Everything Gets Worse With Coca-Cola
PLACHIMADA, India: - In the end it was the ''generosity''
of Coca-Cola in distributing cadmium-laden waste sludge as ''free
fertilizer'' to the tribal aborigines who live near the beverage giant's
bottling plant in this remote Kerala village that proved to be its
On Friday, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) ordered
the plant shut down to the jubilation of tribal leaders and green
activists who had focused more on the 'water mining' activities of
the plant rather than its production of toxic cadmium sludge.
''One way or another, this plant should be shut down and the management
made to pay compensation for destroying our paddy fields, fooling
us with fake fertilizer and drying out our wells,'' Paru Amma, an
aboriginal woman who lives in this once lush, water-abundant area,
Chairman of the KSPCB, G. Rajmohan, said the closure was ordered because
the plant ''does not have adequate waste treatment systems and toxic
products from the plant were affecting drinking water in nearby villages''
and that the plant ''has also not provided drinking water in a satisfying
manner to local residents''.
Apparently, the generosity of the Coca-Cola plant was limited to distributing
sludge and waste water free and did not extend to providing drinking
water to people seriously affected by its operations.
In a statement Saturday, Coca-Cola said it was ''reviewing the order
passed by the chairman of the Pollution Control Board, Kerala state,''
and that ''going forward, we are in the process of evaluating future
steps, including a judicial review''.
The KSPCB closure order is only the latest episode in a see-saw battle
between Coca-Cola and the impoverished but plucky local residents
ever since the Atlanta-based company began operating its 25 million-dollar
bottling plant in this village, located in the state's fertile Palakkad
district, in 2001.
Along the way, pollution control authorities, political parties, the
judiciary and global environmental groups, starting with Greenpeace
International, became involved in the dispute and Plachimada grew
into a global symbol of resistance by local people to powerful trans-national
corporations trying to snatch away their water rights.
Although the local people had begun protesting against their wells
running dry months after the plant began operations, serious trouble
for the company began a little more than two years ago when a local
doctor declared the water still available in the wells unfit for consumption.
In July 2003, a BBC Radio-4 report, after carrying out tests at the
University of Exeter in Britain, pronounced the sludge as dangerously
laden with heavy metals, especially cadmium and lead and already contaminating
the food chain. The sludge also had no value as fertilizer, the report
Cadmium is a known carcinogen which causes kidney damage while exposure
to lead can lead to mental derangement and death and is particularly
dangerous for children causing them severe anemia and mental retardation.
The BBC report quoted Prof. John Henry, leading toxic expert and consultant
at St Mary's Hospital in London, warn of ''devastating consequences
for those living near areas where this waste has been dumped and for
the thousands who depend on crops produced in these (paddy) fields''.
In August 2003, the KSPCB, ordered the plant to stop distributing
sludge to farmers, but then its official, K.V. Indulal, charged with
carrying out investigations, unexpectedly announced that he found
contamination levels ''not beyond tolerable limits''.
Allegations of bribery and corruption by Coca-Cola followed and the
official Indulal is presently under investigation by the state's Anti-
corruption Bureau which carried out raids on his residence and properties
spread across three Kerala cities earlier this month.
The Kerala High Court initially supported the Plachimada villagers
and in a Dec.16, 2003 ruling, ordered Coca-Cola not to mine water
through its deep bore wells but allowed the plant to draw water in
amounts comparable to that normally used for agricultural or domestic
purposes in the area.
Coca-Cola approached the court after the panchayat (elected local
body) cancelled the plant's operating licence for mining water and
a single judge ruled that the state government had no right to allow
a private party to extract large quantities of ground water which
it deemed ''property held by it (the government) in trust''.
But on Apr. 7 this year, a High Court bench allowed the plant to extract
up to 500,000 litres of water a day saying that existing laws on water
ownership were inadequate. The ruling angered activists and triggered
off a series of clashes outside the gates of the plant between agitating
local people and police.
''The High Court ruling is a great disappointment to everyone concerned
with Coke's abusive practices around the world,'' said Corporate Accountability
International's executive director Kathryn Mulvey in a statement.
