Plachimada is predominantly an Adivasi area withover a thousand families, mostly landless and eking out a living as agriculturelabourers. The Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd established this unit in1999 in a 38-acre plot (previously multi-cropped paddy lands) at Plachimada ofPerumatty Panchayat in Chittoor Taluk of Palakkad District in Kerala. 134permanent workers and about 150 casual labourers are employed in the factory,mostly from outside the area. On an average about 85 lorry loads of beverageproducts (Coke, Fanta, Sprite, Thumbs-Up, Mirinda, Maza besides Kinley MineralWater), each load containing 550-600 cases and each case containing 24 bottlesof 300 ml capacity leave the factory premises every day. Water is sucked outfrom the 6 bore wells and 2 open wells in the factory compound, extracting some0.8 to 1.5 million liters of water per day. The site is located a few metersaway from the main irrigation canal from the Moolathara barrage.
Within two years of the establishment of theCoca Cola plant, the people around the plant began experiencing problems thatthey never ever encountered before. The ground water receded. The quality ofwater available drastically changed.The effect spread to around 1 to 1.5 km radius of the Coca Cola plant. Watershortage upset the agricultural operations – the mainstay of the Adivasis.Salinity and hardness of water increased with high concentrations of calciumand magnesium that rendered water unfit for human consumption, domestic use(bathing and washing), and for irrigation. Earlier the foul smelling drysedimented slurry waste was "sold" as fertilizer to the unsuspectingfarmers which was later given "free" and now, with protests andobjections, surreptitiously dumped on the way side and on lands at night.
On 26April 2002 a false case was filed by Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages PrivateLimited in the High Court against the activists and leaders of the Coca-ColaVirudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy such as Venugopal Vilayodi and VeloorSwaminathan. They demanded that the picket be dismantled, people be preventedfrom voicing their dissent and the plant be provided police protection. Acounter was filed by the Samara Samithy in the High Court. The Court concededthe right of people to protest peacefully and ordered the police to provideprotection to the Coke plant as well as the protesters. Heavy police protectionsince then has been provided to the Coke plant. Police intimidation of theprotesters persists to create a violent situation that has failed till date.
For thefirst two months or so, the struggle faced hostility and threat from theorganized and combined strength of the mainstream political parties such as theCommunist Party of India (Marxist), Janata Dal, the right wing Bharatiya JanataParty and the Congress besides the elected representatives. The local panchayat(local elected administration dominated and controlled by Janata Dal) werepositively hostile to the struggle. By and large, the media pretended to ignorethe struggle or gave more credence to Coke’s version with some arguing the casefor Coke. These sections supported Coca Cola’s campaign that the protests are’politically motivated’, indirectly meaning that extremist elements are behindthis so that the state could be provided the scope and justification to crushthe peaceful struggle in the most violent manner. The bogey of ‘development’ andthreat of unemployment of the Coke workers if production is affected, wereraised. Coke’s environmentally friendly and socially responsible approaches werealso harped upon. Despite physical threats, the struggle persisted with theAdivasi women, the main victims, forming the backbone of the struggle. Thestruggle soon acquired support from diverse sections – from the Gandhians tothe radical left revolutionaries to the environmentalists from across the statewho organized agitations in support of the struggle and constituted solidaritycommittees. Hundreds of protesters and their supporters have been arrested onvarious occasions and false cases foisted on them. Support campaigns soonemerged from different parts of the country as well as internationally. Similarprotests against Coke plants from other parts of the country were alsoreported. The media could no longer ignore the struggle despite Coke’s armtwisting. Coke then acknowledged that there indeed was a problem with the waterfor which they were not responsible. They offered drinking water as well asstarted rainwater-harvesting programmes within the plant as well as outside it.Coke itself found that they had to organize water from elsewhere as theaquifers were depleted. The people of course were not impressed.
Withthe struggle gaining popularity and support from a wide section of the peoplein the state, the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Indian(Marxist), organized protest against Coke, Congress (the ruling party) and thegovernment and in the process de-legitimizing the local party leaders who weresupporting coke. Janata Dal, who controlled the local administration – the panchayat- too had to fall in line lest they lose face. Except the ruling party in thestate, the Congress, most of the small and larger parties now vie with eachother in declaring their opposition to Coke’s extraction of water. In addition,the critical days of US invasion of Iraq had led to a call for boycott of USproducts that caught popular imagination in the state. Coke symbolized USimperialism in the popular mind.
