimada, mostly inhabited by extremely
poor people. There on one side of the street was the Coca-Cola plant,
among the company's largest in Asia, and on the other, a shack filled
with locals eager to impart the news that they were now, as of April
2, in Day 1,076 of their struggle against the plant.
Coca-Cola came to India in 1993, looking for water and markets in
a country where one-third of all villages are without water and shortages
are growing every day. The bloom was on neoliberalism back then, with
central and state authorities falling over themselves to lease, sell
or simply hand over India's assets to multinationals in the name of
Coca-Cola had sound reasons for coming to Plachimada, which has large
underground water deposits. The site Coca-Cola picked is between two
large reservoirs and 10 yards south of an irrigation canal. Coke's
plot is surrounded by colonies inhabited by several hundred poor people
with an average holding of four-tenths of an acre. Virtually the sole
source of employment is wage labor, usually for no more than 100 to
120 days in the year.
Ushered in by Kerala's present "reform"-minded government, the plant
duly got a license from the local council, known as the Perumatty
Grama Panchayat. Under India's constitution, panchayats have total
discretion in such matters. Coca-Cola bought a property of some 40
acres held by a couple of large landowners, built a plant, sank six
bore wells and commenced operations in March of 2000.
Within six months the villagers saw the level of their water drop
sharply, and the water they did draw was awful. It gave some people
diarrhea and bouts of dizziness. To wash in it was to get skin rashes,
a burning feel on the skin. It left their hair greasy and sticky.
The women found that rice and dal did not get cooked but became hard.
A thousand families were directly affected, and well water was affected
up to a considerable distance from the plant.
The locals, mostly very low in caste status, had never had much beyond
good water and a bit of land from the true earth-shaking reforms of
Kerala's Communist government, democratically elected in 1956 and
evicted three years later with U.S. assistance by a central government
terrified by the threat of a good example. On April 22, 2002, the
locals commenced peaceful agitation that shut the plant down. Responding
to popular pressure, the panchayat rescinded its license to Coca-Cola
on August 7, 2003.
All of this was amiably conveyed to us in brisk and vivid detail by
the villagers. Then, Mylamma, an impressive woman, led us down a path
to one of the local wells. It was a soundly built square well, some
10 feet from side to side. About five feet from the top we could see
the old water line, but no water. Peering 20 feet farther down in
the semi-darkness, we could see a stagnant glint. Today, in a region
known as the rice bowl of Kerala, women have to walk a 2.5-mile round
trip to get drinkable water, toting big plastic vessels on their hip
or head. Even better-off folk face ruin.
The whole process would play well on "The Simpsons." It has a ghastly
symmetry to it. When the plant was running at full tilt, 85 truckloads
rolled out of the plant gates, each load consisting of 550 to 600
cases, 24 bottles to the case, all containing Plachimada's prime asset,
water, now enhanced in cash value by Coca-Cola's infusions of its
Coca-Cola certainly "gave back" to Plachimada, in the form of profuse
daily donations of foul wastewater and stinking toxic sludge from
the plant's filtering and bottle-cleaning processes.
The company told the locals the sludge was good for them, dumping
loads of it in the surrounding fields and on the banks of the irrigation
canal, and heralding it as free fertilizer. Aside from stinking so
badly, it made old folk and children sick, people coming into contact
with it got rashes and kindred infections, and the crops that it was
supposed to nourish died.
Several lab analyses done in India and Britain have found the sludge
toxic with cadmium and lead and useless as fertilizer, a finding that
did not faze Coca-Cola's Indian vice president, Sunil Gupta, who swore
the sludge was "absolutely safe" and "good for crops."
Plachimada's Member of Parliament in Delhi is Veerendra Kumar, who
is also chairman and managing director of Mathrubhumi, a newspaper
that sells over a million copies a day in Malayalam, Kerala's language.
Kumar, a forceful man in his late 60s (and formerly a federal minister),
tells me that for the past two years, Mathrubhumi has refused, with
serious loss of revenue, to run ads for Coca-Cola's products. Kumar
includes in his ban ads for Pepsi, which he says has a plant six miles
from Plachimada that has produced the same problems.
The locals won't let the plant reopen, to the consternation of Kerala's
present pro-Coke government, which has tried, unconstitutionally,
to overrule the local council and hopes the courts will grease Coca-Cola's
wheels. Kerala's High Court did just that in early April, and the
panchayat is now taking its case to the Supreme Court of India.
Drive along almost any road here, and you'll see coconut palms. What
Keralites term tender coconut water really is good for you. Ask any
local rat. A trio of biochemists at the University of Kerala recently
put rats on it, and their levels of cholesterol and triglycerides
sank significantly, with anti-oxidant enzymes putting up a fine show.
For the rats dosed on Coca-Cola, the test readings weren't pretty,
starting with "short, swollen, ulcerated and broken villi in the intestine
and severe nuclear damage."
Taking a leaf out of the self-realization catechism, Coca-Cola flaunts
its slogan in Hindi, Jo chahe ho jahe, meaning "Whatever you want,
happens," which has been translated by women cursed by another Coca-Cola
plant, up in Maharashtra, as Jo Coke chahe ho jahe, "Whatever Coke
But not in Plachimada.
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