PLACHIMADA, Kerala —Kanniammal, now in her 70s, becomes nostalgic when asked what life was like in her village Plachimada three decades ago. There were no bore wells then and every family had more than enough water for its needs. Even during the peak of summer, the village used its water resources with care.
Things changed in 1999 when Coca-Cola zeroed in on the quiet village as the location for its massive bottling unit. From the following year, as it began extracting groundwater from the area, Plachimada’s water table fell drastically and toxic waste discharged from the plant smothered the soil.
As residents took to the streets to get the MNC off their land, their struggles soon received global attention. The factory was finally closed in 2004, a victory chalked up to the power of an organic, people-led protest.
The first week of February will mark 15 years since the Coca-Cola bottling plant was permanently closed. But Plachimada and its surrounding areas are yet to recover from its excesses.
Now, Kanniammal treks about nine km a day through difficult terrains to fetch a pot of drinking water for her family of five.
“With every passing year, water scarcity has become acute and our livelihoods are in peril,’’ says Kanniammal, who hails from the Ervala tribal community.
Many of the protesters are losing hope, but some still fight on to make the company pay for the damage it caused and to force the government to keep a poll promise it made.
The Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd, an Indian subsidiary of the Atlanta-based manufacturer of aerated drinks, set up its factory in a 38-acre plot in Plachimada in 1999. The plant was built on agricultural land which historically belonged to the Eravala tribals.
The company would draw up to 1.5 million litres of water daily from 6 bore-wells situated inside the factory compound, as permitted by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. Reports say, however, that the plant was drawing up to 2 million litres per day in 2000.
The local agitation caught global attention in 2003, when a BBC show Face The Facts quoted research from University of Exeter that showed slurry from the plant contained dangerous levels of toxic metals such as cadmium and lead. The waste byproduct was being sold to farmers as fertiliser.
“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 findings by the university’s scientists.
A little away from the closed entrance of the imposing bottling unit stands a dilapidated thatched structure. This was the office from where the Plachimada struggle committee operated for many years. Rights activists Maude Barlow, José Bové and Finland’s former minister Satu Hassi were among those who addressed protestors at the venue during the World Water Conference hosted by the village in 2004.
“It was, in fact, a lost battle. The world noticed us when the mighty Coca-Cola decided to close down the unit in the face of our stringent agitation. But successive governments at the state and the centre have created a situation in which none of us would get any compensation from those who plundered our water resources. The governments and political parties seem lethargic about our grievances,’’ says Vilayodi Venugopal, an agricultural worker who became the public face of the agitation.
The village, he says, has been fighting against the company’s water exploitation and its effects for 19 years now, but the living standards of people have not changed.
“Despite the earlier promise to reintroduce the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill in the Kerala state Assembly, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is maintaining a studied silence on our survival-related issues. Those who were once eloquent about our miseries are now doing nothing,” says Venugopal, who is also chairman of the Plachimada Anti Coca-Cola Struggle Committee.
The bill, which was passed unanimously by the Kerala Assembly in 2011, was returned by the President five years later. The Union Home Ministry had objected to the bill, claiming it was in conflict with centre-state relations. It cited some provisions of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Act to back its case.
During its poll campaign in 2016, the LDF had promised it would reintroduce the Bill after removing these conflicts so it wouldn’t need the President’s nod.
The bill had accused the company of alarmingly depleting groundwater, apart from exploiting and wilfully polluting other natural resources of the village.
It also promised to establish a special tribunal for speedy adjudication of disputes and recovery of compensation for the predominantly poor, landless people of Plachimada.
While an expert committee set up by the state government has fixed the compensation amount at Rs 216 crore, the company has not paid anything so far.
Coca-Cola India has responded to the report, which is reproduced below. In 2017, the Supreme Court recorded a submission by the company that it did not intend to reopen the factory. It also told the court that it had not ruined Plachimada’s water resources and that the Kerala government’s actions were “misleading”.
“It is true that the factory remains closed since February 2004. But the alarming groundwater depletion caused by it continues to haunt us. Before the bottling plant was opened at Plachimada, we were fully dependent on our wells, streams and rivulets,” says Arumughan Pathichira, a local resident.