Asearly as 4 March 2002, a private laboratory had tested the water and concludedthat the water contained very high levels of ‘hardness’ and salinity that wouldrender water from this source unfit for human consumption, domestic use(bathing and washing), and for irrigation. This was further corroborated by thegovernment Primary Health Centre on the basis of the analysis carried out bythe government’s Regional Analytical Laboratory. They concluded that the wateris not potable around the Coca Cola Factory and asked the Panchayat on 13 May2003 to ensure that the public be informed about this.
On 25July BBC Radio 4 Face the Facts programme released a damning report of findingcarcinogens in Coca Cola plant waste upon testing in the laboratory of theUniversity of Exeter. Dangerous levels of toxic metals and knowncarcinogens, cadmium and lead, were found in the ‘product’ passed on to localfarmers by the Coca-Cola plant as ‘fertilizer’. Some other heavy metals,including nickel, chromium and zinc, were also present at levels significantlyabove those expected for background, uncontaminated soils and sludge. The BBCReport was subsequently confirmed by the Kerala Pollution Control Board, theofficial pollution monitoring authority on 8 August, in fact, reporting afigure that was more than double of what the BBC reported and four times theprescribed norm by law. The Board then had ordered the company to stopsupplying the waste to others and to recover all the waste transported outsideand to store them safely in the plant site. The same Board in an attempt toplacate Coke subsequently carried out one more test, which reported negligibletraces of carcinogens, which the government itself had to reject as beingconducted in an unscientific and careless manner. At the same time, on 5 Augustanother major damning exposure was made when Down to Earth of Centre forScience for Environment of New Delhi reported that soft drinks including thatof Coca Cola tested for pesticides higher than the permissible level in the USand European Union. Around the same time, the US ambassador to India on behalfof the US government was pushing the case of Coca-Cola that Coca Cola waswilling to divest 49 percent (which was obligatory under the license underwhich the company was permitted to operate in India) but on the condition thatthis 49 percent would not have any voting rights!
ThePerumatty Panchayat, where Plachimada is located, cancelled the license issuedto the Coca Cola Company on 7 April, which was challenged by Coke. The HighCourt asked the government to take decision. The government stayed the decisionof the panchayat to cancel the license on 12 June. On 16 December the HighCourt directed Coke to close all the bore wells and to stop extracting groundwater beyond what was required for irrigating 34-acres of land. Further the government was asked to carryout elaborate investigations into all allegations related to water andcontamination of water and land. In its ruling, the court held that groundwaterwas a public property held in trust by a government and that it had no right toallow a private party to overexploit the resource to the detriment of thepeople.
Though the single bench had ordered Coke to findalternative sources of water, the Division Bench in effect upturned thedecision ensuring status quo. In January 2004, the consumption of water wasalso ordered to be monitored to determine the quantity of groundwater that thecompany utilized. This was to be carried out under the control of the representativeof the High Court appointed expert committee along with Perumatty GramaPanchayat. Between Jan. 12-19, it was found that the Coke plant used 275,000liters per day. Meanwhile scientific investigation ordered by the court was tocontinue. The Panchayat was also ordered not to take any steps that would leadto the closure of the plant.
Meanwhile, the Kerala Government declared sevenout of the total fourteen districts in the State, including Palakkad, asdrought hit. Once regarded as Kerala’s rice bowl district, Palakkad is the onlydistrict that has been under drought spell since 1998. In February, the KeralaGovernment banned the use of groundwater by the Coca-Cola factory at Pachimadain Palakkad district until June 15. The ban was limited to four months as themonsoon was expected to set in by June.
The High Court then granted Hindustan Coca-ColaBeverages Limited one month to close down its wells and find an alternativesource of water. But the judge also directed the village council to renew thelicence of the plant and restrained it from interfering with the functioning ofthe factory.
The renewal of licence to Coca Cola that wascancelled by the Perumatty grama panchayat on April 7, 2003 came up once again.The Panchayat refused to renew licence for the next five years. The stategovernment promptly upturned the decision of the Panchayat saying that thePanchayat did not have this power. The High Court however stayed thegovernment’s decision and directed Coca Cola company not to resume operation ofthe company’s plant.
The plant had stopped operations from March 9after the high court upheld the government order prohibiting the company fromdrawing groundwater till mid-June following severe drought in the region.
As the Coca Cola Company reiterates that theywould reopen the plant, the struggle of the Adivasis of Plachimada continues,as the situation of their source of water remains the same without anyreprieve. Water for the people and therefore their survival is yet to becomethe issue for the system as the political-administrative-judicial system isstill debating over jurisdiction of power, the scientific validity of theallegations and other such dilatory matters being preoccupied with the issue of’water for Coca Cola’ ! This struggle has also become well known by drawingpeople from all over the world and as a symbol of the struggle againstimperialist globalization.