Coca-Cola Offers Plachimada Land Back to Government, Locals Demand Compensation
by Shaju Philip
Indian Express
April 23, 2023

Thiruvananthapuram: Beverages giant Coca-Cola’s India arm Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Ltd (HCCB) has decided to hand over to the Kerala government 35 acres of land in Palakkad district where a defunct bottling plant of the company is located. The plant in Plachimada was closed in 2004 in the wake of massive protests by local people over alleged pollution and exploitation of groundwater. On Friday, activists who were associated with the protests said the government should have made the company pay compensation to local people.

The Kerala Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) said in a statement on Thursday that HCCB CEO Juan Pablo Rodriguez, in a letter to CM Pinarayi Vijayan, informed the company’s decision to hand over the land and the buildings to the state government.

The CMO said the state government explored the option of floating a farmers’ organisation on the HCCB land and initiated discussions with the firm to that end. Discussions with the soft drink giant’s management were held under the leadership of Electricity Minister K Krishnankutty who represents the Chittoor Assembly constituency where the defunct plant stands. Coca-Cola has also expressed its willingness to give technological support for a demo farm proposed to be built on the land, said the CMO.

Krishnankutty said the company would hand over the land to the state government free of cost. “It is the land purchased by Coke and now they are ready to give to the government. We have not finalised how the land should be utilised for the benefit of farmers. We will work on a farmer-oriented project in which local women and former employees of Coke can be deployed. It will be a venture for value-added agri-products,” he said.

Plachimada agitation Solidarity Committee’s general convener R Ajayan said the government should have made the company pay compensation to local people. “The return of the 35 acres of land cannot be a justification for denial of the compensation. The government should have made them pay the compensation. By handing over the land to the state, the company wants to get out of the liability. The committee will decide on its course of action after a meeting.”

The soft drink giant entered Kerala in the late 1990s when the Left was in power. The bottling plant began operations in 2000 only to emerge as a centre of mass protests against the alleged exploitation of groundwater. The Janata Dal-ruled Perumatty village panchayat decided to cancel the licence issued to the Coca-Cola plant, leading to its closure.

After the closure of the unit in 2004, a high-power committee headed by former chief secretary K Jayakumar was formed to fix the compensation amount for local residents. In 2010, the committee directed Coca-Cola to pay Rs 216 crore in damages to the residents of Plachimada. The following year, the Left Front government led by V S Achuthanandan passed a Bill to set up a special tribunal to realise the compensation from the company. The Bill was based on the committee’s proposals. Among other things, it suggested the creation of an exclusive tribunal to make the company pay based on the “polluter pays” principle.

That year, the dispute figured in the WikiLeaks revelations, with Vijayan, then the CPI(M) state secretary, being quoted as saying that the Plachimada issue should not dampen US investments in Kerala.

In 2015, President denied assent for the Bill the Achutanandan government had passed. The following year, in the election manifesto for the Assembly elections, the Left promised to revive the compensation tribunal. But there was little forward movement on the matter after the Vijayan government came to power. The issue did not figure in the Left’s manifesto for the 2021 Assembly polls and that year the government converted the defunct plant into a makeshift Covid care centre using HCCB’s CSR funds. At the time, activists who were behind the protests said the government was trying to wriggle out of the compensation liability issue.

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