Coca-Cola Revives and Sustains, screamed the slogan coined in 1905. More than a century later, the people of Plachimada in Kerala’s Palakkad district disagree.
The global beverages giant has come a long way since 1905 to arrive at the slogan, Be Open Like Never Before, in 2020. However, this was not the only slogan Coke had that year.
It did open up and offered to hand over its 35 acres at Perumatty in Plachimada to the Kerala government. The Plachimada villagers, however, are sceptical.
Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd (HCCBPL) made the offer almost two decades after it was forced to wind up its bottling plant operations in Kerala.
The offer, however, does not ameliorate the sufferings of Plachimada residents like that of septuagenarian tribal woman Kanniammal. She treads long distances to collect water for the daily requirements of her family.
Incidentally, the 35 acres were originally agriculture fields where paddy, groundnuts and vegetables grew.
A trip down memory lane takes Kanniammal from the Ervala community to a water-sufficient Plachimada hamlet, where almost all houses had wells that provided water even during peak summer.
And there were clean brooks and streams that merrily gurgled downstream throughout the year.
Then came Coca-Cola and its massive bottling unit in 2000.
After the fast-moving consumer goods major had set up its plant, the residents of Plachimada found their wells drying up and their agriculture fields turning toxic.
Sensing the danger involved, people rose in protest, a protest which received support from across the globe. Following the uncompromising agitation, and based on an order by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, Coca-Cola shut the plant in March 2004.
In July 2017, the company informed the Supreme Court that it did not plan to reopen the bottling unit.
However, four years later in 2021, the state government opened the plant to set up a temporary Covid-19 treatment centre.
Toxic, water-guzzling plant
“The month of March marked the 19th year of Coca-Cola leaving Kerala,” Kanniammal recalled.
“But the whole village and its surrounding areas are still suffering from the plant’s excessive drawing of groundwater and irresponsible disposal of sludge,” the septuagenarian told South First.
While operational, the plant used to draw 5,00,000 litres of water daily — four litres each for one litre of the carbonated drink.
“The water scarcity in our locality is turning acute by each passing year, and our livelihoods have been crippled beyond repair,” she added.
The plant also distributed waste sludge free as fertiliser to farmers. In 2003, a BBC correspondent collected samples of the sludge and sent them to a lab at the University of Exeter in the UK.
The test result was shocking: The sludge contained unacceptably high levels of cadmium and lead. Cadmium is a carcinogen, while lead could adversely affect the nervous system.
“The area’s farming industry has been devastated, and jobs, as well as the health of the local people, have been put at risk,” John Waite said in BBC Radio 4’s Face the Facts programme while reading out the findings made by the Exeter scientists.
An act of atonement…
A dilapidated thatched shed stands by the imposing closed gates of the bottling plant. The shed was once the office of the Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (Anti-Coca-Cola Peoples Struggle Committee).
Canadian rights activist Maude Barlow and Finland’s former minister Satu Hassi were among the world leaders who had addressed the protesters at this venue.
Plachimada and its protracted agitation against the aerated drinks major are now back in the news again.
On April 21, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan received a letter from Juan Pablo Rodriguez, the CEO of HCCBPL.
The letter expressed the company’s willingness to hand over the 35 acres it had acquired from people in Plachimada to the state government.
The government would also get the building complex where the bottling unit had functioned.
Additionally, the company promised to provide technical assistance free of cost if the government sets up a demo farm, with farmers as its major stakeholders.
Incidentally, a high-power committee set up by the state government estimated that the plant had caused damages to the tune of ₹216.26 crore. No compensation has been paid so far.
Or a deft move to shun responsibility?
According to Kerala’s Minister for Power and local MLA K Krishnankutty, the land purchased by the company using its funds would be handed over free of cost to the government.
He said the government is planning to utilise the property for the benefit of the local farmers. The minister explained that a farmer-oriented project employing local women and former employees of the company is on the cards.
However, the living victims of groundwater exploitation in Plachimada felt the move is yet another attempt by the aerated drinks major to shortchange them. They also expressed doubts over the government’s intentions.
“The company is bound to give us compensation to the tune of ₹216 crore for crippling us and our lands. An expert committee constituted by the state government decided the compensation,” Arumukhan Pathichira of the Plachimada Solidarity Committee told South First.
