Entry of Puthiya Thamizhagam Strengthens Anti-Coca-Cola Campaign
by Nityanand Jayaraman
InfoChange News and Features
October 7, 2005

With the entry of Puthiya Thamizhagam, a powerful dalit political party, villagers in Tirunelveli district have gained an ally in their battle against a controversial Coca-Cola bottling plant that, they say, will divert scarce river water to the multinational

Nearly 100 vehicles, including cycles, motorcycles and cars belonging to supporters of the dalit political party Puthiya Thamizhagam, participated in a 93-km rally on Gandhi Jayanti (October 2) through the 20 villages of the Manoor panchayat union, near Gangaikondan in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu, to highlight local opposition to a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the area. The rally took place against a police order prohibiting it, and was completed despite the presence of over 150 police personnel, say the organisers. “The police troubled us during our visits to the first four villages, but then they slowly warmed up to us and were no trouble for the rest of the day,” said one organiser.

The rally began in Azhagiyapandiapuram at 11 in the morning and ended in Thuraiyoor with a public meeting that ran from 8.30 pm to 10 pm. According to the organisers, over 15,000 people attended public meetings in the 20 villages through which the rally passed. This is perhaps the first time local residents have come out in such large numbers against the bottling plant.

The controversial plant is coming up despite intense opposition from local villagers who say that the Tamil Nadu government has diverted scarce river water to a foreign multinational even as farmers and residents have insufficient water for irrigation or drinking. Coca-Cola’s proxy bottler -- South India Bottling Company Ltd -- will draw 900,000 litres of water each day from the river to manufacture soft drinks for the southern market. Locals also fear the company will eventually drill borewells and suck the aquifer dry. Interestingly, the company is located in a depression alongside an area that is historically known for its highly productive sub-surface springs. The company is reported to have used water-diviners, including from the local university, to identify spots to drill bores within its premises. It enjoys the blessings of heavyweights in the ruling AIADMK party. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa recently assured the state assembly that the bottler would not deplete groundwater. However, the villagers aren’t convinced especially given the fact that Coca-Cola’s host communities across the country have risen in protest against the company.

According to T S S Mani of Human Rights-Tamil Nadu Initiative, the entry of Puthiya Thamizhagam into the anti-Coca-Cola battle has emboldened the predominantly dalit villages to come out openly against the company and voice their apprehensions over Coca-Cola’s water practices. Ever since its inception about a year ago, the bottling plant has faced intense opposition from environmentalists, non-governmental groups and left political parties including the Communist Party (Marxist), Communist Party of India and the radical Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

The entry of Puthiya Thamizhagam could be the clincher in the fight against the multinational. Known to be radical and progressive, the dalit political party, led by Dr K Krishnaswamy, holds considerable sway among the Devendra masses in the area. Speaking at a public meeting in Thuraiyoor, on October 2, Dr Krishnaswamy declared that he would mobilise 100,000 people in the near future and shut down the soft drinks factory.

The area’s farmers are incensed that the company’s requirements have been given precedence over their long-standing demands to revive the canal-tank irrigation system. Agriculture has not been a viable economic activity for more than a decade, residents complain. In nearby Tirunelveli, several pockets of predominantly dalit and backward caste residents live without secure access to clean drinking water even though they live along the banks of the Thamiraparani river.

Puthiya Thamizhagam has said that it will fight for the setting up of clean and water-friendly industries in the area. But, more importantly, it demanded that agriculture in the region should be revived by implementing schemes to repair canals feeding local irrigation tanks and clearing encroachments en route. At least three canals -- Mathikattan Kalvai, Kodagankalvai and Pallikottan Kalvai -- that used to bring water from the Thamiraparani to irrigation tanks in the Manoor region are currently in disuse.

“Instead of talking big about linking Ganga and Cauvery, let the government first work on bringing Thamiraparani water to the region’s farmers,” said Dr Krishnaswamy. The dalit leader condemned the handing over of scarce water resources to private parties and demanded an end to the practice of “selling” water to outsiders.

The party and its supporters in the local government have assured local residents that resolutions condemning the Coca-Cola plant would be issued both at the panchayat (village) level and at the level of the panchayat union (group of villages). Efforts to issue similar resolutions in the recent past have been frustrated, allegedly by agents of the company. Local residents say they suspect foul play in the recent death of Gangaikondan panchayat president Kamsan, coming as it did on the heels of a decision by him to issue a resolution against the bottling company after having initially supported it.

On October 12, a 50-member delegation from the region’s villages plan to visit Plachimada in Palghat district to interact with villagers there and find out first-hand about the water and contamination problems caused by Coca-Cola there. The visit will be organised by the Joint Action Council for Protection of River Thamiraparani and Groundwater.

For more on the Gangaikondan Coke battle, see: Water Wars and Bottle Battles

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