Don't Poison My Well
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
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
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
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
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.
FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.