The agitation against the bottling unit of a multinational soft drink
giant in water-starved Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu is fast
turning into a battle against the privatisation of water resources.
Resistance to the Rs.30-crore beverage bottling plant coming up in
the southern Tamil Nadu district of Tirunelveli is intensifying. The
protesters allege that the unit, a water-intensive one will lead to
the depletion and contamination of groundwater and affect agriculture
in the drought-prone district.
The plant is being set up to manufacture branded items of the multinational
soft drink giant, Coca-Cola. Construction work for the unit under
the South India Bottling Company (P) Limited (SIBCL), is under way
in the Industrial Growth Centre of the State Industrial Promotion
Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) at Gangaikondan, 15 km from Tirunelveli.
The Left parties and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are
spearheading the protest.
In the latest of a series of protests, held on September 23, nearly
1,000 activists of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI)
and the Students Federation of India (SFI) were arrested when they
staged a demonstration and road roko at Duraiyur, on the Tirunelveli-Madurai
National Highway, close to the SIPCOT centre. DYFI State secretary
S. Kannan, cautioned that the State government's action in placing
a huge quantum of water from the Thamiraparani river at the disposal
of the bottling unit might mark the beginning of a major thrust in
the direction of privatising drinking water resources consistent with
its loyalty to World Bank-driven neoliberal policies. Kannan said
the agitation would continue "until the licence to the unit is withdrawn
by the government".
Ten days earlier, over 2,000 volunteers, including a substantial number
of women, of the People's Art and Literary Association (PALA), the
Peasants Liberation Front, the Revolutionary Students and Youth Front
and the New Democratic Labour Front, all Marxist groups from different
parts of the State, participated in a rally in Tirunelveli against
the granting of the licence. A Bangalore-based group of 50 "revolutionary
students and youth" were also among the protesters. When the agitators
later marched towards the construction site to stage a demonstration,
they were arrested.
The organisers of the September 12 protest had to seek judicial intervention
after the police denied them permission to hold the rally in order
to frustrate their months-long mobilisation efforts. V. Marudhaiyan,
PALA general secretary said the organisation also planned to seek
The people of Rajapathi village near Gangaikondan went on a mass fast
demanding withdrawal of the permission to the unit. This followed
awareness campaigns conducted by the activists among people in Tirunelveli
and the neighbouring districts of Thoothukkudi, Kanyakumari and Virudhunagar.
Handbills, pamphlets and booklets detailing the disastrous consequences
of the multinational beverage giant's unfettered operations in the
country with the blessings of the governments were distributed in
scores of villages to educate the people on the adverse consequences
of the policy of privatisation of water. They highlighted the agricultural
ruin, environmental degradation, and depletion and contamination of
water sources caused by beverage bottling units at Plachimada in Kerala,
and nearer home, at Padamathur in Sivaganga district, where the units
had to shut down following massive protests.
The issue was raised in the Lok Sabha by M. Appadurai of the Communist
Party of India and P. Mohan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Both demanded the Centre's intervention to protect the region's water
resources and agriculture.
What is significant in the case of the Gangaikondan unit is that the
State government has not only granted licence to the water-intensive
plant disregarding the track record of the beverage giant, but also
extended to it all the benefits of an industrial estate, which include
assured supply of a huge quantity of water through pipelines, knowing
full well that in this specific case water is going to be put to commercial
use as a vital input for its products. SIPCOT, a government organisation
established in 1972 to serve as a catalyst in the development of small,
medium and large industries, has created so far 17 industrial complexes,
parks and growth centres in the State and the Gangaikondan growth
centre is one among them. For the aspiring entrepreneurs, it offers
"readymade infrastructure", project assistance, single-window clearance,
grants and State incentives and marketing assistance.
The Gangaikondan SIPCOT centre, situated on 2,017 acres (816.25 hectares),
has a saleable area of 1,543 acres (624.43 ha). It has a capacity
to supply to the industrial units in its complex 45 lakh litres of
water every day from the water it draws from the Thamiraparani, the
only perennial river now in the region and the lifeline of the district.
The water is brought to the centre from the river at a point near
Seevalapperi, about 25 km away, through a pipeline. It is this water
that is shared with the bottling unit to be made into value-added
water to be put up for sale. It is to be noted that scores of villages
in the region, though not far away from the river, are yet to get
protected water supply through pipelines.
Although the Gangaikondan SIPCOT centre came into being five years
ago in this backward region, which saw large-scale caste-related violence
in the late 1990s, it has not been able to woo more than a couple
of industrial units so far. The centre is, in fact, part of the State
government's development initiatives launched in the region to counter
caste forces' activities. In response to an application submitted
by the Chennai-based SIBCL to SIPCOT for 10 plots measuring a total
of 31.64 acres (12.80 ha), the government agency allotted it, through
an order dated October 21, 2004, the land at the rate of Rs.3 lakhs
an acre, a substantial proportion of which formed development charges,
"on lease for a period of ninety-nine years to set up an industrial
unit for the manufacture of soft drinks, aerated water (bottling plant)".
A notable point is that the application (dated September 30, 2004)
was cleared in less than 15 working days. The allotment order states:
"SIPCOT will, subject to availability, supply up to 6,00,000 (six
lakhs only) litres of water per day at the rate fixed by SIPCOT from
time to time." So, water, the principal component of and input for
the product, is to be supplied to the bottling unit as part of a package
provided by SIPCOT to any industrial unit on payment of a nominal
charge, the current rate being just Rs.18 for one kilo litre.
