07 / 2011
In March 2000, Coca Cola, under its Indian subsidiary Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCCBPL), commenced operations at its bottling plant at Plachimada, in the southern state of Kerala. Over the next few years, the area surrounding the plant began to feel the plant’s hazardous effects, as groundwater was contaminated and toxic waste released. What followed was a long struggle by the people of Plachimada, interest groups, and NGOs, leading to the eventual shutdown of operations at the plant.
The following article will attempt to outline the events that transpired during the course of the struggle, which took place at two levels: the grassroots and the judiciary.
Plachimada is a little hamlet in Palakkad District, which is known as the ‘rice bowl of Kerala.’ The majority of the population consists of adivasis (indigenous people). The primary occupation is agriculture. About 80% of the villagers are engaged in agricultural labour, with 20% engaged in other labour activities.
In 1998, HCCBPL acquired 34.4 acres of land (mostly paddy fields) in order to set up a bottling plant at Plachimada. On January 25, 2000, the Perumatty Panchayat (a local governing body whose constituency includes Plachimada) granted permission to begin building the plant. In March 2000, operations began. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) granted the company a permit to produce 561,000 litres of beverage per day, with an average requirement of 3.8 litres of water for a litre of beverage. The source of water was primarily groundwater from about 6 bore wells and two open ponds, and about 2 million litres of water per day was extracted.
Within six months of commencement of operations at the plant, the villagers complained that the water was unsuitable for drinking or cooking; it had turned milky white and was brackish. In the subsequent months, several villagers complained of unusual stomachaches, while farmers complained of wells emptying unusually fast and crop yields decreasing. Corpwatch India, a public interest group, found that there were high levels of calcium and magnesium in the water, caused by excessive extraction of water.
The bottle washing taking place at the plant involved chemicals, and the resulting sludge was taken out of the plant. Initially the sludge was sold as fertilizer to unsuspecting farmers, following which it was given free, and with increasing resentment among villagers, it was merely dumped on the roadside. In the few months since commencement, more than 1000 families in the surrounding villages had been affected.
The Anti-Coca Cola Struggle
On April 22, 2002, the ‘Coca Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy’ (Anti-Coca Cola Peoples’ Struggle Committee - henceforth Samithy) began its protest against the plant, with over 1500 people, mostly adivasis, demanding the immediate shutdown of the plant owing to the severe hazard it was causing to their daily lives. The protest began in the presence of C.K. Janu, known as the ‘black pearl’ of Kerala, who has vigorously struggled throughout her life for the rights of adivasis. The protestors formed a blockade around the gate of the plant and set up a sit-in picket near the gate of the plant. The police were called, and they immediately arrested several protesters, dispersed the rest of them, and set up a police contingent outside the plant. The next day, several members of the group were arrested by the police on trumped-up charges. The villagers responded with a torchlight procession protesting the excesses by the police. Several street corner meetings and intense campaigns followed.
On June 7, 2002, a rally of 500 people was organised by the Samithy in the face of a security cordon comprised of the police and the plant security. The protesters threw 50 sacks of cow dung at the walls of the plant, and then symbolically cleaned it. In the following days, tensions with the police escalated. On June 9, 2002, a rally and public meeting was organised by People’s Union for Civil Liberties and National Alliance for Peoples Movements in solidarity with the Samithy. In response, the police refused permission to use a microphone, following which a protester was beaten up by the police, and more than 130 protesters were arrested.
On August 4, 2002, the Samithy organised a massive rally and public meeting, with over 1000 attendees starting their march from Palimukku, a village 6 kilometres from Plachimada. Veloor Swaminathan, an adivasi leader and convener of the Samithy, presided over the public meeting. He spoke about the experience of the struggle and the sacrifices and sufferings of the adivasis, agricultural labourers and other affected peoples.
After this rally, the picketing outside the plant continued unabated. Meanwhile, beginning in April 2003, the struggle against the cola giant took a decisive legal turn.
The Battle at the Judiciary
On April 7, the Perumatty Panchayat decided not to renew the license of HCCBPL. The secretary of the Panchayat cancelled the license, stating the following reasons: excessive exploitation of the groundwater by the company, environmental problems due to presence of hazardous and toxic substances in wastes emitted by the company, and a scarcity in drinking water. This was challenged by the company at the Kerala High Court, which directed the company to approach the Local Self-Government Department (LSD) of the State Government. On June 12, 2003, the LSD stayed the cancelation issued by the Panchayat, stating that it had exceeded its powers.
On July 25, 2003, the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Face the Facts’ reported the presence of carcinogens in the waste deposited by the plant. This waste had been dumped in the adjoining areas on the pretext of providing fertilizer to the farmers. On August 5, 2003, the Centre for Science and Environment, based in Delhi, came out with a report that showed that 12 soft drinks had significant amount of pesticides in them. On August 7, 2003, KSPCB confirmed the BBC report, and ordered Coke to stop supplying waste to the adjoining areas and to immediately recover all waste and store it in safe containment within the premises of the plant.