There are about 2,000 residents in the predominantly tribal Plachimada village of Perumatty gram panchayat and their main occupations are agriculture and farm labour.
“Apart from making available Rs 216 crore in terms of compensation from Coca-Cola for crippling life at Perumatty, the Bill had provisions for initiating action against the company for draining groundwater. It also had provisions to prosecute the company’s top executives under the law on prevention of atrocities against Dalits and tribal people. But all major political fronts failed us,” says local tribal activist Neelippara Mariyappan.
Even today, Venugopal says, water in the wells in Plachimada and surrounding villages tastes sour.
The protesters say both major political fronts in Kerala—the LDF and the UDF—have not paid heed to their demands to re-enact the bill.
“The state assembly had passed the Bill unanimously when V.S. Achuthanandan was chief minister after obtaining the opinion of legal experts that the Bill was as per the rights of the state. Many legal luminaries were of the opinion that there was no need to obtain the President’s assent and the state governor could promulgate it. But the then law minister and CPI(M) leader M. Vijayakumar had sent the Bill to the Union Home Ministry for obtaining the President’s assent without taking his Cabinet colleagues or experts into confidence,” alleged S. Faizi, a technical member of the Plachimada high-power committee formed by the state government to look into the damage caused by the company
“It is high time that the government and opposition parties in Kerala reintroduced the same bill after deleting controversial portions, if any,” he added.
Vijayakumar told HuffPost India that he had forwarded the bill as per normal procedure, and that there were no hidden motives behind this.
Faizi termed as unrealistic the Union Home Ministry’s observation that the Bill was in conflict with the NGT Act. The NGT, he said, could accept petitions for compensation in cases only up to five-and-a-half years before its inception.
“The NGT became operational only in May 2011. The groundwater exploitation and toxic contamination caused by the company at Plachimada occurred during 2000-2004,” he says.
“The NDA government at the centre cheated us by succumbing to pressures from the multi-national giant and forcing the president to return the bill. Both the LDF and the UDF in the state have not responded to our demand to re-enact the legislation without requiring the President’s assent,” says Vijayan Ambalakkad, a leader of the struggle committee.
Faizi says the Plachimada struggle raises important questions regarding the ownership of groundwater and other natural resources.
“The company was established disregarding objections from the local panchayat. Its warnings were often violated and overruled. The water resources of an agrarian society were diverted for industrial use. Now are the governments protecting the polluter from paying?’’ he asked.
Coca-Cola India’s response:
Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd. (HCCB) plant at Plachimada in Palakkad District of Kerala was set up with all valid permissions from various State authorities in March 2000. In 2003, the local Panchayat cancelled HCCB’s license of the Plant on grounds of scarcity of water in public interest. HCCB challenged this order and in 2005, the Hon’ble High Court of Kerala held that the cancellation of HCCB’s license by the Panchayat was unjustified and found no basis to the allegation of scarcity of water being attributable to ground water extraction by HCCB. It also held that HCCB was entitled to draw ground water under normal rainfall conditions, with direction to Panchayat to renew the license. However, in March 2004, the Company halted operations at the Plant, of its own volition.
In spite of halting operations, the Plant continued to distribute drinking water to surrounding villages for more than 2 years after it discontinued operations. The plant distributed over 60,000 litres of purified drinking water free of cost every day through dedicated tankers to villages within the Perumatty Panchayat.
Several independent scientific studies, carried out over more than a decade, have not substantiated any of the allegations made against the Plant operations at Kerala.
In fact, in response to a question raised in Session number 210 in the Rajya Sabha, the then Minister for Water Resources on February 27, 2007 laid a Statement on the table of the House. The relevant portion of the Statement is reproduced for reference:
“Decline in ground water levels in an area is cumulative effect of ground water withdrawal for all purposes including domestic, industrial as well as agricultural sectors. CGWB monitors ground water levels on a regional basis and carries out assessment studies at watershed/block levels. However, a special study was carried out by CGWB in Plachimada village, Chittoor Block, Palakkad district in Kerala, where soft drink manufacturing factories are located. The main finding of the study is that agricultural pumpage is contributing the maximum for decline of ground water.”
With respect to the question on compensation, The President of India had withheld his assent to the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill 2011 and returned it to the State.
(The story has been updated to include Coca-Cola India’s response.)