SIPCOT's allotment order also states: "10 a) The allottee shall not
sink any well/borewell/tubewell within the plot leased to them. In
case of short supply from SIPCOT sources the allottee can apply for
permission, which can be considered subject to the conditions as applicable.
10 b) If any such open/bore well exists already in the plot allotted,
it shall be under the custody of SIPCOT."
The order further states: "12 a) SIPCOT shall have the right to lay
pipelines, sink borewells or put up any facilities for common use
within a strip of 5 metres left open all sides within the periphery
of the plot on the plot allotted to the company/firm without payment
of any compensation of rental, etc., to the company/firm."
Another condition is: "20. The allottee shall not draw water from
their own borewell/tubewell sunk in private lands adjacent to SIPCOT
Industrial Complex/Park/Growth Centre through pipeline unauthorisedly
trespassing into SIPCOT premises. If at any time, such trespass is
found by SIPCOT, water supply will be disconnected besides severing
the trespassed water line."
The order insists that the company should establish a zero-discharge
effluent treatment plant as prescribed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution
Control Board (TNPCB) and obtain its approval before commencing production.
It also stipulates that no solid or liquid waste be disposed of at
the growth centre.
It is on these conditions that the bottling unit bases a major part
of its defence. SIBCL's argument is that since it has agreed to comply
with these conditions, the fears of depletion and contamination of
groundwater are irrelevant and ill founded.
Critics, however, do not agree. According to them, there has been
no independent monitoring mechanism to ensure strict compliance and
there is no guarantee that the unit will not step up its demand for
water when it starts running to full capacity. In fact, they point
out, SIPCOT itself seems to have provided for such eventuality as
is borne out by some of the conditions that do not completely rule
out permission to go in for additional water use when needed.
The company's contention that the unit could generate jobs for about
500 local people has no takers. Vice-president of the State unit of
the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), S. Kasiviswanathan, said
the unit would be highly mechanised and might not need a large workforce.
He said that even for construction work the unit had brought in labour
from Andhra Pradesh.
Right from the day SIBCL started its construction activities early
this year, the agitation against the unit began to take shape. Among
the early campaigners was a group of committed members of the Tirunelveli
divisional unit of the All India Insurance Employees Association,
led by C. Muthukumarasami, who is also the district secretary of the
Tamil Nadu Science Forum. In coordination with a number of NGOs, including
the Navajeevan Trust, Manitha Urimai Kalam and Vanmuhil, the CPI(M)
took the initiative to form the Thamiraparani and Groundwater Protection
Forum under the leadership of R. Krishnan, a former member of the
State Assembly. The forum organised a series of meetings in different
parts of the district to create awareness among the people. A padayatra
(march) with `Save Thamiraparani' as the theme was undertaken in July
from Papanasam, where the river originates, to Athur, where it empties
itself into the sea, to create awareness among the people. The CPI
and its youth and trade union wings also held campaign meetings at
several places. Several other parties, including Puthiya Thamizhagam,
threw their weight behind the protesters.
The campaigners appealed to the traditional anti-imperialistic sentiments
of the people of the region by recalling the heroic fight against
the English East India Company by Veerapandia Kattabomman who refused
to pay tax to the alien rulers and faced the gallows, the launching
of a swadeshi shipping service from Tuticorin to Colombo by V.O. Chidambaram
in the early 1900s to compete with foreign shipping companies, and
the patriotic acts of Subramania Bharati, who inspired freedom fighters
with his powerful poems. They also recalled the glory of the Thamiraparani,
hailed by poets from Valmiki to Bharati, and appealed to the people
to save it from plunder. They brought to the notice of the people
the laboratory findings about the toxic nature of the beverages sold
Krishnan said the campaign initially was slow in making any impact
among the people of the villages around the SIPCOT growth centre.
In fact, the local people did not come forward to criticise the plant,
because they believed that it could generate job opportunities for
them. However, Krishnan said, a visit to Plachimada and Padamathur
in Sivaganga district (Frontline, June 20, 2003)by the leaders of
the local community, arranged by the campaigners, brought a qualitative
shift in these people's attitude to the bottling plant. Among those
who changed their stand was V. Kamsan (who died of jaundice on August
30), president of the Gangaikondan panchayat, which had given its
approval to the building plan of the plant. After his visit to Plachimada,
he was convinced that the unit ruined agriculture in the Kerala villages
around the factory (Frontline, May 6) and supported a resolution against
the construction of the building by the Gangaikondan unit. (He retracted
his position once again.)
"When we saw with our own eyes the damage caused by the Plachimada
plant to the local agriculture and water resources, we realised the
magnitude of the hazards we faced," said Niraikulathan, a former president
of the Gangaikondan panchayat. He came out in support of the protest
action. C.S. Mani, a member of the Manoor Panchayat Union Council,
said that he had sent notice of a resolution to the Union Council,
which would press for a refusal of licence to the unit to start running
the plant, when approached as required by the law. "Now that we have
made a breakthrough by convincing the local communities, we will move
on to involve the people in a more broad-based and intensive struggle,"
said R. Karumalaiyan, secretary of the district unit of the Centre
of Indian Trade Unions.
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.