Coca-Cola Asked to Return Land to Gram Panchayat
By Omar Rashid
The Hindu
December 21, 2013

After more than a decade of struggle against beverage giant Coca-Cola, villagers in Mehdiganj, 20 km from Varanasi, have something to cheer about.

The local administration has issued the company one week’s ultimatum to return the gram panchayat land it had “illegally” encroached upon for its bottling plant.

Coca-Cola has also been fined Rs. 1,24,590, The Hindu has found.

The step was taken by the Varanasi administration after repeated complaints by affected farmers.

Acting upon the orders of District Magistrate Pranjal Yadav, the local tehsildar ordered the company to return 19 bissas (roughly 1 bigha) of land to gram panchayat. The land had been encroached upon in 1999 and 2011. The administration has also written to the revenue officer and local police to ensure the smooth transfer of land.

“This a battle won for us. We have celebrated and distributed sweets. Now we will fight to cancel the company’s license and uproot it from our land,” said Mr. Nandlal, social activist who has for the past decade organised a local movement against the bottling plant under the NGO Lok Samiti.

The company had earlier proved its occupation by stating that the pradhan had been “paid off” to sign documents that Coca-Cola had returned the land, even though they had not.

In 2005, the DM of Varanasi dismissed the pradhan of Mehdiganj Ram Jivan Patel on corruption charges related to this incident. Even though the company had provided no compensation or alternative land, no action was taken against the company. The courts then found the company guilty and issued notices to it to return the land. However, administrative action was pending.

Since Coca-Cola started its bottling operations in 1999, groundwater in the area has fallen sharply — dropping 7.9 metres (26 feet). As reported in The Hindu on April 20, village panchayats had objected to the extension of the plant, holding Coca-Cola responsible for the aggravation of the water crisis in the area and called on the government to stop its current groundwater extraction. The area’s groundwater has been declared as critical by the government. A 2012 report by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) labelled Coca Cola’s current groundwater extraction in Mehdiganj as “excess” and found the company’s much touted water conservation measures to be ineffective.

The company is now seeking a ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) to extract fives times the current groundwater — from the current 50,000 cubic metres annually to 2,50,000 cubic metres. The company recently received an NOC from the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) on condition that it would acquire an NOC from the CGWB within three months. The time has elapsed and the company is yet to get a clearance from the Central authority.

“We have now written to the UPPCB to fully cancel their NOC,” said Mr. Nandlal.

No representative of Coca Cola was available for comment.

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