Don't Poison My Well
S. Anand
May 9, 2005

At Mayilamma's well in Vijayanagar Colony, the water is a deep, mysterious brown. It smells like a mixture of stale toddy and adulterated kerosene.

Smelling it can make a person retch. So, Mayilamma cannot understand why, on April 7, the Kerala High Court's division bench said that Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Ltd (HCCB)—which, till a year ago, rolled out 85 lorry-loads of soft-drinks daily—should be allowed to extract 5 lakh litres of water daily from its 34-acre plant in Plachimada in Kerala's Palakkad district. The court ruled that Coca-Cola "has to quench its thirst without inconveniencing others". But Mayilamma and a thousand other Dalit and adivasi families living in colonies abutting the HCCB plant are being terribly inconvenienced.

Outlook got a sample of this water on April 23 and got it tested at Sargam Metals, Chennai, whose lab is accredited by the government's department of science and technology.

Sargam Metals' technical manager Lalitha Raman says the sample "chemically does not meet the requirements for most of the parameters tested for potability as per ISO 10500 specifications set by the Bureau of Indian Standards."

The water from Mayilamma's well had a pH value of 3.53 (against the permissible 6.5-8.5 at 25 degree C), making it "highly acidic". Says Raman: "If consumed, it will burn up your insides." Such water cannot be used for cooking, washing or agriculture. "Clothes could tear if washed in such water, food will rot, crops will wither," warns Raman.

Plachimada's residents did not need lab tests to fathom this. They knew it from experience. While the permissible level of total dissolved solids (TDS) in potable water is 2,000, the water in Mayilamma's well recorded a TDS count of 9,624. The permissible manganese level is 0.3, but was 6.18 in the tested sample. Likewise, iron was 1.58 while it should be 1 or less.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola India spokesperson Vikas Kochhar told Outlook that the groundwater availability in the area "has improved due to our initiatives to set up rainwater harvesting projects since June 2002. We actively monitor the quality of groundwater around our plants." The results of the Sargam Metals test indicate a different ground reality.

Plachimada became newsworthy when a BBC Radio 4-commissioned test in August 2003 found well water near the plant bearing impermissible amounts of cadmium and lead. The Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (Anti-Coca-Cola People's Struggle Committee), which had picketed the plant since April 22, 2001, thought that its battle was half-won when, in December 2003, a single-judge bench asked the plant to stop using excessive groundwater and arrange for water from other sources. Coca-Cola appealed. In March 2004, HCCB suspended operations after the local Perumatty panchayat cancelled its licence; HCCB also got a government order to stop using groundwater.

Almost culminating with the third anniversary of the anti-Coca-Cola struggle, the HC division bench, comprising Justices M. Ramachandran and K.P. Balachandran, ordered the panchayat to issue a licence to the company within two weeks of its submitting an application. On April 13, Coca-Cola applied for a fresh licence. On April 26, the Perumatty panchayat board rejected the application saying the MNC had not submitted mandatory copies of the clearance of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) and a licence issued under the Factories Act. The panchayat has also moved the Supreme Court against the HC order. Coca-Cola may not be able to resume production at Plachimada given that state health minister K.K. Ramachandran has said the KSPCB will not issue clearance as HCCB had still not met the conditions set forth by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes

The SCMC report (August 14, 2004) noted that the groundwater in Plachimada "tasted odd, and was unfit for drinking", and that "this was not the situation prior to the company being established." It wanted HCCB to treat the waste water (using reverse osmosis) before putting it out.

Three years ago, Plachimada's residents were waging a lonely battle. Even the CPI and CPI(M) supported Coca-Cola. Today, every party supports the locals' anti-Coca-Cola struggle. In fact, Plachimada protests echoed in faraway Wilmington, Delaware, at Coca-Cola's annual general meeting of shareholders on April 19. Says Amit Srivastava, director of India Resource Center that coordinates the international campaign against Coca-Cola, who attended the AGM: "The chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, Neville Isdell, brought up issues in India in his opening remarks, an indication that the campaigns from India have been successful."

The HC noted that since wells were drying up despite the plant ceasing operations in March 2004, the allegations against the company could not be true. The division bench based its conclusions on the findings of an expert committee from the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kozhikode. Counters Vellore Swaminathan, convenor of Anti-Coca-Cola People's Struggle Committee: "If there's no improvement despite the plant being shut for a year, how can the groundwater situation improve if 5 lakh litres are sucked out daily? The HC talks only about the availability of groundwater at the same levels. The CWRDM report does not examine issues of pollution or impact on agriculture."

Nine farmers have committed suicide in a 2 km radius of the Coke plant in the last 18 months. On April 12 this year, Prabhakaran (54) of Kalyanapettai, a farmer with four acres, unable to pay the interest on his bank loan, hung himself to death. Says Vijayan, Prabhakaran's neighbour: "Many of us lost our crops due to lack of water. The rains have been poor and groundwater is not available up to 250 feet these days. The situation worsened after Coca-Cola's entry." Despite this, the HC wondered why agriculture has to be given "priority" over an "industrial activity".

Says Janata Dal (Secular) leader M.P. Veerendra Kumar (Kozhikode MP), "Even the National Water Policy says priority should be in this order: drinking, agriculture, power generation and industrial. But the HC judgment places Coke's industrial priorities on top. At the SC we are challenging the bench's observation that 'the panchayat had no legal authority to cancel the licence'. This is violative of the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act read with Schedule 3 and Article 243G of the Constitution." Kumar, who raised the Plachimada issue in the Lok Sabha last week, suggests that cola majors could "set up desalination plants and use seawater to manufacture soft drinks".

Even if the SC upholds the Kerala High Court order­given that India has no law that regulates groundwater extraction or defines who controls groundwater­Coca-Cola will have to face public and political opinion on Plachimada. More important, it's an issue of whether Coca-Cola gets to "quench its thirst" while Mayilamma's throat remains parched.

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