The Plachimada Saga
By Sevanti Ninan
The Hindu
June 19, 2005

Last week the Perumatty panchayat refused, for a second time, permission to Coca Cola to draw water for its Plachimada plant. As environment stories go, the one about this plant in Kerala is an international favourite that refuses to fade away. A panchayat led by a Dalit president has, for more than a year, kept the multinational corporation from drawing water to operate its 34-acre plant here. It makes a splendid David and Goliath story. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio has featured it twice, once memorably inviting the Coke representative to take a sip of well water from these parts and recording his wary response. The story is one of both ground water depletion and surface pollution that is making the water in wells in the vicinity of the plant undrinkable. Coke says its direct culpability in the matter has not been established.

The plant was closed after the panchayat cancelled the licence of Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Ltd to use groundwater from here in March 2004. An April 2005 ruling by the Kerala High Court ordered the panchayat to issue a licence to the company to extract five lakh litres of water a day. But the panchayat has since rejected the company's application twice.

The Plachimada protest is led by Dalits and adivasis. The pollution comes from the sludge Coke dumped in the area surrounding its plant which the BBC tested and declared to have a high content of cadmium and nickel. Coke was passing it off as a fertilizer.

A story kept alive

Given Coca Cola's persuasive powers, the story is kept alive far more effectively by campaign sites on the Internet than in the Indian print media. In mid-May this year, S. Anand in Outlook did a two-page story pegged to the High Court ruling, titled "Don't Poison My Well". It said it had tested the water from the well of an adivasi woman living in a colony abutting the plant and had found it foul smelling. The reporter had the water tested at a government accredited laboratory and announced that it had a level of total dissolved solids (TDS) of 9,624, when the permissible TDS for potable water was 2,000.

What followed was curious. After a two-week silence, Outlook carried on June 6 a page-long opinion piece titled "Ground (Water) Realities" authored by a Dr. M.V.R.L. Murthy, identified as the Head of Hydrogeology at Coca Cola, India. His piece rubbished the magazine's earlier story, floated a watershed theory on why the plant could not be affecting the colony's ground water, and presented a separate set of lab results that put the TDS at less than one-fifth of the magazine's finding.

There was no counter rejoinder to this from the magazine. Says an incredulous letter addressed to this column, "Murthy has trashed Outlook's story and argued that the original story is full of untruths. Outlook has not defended its story at all." Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta response to this is: "I believe we behaved very professionally. We had our say which Coca Cola contested. We allowed them one rejoinder. Both versions are in the public domain. The reader can decide which one he wants to believe."

A Kerala newspaper, Mathrubhumi, which has been campaigning on this issue for three years, has been sued for its pains. Coca Cola slapped on it a Rs. 50 lakh defamation suit, which has yet to come up for hearing. The paper is unfazed. Managing director and Member of Parliament Virendra Kumar says that they do not take Coke or Pepsi or Palm Oil ads so that the paper can campaign on issues of its choice. And editor K. Gopalkrishnan admires the panchayat's tenacity in fighting for water for the community. Of his paper's support for the villagers' struggle he says, "I might have gone wrong but I don't think I have. Because without drinking water you cannot survive."

Frontline has, in the past, cited the BBC's test findings on the chemicals in the Coke sludge. Internationally, Plachimada continues to be a cause celebre. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the panchayat's fight in March, this year, websites of SpinWatch, India Resource Center and Counterpunch, have written copiously on the issue.

Dr. Murthy, in Outlook, invites readers to visit the Plachimada plant to "experience the world class practices implemented there." May be more journalists should take up his offer and tell us what they found.

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