Home  |  Life  |  Family  |  Interests  |  Views  |  Gallery  |  Contact 

The Anti Coca Cola Struggle

Coca-Cola had sound reasons in zoning in on Plachimada. A rain-shadow region in the heart of Kerala's water belt, it has large underground water deposits. The site Coca-Cola picked was set between two large reservoirs and ten meters south of an irrigation canal. The ground water reserves had apparently showed up on satellite surveys done by the company's prospectors. The Coke site is surrounded by colonies where several hundred poor people live in crowded conditions, with an average holding of four-tenths of an acre. Virtually the sole source of employment is wage labor, usually for no more than 100 to 120 days in the year.

Ushered in by Kerala's present "reform"-minded government, the plant duly got a license from the local council, known as the Perumatty Grama panchayat. Under India's constitution the panchayats have total discretion in such matters. Coca-Cola bought a property of some 40 acres held by a couple of large landowners, built a plant, sank six bore wells, and commenced operations.

Within six months the villagers saw the level of their water drop sharply, even run dry. The water they did draw was awful. It gave some people diarrhea and bouts of dizziness. To wash in it was to get skin rashes,a burning feel on the skin. It left their hair greasy and sticky. The women found that rice and dal did not get cooked but became hard. A thousand families have been directly affected, and well water affected up to a three or four kilometers from the plant.

When the plant was running at full tilt 85 truck loads rolled out of the plant gates, each load consisting of 550 to 600 cases, 24 bottles to the case, all containing Plachimada's prime asset, water, now enhanced in cash value by Cola's infusions of its syrups.

Also trundling through the gates came 36 lorries a day, each with six 50-gallon drums of sludge from the plant's filtering and bottle cleaning processes, said sludge resembling buff-colored puke in its visual aspect, a white-to-yellow granular sauce blended with a darker garnish of blended fabric, insulating material and other fibrous matter, plus a sulphuric acid smell very unpleasing to the nostrils.

The company told the locals the sludge was good for the land and dumped loads of it in the surrounding fields and on the banks of the irrigation canal, heralding it as free fertilizer. Aside from stinking so badly it made old folk and children sick, people coming in contact with it got rashes and kindred infections and the crops which it was supposed to nourish died.

Lab analysis by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board has shown dangerous levels of cadmium in the sludge. Another report done at Exeter University in England at the request of the BBC Radio 4 (whose reporter John Waite visited Plachimada and broadcast his report in July of 2003) found in water in a well near the plant not only impermissible amounts of cadmium but lead at levels that "could have devastating consequences", particularly for pregnant women. The Exeter lab also found the sludge useless as fertiliser, a finding which did not faze Coca-Cola's Indian vice-president Sunil Gupta who swore the sludge was "absolutely safe" and "good for crops".

The locals, mostly indigenous adivasis and dalits had never had much, after allocation of a bit of land from the true, earth-shaking reforms of Kerala's Communist government, democratically elected in 1956. And they had had plenty of good water. On April 22, 2002 the locals commenced peaceful agitation and shut the plant down. Responding to popular pressure, the panchayat rescinded its license to Coca-Cola on August 7,2003. Four days later the local Medical Officer ruled that water in wells near the plant was unfit for human use, a judgement reached by various testing labs months earlier.

Today, in a region known as the rice bowl of Kerala, women in Plachimada have to walk a 4-kilometer round trip to get drinkable water, toting the big vessels on hip or their head. Even better-off folk face ruin. One man said he'd been farming eight acres of rice paddy, hiring 20 workers, but now, with no water for the paddy, he survives on the charity of his son-in-law.

The old village wells had formerly gone down to 150 to 200 feet. The company's bore wells go down to 750 to 1000 feet. As the water table dropped, all manner of toxic matter began to rise too, leaching up to higher levels as the soil dried out.

The locals won't let the plant reopen, to the fury of Kerala's present pro-Coke government, which has tried, unconstitutionally, to overrule the local council (it told the panchayat it could only spend $5 a day in public money on its case) and hopes the courts will do the right thing and grease Coca-Cola's wheels. Kerala's High Court did just that last week, and the panchayat, helped by private donations, is now taking its cased to India's Supreme Court. K. Krishnan, President of the Perumatti Panchayat, where the Coca-Cola plant is situated, has withstood all blandishments, which is more than can be said about many other individuals.

In the wee hours of April 3, irate villagers blocked a tanker lorry bringing water to the plant. In the morning village women lined up on the road to fill their pots with the water captured from Coke. Later in the day the police swooped on the village and arrested 44 people including seven children.

A few weeks earlier, another group of protestors had emptied a water truck into the parched paddy fields. In the drought-hit Chittur region where Plachimada village is located, three farmers have committed suicide within the last month, unable to bear the pangs of acute drought, crop failure and accumulated debts.

In this region where rains have been below normal for the third year in succession, Coca-Cola has been drawing at least 3,50,000 litres of ground water every day, as a study conducted under the orders of the High Court of Kerala recently found. At full capacity, the plant needed 1.5 million litres of water per day, according to Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB).

A People's Commission chaired by environmentalist Dr. A. Achuthan and another study team of Jananeethi, a Thrissur-based human rights NGO, found eight bore wells on the premises during their site inspection. "Given the capacity of the water pumps (7.5 HP X 4 and 5 HP X 2), the company can extract more than 0.1 million liters of ground water in an hour through the bore wells alone," argues the report of the People's Commission, published in November 2002. Assuming a minimum pumping of 10 hours per day, the company could be extracting close to 1 million liters of water every day," the report says. "Every day the company is siphoning off a quantity of water equivalent to what is needed to meet the minimum requirements of around 20,000 people."

"Considering the huge difference between the amount of water pumped out and the water recharged into the ground by the Coca Cola factory, people's fear of long-term adverse impacts on agriculture seems justified," the Commission observed. The team found that nearly 250 hectares of wet paddy fields in the neighborhood of the factory have already dried up.

"The Plachimada unit of Coca Cola is a typical case of footloose capital bent on exploiting the natural resources till the last and then packing off from the scene," says Dr. RVG Menon, former president of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), the People's Science Movement.

The Anti Coca Cola Struggle Committee and Plachimada Solidarity Committee have already firmly declared that the Cola Company, which has obtained permission to extract 500,000 litres
from the High Court, would not be permitted to operate in Plachimada. On 22 April 2005 an Anti-Cola People's Confluence was organised at Plachimada to commence the next phase of intense agitation with the support of all people.

The Perumatty Panchayat's decision is a landmark in the people's struggle for rights over their natural resources.

Copyright © 2007 Jishi Samuel