The Plachimada Saga
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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