Mulvey predicted that resistance to Coke's practices in Plachimada
and throughout India would only grow. ''We join with community leaders
and allies around the world in calling on Coke to close the Plachimada
facility permanently, and to pay back the community for the damage
it has caused,'' she said.
Nevertheless, on the strength of the court ruling, the plant resumed
what were described as 'trial operations' on Aug. 8 after the 561,000-
litre capacity plant that manufactures such brands as Coca-Cola, Limca
and Fanta had lain shut for 17 months.
Barely ten days later, on Friday, the KSPCB stepped in with its closure
order for inability to explain the high cadmium levels and for failing
to provide piped drinking water to people, whose wells had become
contaminated, as required by the body.
Internationally-known environmental scientist and activist, Vandana
Shiva, who leads the New Delhi-based, Research Foundation for Science,
Technology and Ecology, has alleged that after Coca-Cola was restrained
from dumping sludge or distributing it as fertilizer, it had begun
injecting waste into dry boreholes and contaminating deep-water aquifers.
It has not helped Coca-Cola that the discovery of heavy metal in the
sludge in 2003 followed findings by the Centre for Science and Environment
(CSE), another well-known, New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation,
that nearly all colas and 'mineral water' produced in India contained
unacceptably large doses of commonly-used pesticides.
The CSE findings seriously dented the image of Coke and its rival
Pepsi, both of which were banned by nationalist governments for decades
in India and allowed to return only when this country began a process
of economic reforms following a serious balance of payments crisis
Said Veerendrakumar, member of parliament and editor of the influential
'Mathrubhumi' newspaper: ''The fact of the matter is that that water
from underground sources is being pumped out free, bottled and sold
to our people to make millions for cola companies while destroying
the environment and damaging public health''.
''We welcome the order shutting the factory down,'' said R. Ajayan
of the Plachimada Solidarity Committee, which was largely responsible
for approaching the KSPCB. ''We have to continue to work with the
state government to ensure that Coca-Cola abides by the order and
that there are no more violations''.
Coca-Cola is already in deep trouble in India, its sales having dropped
14 percent in the last quarter (April-June), and the company is presently
undergoing major reorganisation and changing its top leadership in
an effort to stem plummeting popularity.
The state government has announced that it will also challenge in
the Supreme Court Coca-Cola's claim to extract water taking advantage
of the fact that existing laws on who owns groundwater are vague.
''We welcome the actions by the state agencies in Kerala to stop the
arrogance and criminal activities of the Coca-Cola company,'' said
Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Centre, an international campaigner.
''These actions are major victories for the community of Plachimada,
which has all along been demanding that the state do what it is supposed
to do - safeguard the interests of the community''.
Sunita Narain, who led the CSE's high-profile investigation and exposure
of the presence of pesticides in colas manufactured in India, said
the real value of the Plachimada struggle lies in the fact that it
has highlighted the role that local communities can have in protecting
In January 2004, the agitating villagers received a boost when global
activists converged on Plachimada for a three-day World Water Conference
and joined in demonstrations in front of the main gate of the Coca-Cola
plant, one of the largest in its chain of 27 plants in India.
Jose Bove, who leads 'Confederation Paysanne' (a left-leaning union
of peasants and farmers in France), declared that the struggle at
Plachimada was '' part of the worldwide struggle against trans-national
companies that exploit natural resources like water''.
Bove was joined by Maude Barlow, the Ottawa-based author of 'Blue
Gold', a book on corporate theft of water resources, in pledging to
turn Plachimada into another Cochabamba -- the city in Bolivia where
people- power thwarted plans to turn the water supply system over
to the U.S. transnational Bechtel five years ago.
The question of toxic materials in the sludge distributed to farmers
by the Coca-Cola factory as fertilizer was also highlighted, among
others, by Inger Schorling, a delegate from Sweden and a green member
of the European Parliament.
A 'Plachimada Declaration' adopted at the end of the conference asserted
that people everywhere should ''resist all criminal attempts to market,
privatise and corporatise water''.
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