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Plachimada vs Coca-Cola: 1,000 days on

By N P Chekutty

Activists and campaigners converged on Plachimada in Kerala recently in support of the ongoing struggle to shut down the Coca-Cola plant which has been dangerously overdrawing water

Mayilamma, a 50-year-old tribal widow, has been at the forefront of the people's agitation against the multinational Coca-Cola, in the small village of Plachimada in Perumatty panchayat, in Kerala's Palakkad district. The agitation recently completed 1,000 days.

When activists from all over the country came to Plachimada on January 15, 2005 to pledge support to the cause of the people of this little hamlet, Mayilamma and her band of tribal women were the main focus of attention. "We launched this agitation because we had no other way," said Mayilamma, a peasant woman whose husband had died several years ago. The villagers are agricultural labourers, heavily dependent on the land.

When the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Company Private Ltd set up a plant here on June 3, 2000 , the village had no idea the move would prove so disastrous for the poor people living there. Two years on, the village's water sources had dried up, their wells had become toxic and people who used the water for drinking and other purposes had developed various illnesses. The women were forced to trek long distances for water -- something they eventually learnt was a result of the plant that was drawing sub-surface water from huge wells sunk into the factory premises. The company was drawing out as much as 1 million litres of water every day.

The villagers' protests received little attention; no mainstream political party even offered assistance. It was left to C K Janu, a tribal leader fighting for the restoration of adivasi lands, to take up the cause. When C K Janu inaugurated the agitation against the plant, on April 22, 2002 , only a few activists from the People's Union for Civil Liberties, Kerala unit, and the militant outfit Ayyankalippada were there to support her.

Mayilamma says they had to carry on their struggle in the face of threats and even physical abuse. On the 50 th day, the police pounced on several adivasi agitators sitting in a satyagraha in front of the plant. Seven women were severely injured, many were arrested. Slowly the agitation began to catch the attention of people all over the country with activists like Medha Patkar arriving in Plachimada to express their support.

The National Alliance for People's Movement, led by Medha Patkar, launched the Ayodhya march from Plachimada on January 26, 2003 , bringing the agitation onto the national arena.

As it gained momentum, the Perumatty panchayat, controlled by the Left Democratic Front and led by its president A Krishnan, a dalit, decided to cancel the operating licence issued to the Hindustan Coca-Cola Company. Later, however, the state government restored the licence and stayed the panchayat order.

A turning point in the agitation came when, based on certain chemical tests done at laboratories in London, the BBC reported that effluents from the plant -- the chief cause of water pollution in the area -- contained high levels of cadmium and lead. This point was later corroborated by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Pesticide Residues and Safety Standards for Soft Drinks, Fruit Juices and Other Beverages, chaired by Sharad Pawar, in its report, in January 2004. The report stated that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), in a note submitted to the JPC, had stated that sludge from the effluent treatment plant at Hindustan Coca Cola Ltd, Palakkad, was hazardous as its cadmium content was found to be more than 50mg/kg. As a result of this finding, the CPCB directed the Kerala State Pollution Control Board to ensure that sludge from the plant was treated and disposed of, according to the Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, where heavy metal concentration exceeds limits.

In a related development, the Kerala High Court halted the drawing of sub-surface water for commercial purposes. In a landmark judgement it says: "It can be safely concluded that the underground water belongs to the public. The state and its instrumentalities should act as trustees of this great wealth. The state has got a duty to protect groundwater against excessive exploitation and inaction of the state in this regard will be tantamount to infringement of the right to life of the people guaranteed in the Article 21 of the Constitution."

The JPC, which examined the issue of excessive water exploitation and pollution of natural resources in Plachimada, said in its report that the commercial use of groundwater resources must be adequately restricted. Although the ministry of water resources, in a memorandum to the JPC, took the line that the use of groundwater could not be charged as the land and its resources belong to the owner who is free to use his assets in any manner he liked, the JPC rejected this plea on the basis of a high court ruling that water was free only for domestic and agricultural use, not for commercial purposes. It also stated that as water was a state subject, central legislation could not be enacted unless the concerned state legislature passed a resolution asking the central government to take the necessary steps in this direction.

Taking note of the fact that the plant's operations in Plachimada had caused severe damage to agriculture, the JPC noted that the company must take the strong sentiments of the local people into account. It also called on the state government to intervene and take appropriate action.

The JPC also commented on the poor levels of recharging of water by companies that had drawn excessive amounts of groundwater. While the Hindustan Coca-Cola plant was recharging water to the extent of 50% of the level it used, the position of the Pepsi Cola plant, in adjacent Pudussery, was far from satisfactory. It was recharging only 10% of its total water use, said the report. The JPC recommended that the proposed Act on groundwater usage should make it mandatory for those who used water for commercial purposes to recharge it to the maximum extent, and that a monitoring mechanism be put in place.

Following the firm stand taken by both the high court and the JPC, the Kerala government decided, on February 17, 2004 , to stop the plant from drawing water for commercial purposes.

In the summer of 2004, the entire district was declared drought-affected and the two offending plants had to stop operations from March. They still remain in the area, however, causing immense anxiety to the local people who are determined to continue their agitation till the very end.

"We will not rest till the plants are closed down permanently as we are sure the groundwater will neither be recharged nor will the local people be compensated for the loss of livelihood," says Vilayodi Venugopal, head of the action committee overseeing the agitation. Mayilamma and the other women in the panchayat share the view that the only way to resolve the agitation is through the plants' closure.

On the 1,000th day of the agitation, activists Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar, French environmentalist Agnes Bertrant, Canadian activist Tony Clerk, anti-Cola campaigner from Mehdi Ganj, Madhya Pradesh, Aflathoon, and others arrived in Plachimada, where a resolution was adopted to continue the agitation till the plant was closed down. A national-level joint campaign committee was also launched to coordinate similar agitations now on in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and a number of other states where local people are involved in protests against the excessive exploitation of their water resources by multinationals.

(N P Chekkutty is a New Delhi-based journalist. He has worked as chief reporter of the Indian Express , Kozhikode , and director of news, Kairali TV, Kochi)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2005