Water wars: Plachimada vs Coca-Cola
The protracted legal battle between the tribals of Plachimada and the beverage behemoth, Coca-Cola drew to a close on Thursday as the latter made a submission before the Supreme Court that it had no intention of restarting operations at its contentious facility in central Kerala. Here is all you need to know about the long drawn out dispute:
Where is Plachimada?
Plachimada is a sparsely populated tribal hamlet in Perumatty panchayat in Palakkad district. Data from the latest round of the socio-economic census reveals that 60% of the population is engaged in agriculture. This corresponds to 2,303 of the 3,802 people who are of working-age in Perumatty, highlighting the importance of agriculture to the local community.
When did Coca-Cola set up shop in Plachimada?
The Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd, the Indian subsidiary of the Atlanta-based manufacturer of aerated drinks, erected its factory in a 38-acre plot in Plachimada in 1999. The plant is situated in the midst of agricultural land, which has historically belonged to the Adivasis.
Palakkad is also known as the rice bowl of Kerala. In its halcyon days, before the company’s relationship with the locals soured, the facility employed 284 people. Audits reveal that around 600 cases comprising of 24 bottles of 300ml capacity each, were produced every day.
What went wrong?
As per the agreement struck by the company with the KSPCB, up to 1.5 million litres of water was drawn commercially from 6 bore-wells situated inside the factory compound. The permit granted Coca-Cola the right to extract ground water to meet its production demands of 3.8 litres of water for a litre of cola.
As a result, the water table receded, as did the quality of groundwater. Detailed sampling of the water collected from the region revealed high concentration of calcium, and magnesium ions.
Moreover, the colloidal slurry that was generated as a by-product was initially sold to villagers as fertilizer.
In 2003, the BBC, in its Face The Facts programme, declared that samples of slurry that was being deployed as fertilizer were found to contain dangerous levels of toxic metals and the known carcinogen, cadmium.
“The area’s farming industry has been devastated and jobs, as well as the health of the local people, have been put at risk,” said John Waite, the show’s presenter, as he read out the verdict of scientists from the University of Exeter, where samples collected from Plachimada were sent for analysis.
In a white paper titled Spatial Assessment of Groundwater Quality in Kerala, researchers from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore infer that Palakkad’s groundwater fares badly on most counts, having a large number of dissolved minerals, above the desirable limit.
Plachimada has been mentioned for failing to meet the quality norms on salinity, alkalinity, and high traces of magnesium, and chloride, among other minerals.
Public anger led to the mobilisation of villagers who formed the ‘Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy,’ a body fighting for the closure of the polluting soda factory, in April, 2002. For a year, awareness camps and torchlight vigils were organised, resulting in several villagers picketing the factory. The cola giant slapped charges against the leaders of the rebellion.
Federalism and the law
The Perumatty panchayat took matters into its own hands by refusing to renew Coca-Cola’s license on account of the exploitation of natural resources that had deleterious effects on public health, as well as agricultural yield. The company challenged this order in the Kerala High Court, which directed the litigants to approach the government’s Local Self-Government Department (LSD). The LSD overruled the panchayat’s order banning the license.
Following the BBC report, the government was forced to sit up and take notice. The KSPCB conducted tests which corroborated the findings of the Exeter researchers.
The panchayat again approached the High Court, which observed this time around that “groundwater was a public property held in trust by a government and that it had no right to allow a private party to overexploit the resource to the detriment of the people.” However, the LSD refused to relent from its earlier position on legal grounds. The company was allowed to continue operation as long as it found alternative sources of water supply.
Things came to a head when the Supreme Court, in 2005, issued a notice to the company allowing it to draw 5,00,000 litres of groundwater per day.
In the intervening years, members of the Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy, as well as the village committee held held awareness programmes to draw public attention to their struggle for corporate accountability. The factory had been in lock-down since 2004, with the legal stalemate ensuring that future of the company’s operations in Plachimada remained uncertain.
The 12-year-old case finally reached closure after much wrangling, when Coca-Cola relinquished its license, stating in the SC that it did not intend to resume production from Plachimada.