SYMBOL OF PROTEST
A protest movement is slowly but steadily building. If the mood turns violent in response to Coca-Cola’s continuing assaults on their survival, nobody can blame them”. It was on May 24, 2002 I wrote in Green Left Weekly, the very first article about cola exploitation. The slow but steady protest became the embodiment of anti-imperialist struggle.
Plachimada is an Indian tribal village in Palakkad district of Kerala. The water reservoir of the land was the major attraction to the multi national corporate giant coca cola beverages limited to install their bottling unit in Plachimada. The factory’s 16 hectors compound was previously irrigated multicropped paddy land. Everyday about 85 trucks loads of product left the factory. Each lorry was loaded with 550-600 cases. Each case contained 24b bottles.
To make more than 300000 liters of soft drink each day requires hundreds and thousands of liters of water. All the water requirements of the plant are not from more than 60 deep bore wells and from 2 large open wells.
The continuous heavy withdrawal of ground water by the plant has adversely affected the water table. Water availability in the open wells and shallow bore wells over an extensive area has drastically fallen. Salinity and hardness due to calcium salts increased.
Tribal people around the colonies such as Plachimada, Vijayanagaram, Velur and Madhavan Nair colonies in Perumatty gramapanchayath and the Rajeev Nagar and Thodichipathy colonies in Patanchery grama panchayath affected worse. At least 750 families’ drunk contaminated water and lived breathing the foul smell. The suffocated villagers united and thought about their destiny. They shared furies.
They built a small shed called Samara Panthal and started Satrhyagraha on April22, 2002 just opposite to the factory. The village peoples lonely Satyagraha was a negligible element to the almighty multi national money tanks. They started a lot of ‘traditional campaigns and utilization of power monks’ through bribes and other ways. It is clear that at beginning all trade unions and political parties were against the protesters. No political parties come and declared solidarity or sympathy to the protesters except certain small left extremist organizations who have not much popularity in Kerala circle.
After long years Satyagraha, campaigns, legal interventions and continuing struggles at various levels they are on the path of victory.
Every day indigenous sufferers assembled and sat in samarapanthal. It became the life space of majority of volunteers. Most of them slept and woke in the pandal. Women and children came early morning and left the pandal at evenings. Schoolchildren forgot to go to schools in protest busy days.
The major demands of the satyagrahies were:
Coca Cola Company put a full stop to the factory activities and to the exploiting of their water.
Distribute drinking water to the locals.
Not only the villagers, but also whole world now realize Coca Cola Company is liable for their destiny. The almighty coca cola company already closed the shutters of the factory. The big gate before the factory premises and colorful nameplate appears as a ghost like look today.
The latest development after a lot of legal fights and expressions is the constitution of a high power committee to study the facts and faults of the coca cola company’s works. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI (M) leading left government in Kerala expressed its woe to the prays of corporate exploitation. The committee with K.Jayakumar IAS as chair and V.P Ramakrishna Pillai as convener recommends:
The Coca Cola Company at Plachimada has been causing environmental degradation by over extraction of ground water and irresponsible disposal of the sludge.
The Coca Cola Company is culpable under several laws in force.
The water resources of the area have been affected and the water scarcity has been compounded.
By passing off the sludge as manure, the Company has not only misguided the farmers but has become responsible for the soil degradation, water contamination and consequential loss of agriculture.
There has been a steady decline in the agriculture production in the area.
The production of milk, meat and eggs also has suffered.
Metals like cadmium, lead and chromium have been detected in the sludge and this has affected the health of the people.
The general health of the people has been affected with skin ailments, breathing problems and other debilities.
Low birth weight of children has also been noticed.
Environment of the Village has acutely been damaged by polluting water and soil.
Drinking water has become scarce, women have to walk long distances, and this has deprived them of their wages, and this needs to be compensated.
Children have dropped out of the school because of the social, health and economic factors caused by the pollution caused and this opportunity cost has to be compensated.
The Grama Panchayat has been providing drinking water in tanker Lorries ever since the Company has rendered the wells and water bodies useless by its extraction of water and disposal and effluents.
The actual economic loss because of the depletion of water resources has not been quantified but its proxies have been used.
The compensation that could be claimed on various losses has been calculated as below:
Agriculture loss: Rs. 84. 16 crores
Health damages: Rs. 30. 00 crores
Cost of providing water: Rs. 20.00 crores
Wage loss and opportunity cost: Rs. 20.00 crores
Cost of pollution of the water resources: Rs. 62.10 crores
Total: Rs. 216.26 crores
There are sufficient provisions under the existing laws to claim this compensation of these damages from the Company under the 'polluter pays principle'.
However, it is desirable to set up a dedicated institution to adjudicate the individual claims. Such a dedicated mechanism could either be a Tribunal under Art. 323 B of the Constitution of India to be legislated by the state legislature or an Authority under section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to be created by the Central Government.
Once Government decides on a suitable mechanism and it comes into being, individual claims will have to be assessed and actual compensation decreed and the polluter Company made to pay it.
The company located in this drought-prone area, should not resume its operation.
Through these recommendations, not only the village people but the Government of Kerala underline the fact that the liability of coca cola beverages limited. This will be a novel experience to the Swiss multi national corporation. By the steady movement, Plachimada became the symbol of anti-imperialist struggle and it wrote a unique chapter in the world history of green agitations.
(Ratheesh Kaliyadan is available at email@example.com)