In light of these facts, the Perumatty Panchayat again issued a notice to the company, following which the company again petitioned the High Court, which again referred them to the LSD, which again sided against the Panchayat. In response, the Panchayat filed a writ petition to the High Court challenging the legality of the intervention of the LSD with the functions of the Panchayat. Additionally, the Panchayat sent a list of 16 questions to the company and asked them to appear on November 17, 2003, with all supporting documents and reports. The company arrived at the meeting, but without any supporting documents, and instead challenged all the allegations made by the Panchayat as baseless.
On December 16, 2003, a single bench of the High Court, in response to the writ petition by the Panchayat, came out with its decision. It held 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.” It stated that the usage of groundwater must not exceed that utilized to irrigate a 34 acre plot, as was being used by the company. Additionally, it instructed the Panchayat that the company could continue operations, but only if it could find alternative sources of water. The company challenged the decision of the court by going to a division bench of the High Court, which overturned the decision of the single bench, allowing the company to extract water till the next hearing of February 12, 2004, but maintaining that the water usage must be monitored with placement of water meters.
While these legal battles were going on, a World Water Conference was organised near Plachimada at Pudussery on January 23, 2004. On the third day of the conference, the Plachimada declaration was adopted, and it made several significant claims: “it is our fundamental obligation to prevent water scarcity and pollution and to preserve it for generations… Water is not a commodity. We should resist all criminal attempts to marketise, privatise and corporatise water. Only through these means we can ensure the fundamental and inalienable right to water for the people all over the world.”
On February 21, 2004, the Government of Kerala declared Palakkad District to be drought affected, and ordered an immediate restriction on the company’s usage of groundwater. On March 9, 2004, the company stopped operations. On January 15, 2005, marking the 1000th day of picketing, protesters declared that the company would not be allowed to resume operations, at any cost.
On February 12, 2005, a committee setup by the High Court to look into the case submitted its report, stating that the maximum permissible usage of water must be no more than 500,000 litres per day. A counter-report with a much lower figure was published by the Centre for Science and Environment and submitted via the Panchayat; however, the high court abided by the findings of the earlier committee, and ordered that the Panchayat issue a new license to the company within one week’s time. The company then filed for a five-year renewal, which was rejected by the Panchayat owing to non-fulfillment of the conditions set by the High Court. On April 22, 2005, a huge rally was organised at Plachimada to mark three years of the protest against the company.
However, on June 1, 2005, the High Court again ordered the Panchayat to issue the license within a week, or else the company would be deemed to have received a license. The Panchayat had no choice but to issue a license; therefore, it gave a three-month license subject to strict regulations. Following this, the company resumed operations, ignoring the regulations stipulated by the Panchayat.
But the plant did not operate for long. On August 19, 2005, the KSPCB rejected the application that had been pending with the board since September 20, 2004, stating that “The Board had examined the sludge generated by the Company and it was found that it was containing the heavy metal cadmium at concentration of 200 to 300 mg per kg of sludge, which is 400 to 600% above the tolerance/permissible limit”. The KSPCB ordered the company to immediately stop production.
On November 16, 2005, the High Court yet again demanded that the Panchayat to issue a license. But by then, new rules established by the Kerala Groundwater (Control and Regulation) Act had taken effect. And on November 19, 2005, the Water Resource Department included Plachimada under the category ‘overexploited’, which prevented any further extraction for commercial purposes. In January 2006, the company began considering ways of moving operations from Plachimada, and no operations have taken place at the plant since.
On June 30, 2010, Chief Minister of Kerala V.S. Achuthanandan announced the state cabinet’s decision to set up a dedicated legal agency “to assess the actual compensation due to every applicant and issue orders to the company for compliance.” On February 16, 2011, the cabinet approved a draft bill, which was passed shortly thereafter in the legislative assembly, to form a tribunal for securing compensation and relief for the environmental degradation caused by the company at Plachimada. The bill was prepared on the basis of recommendations of a high-power committee set up to study the issue, which had estimated that the people in the area had suffered a loss of 21.626 million rupees due to pollution and water shortage caused by the operation of the plant.
The struggle at Plachimada continues to this day as villagers seek to recover the loss of livelihood and counter the extreme damage to the water resources in the area. The struggle represents the efforts of villagers and activists to wage a battle against a multi-national company both at the level of the grassroots and the judiciary. It is also a testament to the ability of local self-governance bodies to effectively determine the nature of development in their respective areas, and their right to prevent undue extraction of their resources.
This article is available in French: La lutte de Plachimada contre Coca-Cola
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