He felt that a concerted effort is on to avoid paying the compensation.
“Now, the government and the company are jointly trying to shy away from the responsibility of paying the compensation through this gimmick. We will not allow this move,” he asserted.
Birth and death of a Bill
Pathichira added that the Solidarity Committee has been continuously demanding compensation. “The ruling LDF government has done nothing to revive the now-defunct Plachimada Compensation Bill,” he pointed out.
The Kerala Assembly unanimously passed the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims’ Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill on 24 February, 2011. The Bill was to ensure compensation for the residents of Plachimada village.
However, the then President Pranab Mukherjee returned the Bill without giving assent on 1 February, 2016. “The President is pleased to withhold assent,” the Rashtrapati Bhavan said in a communique.
The Bill was denied assent on the recommendation of the Union Home Ministry, which consulted other ministries and HCCBPL. Coca-Cola’s stand has been that the Bill is not legally valid, since the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been established.
Pathichira alleged that the state government is now trying to help Coke to shun legal obligations.
“The world sat up and took note of Plachimada when the mighty Coca-Cola accepted defeat. We will not allow the company to cheat us by conspiring with the government,” Vilayodi Venugopal, an agriculture worker, who became the face of the agitation, said.
“Despite its promise to reintroduce the Bill in the Kerala state Assembly, the LDF government is now attempting to settle the issue forever by working out a compromise formula,” Venugopal told South First.
The formula, he felt, would favour Coke. “Those who were once eloquent about our miseries have now become silent and inactive,” he lamented.
Incidentally, after taking charge as the chief minister in 2016, Pinarayi Vijayan promised to relook at and reintroduce the Bill. But he didn’t.
“It is true that the factory has been shut since 2004. But the alarming groundwater depletion it had caused continues to haunt us,” another Plachimada protester Arumughan said.
“Before the bottling plant was established, we had enough water from our wells, streams and rivulets,” he recalled with a tinge of nostalgia.
Incidentally, after the government Primary Health Centre confirmed independent reports that the water in and around Plachimada was unfit for human conception, Coca-Cola admitted that there was an issue with the water.
But it was unrelated to its activities, Coke said.
The firm offered to provide drinking water via tankers and to initiate rainwater harvesting programmes at the factory and in the community.
There are about 2,000 families in the predominantly tribal region of Plachimada, and agriculture is their mainstay.
“Apart from making Coca-Cola pay a compensation of ₹216 crore for crippling life at Perumatty, the Bill also had provisions for initiating action against the company for draining groundwater,” local tribal activist Neelippara Mariyappan said.
“It also had envisaged the prosecution of the company’s top executives under the provisions of preventing atrocities against Dalits and tribal people. But all major political fronts in Kerala failed us,” he added.
Minister’s wrong move
On 22 April, 2002, more than 1,300 people marched to the Coca-Cola plant and laid siege to it. The protest was the result of the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources.
“The water table fell drastically, and the leftover sources became unusable. Even today, the well water in Vijayanagar Colony, Plachimada Colony, Rajunagar, Velur, Madhavamotharpathy, Kochikadu, and Thotichipathy, and surrounding villages tastes sour,” Venugopal said.
He said the defunct Bill had promised a special tribunal for the speedy adjudication of disputes and recovery of compensation for the poor, landless victims of Coca-Cola.
“The state Assembly had passed the Bill unanimously when VS Achuthanandan was the chief minister. Several legal luminaries thought there was no need to obtain the President’s consent and that the state government could promulgate it,” said S Faizi.
Faizi was the technical member of the Plachimada High Power Committee constituted by the state government to look into the damage caused by the company.
“But the then law minister M Vijayakumar had by then forwarded the Bill to the Union Home Ministry for the President’s assent without taking his Cabinet colleagues or experts into confidence,” he alleged.
“It is high time that the government and Opposition parties in Kerala reintroduced the Bill after deleting controversial portions, if any. But sadly, the government is playing second fiddle to the FMCG major,” he said.
Faizi also mentioned the Union Home Ministry’s “flawed” observation that the Bill conflicted with the NGT Act. He said the NGT could accept petitions for compensation in cases only up to five-and-a-half years before its inception.
“The NGT came into existence only in May 2011. The groundwater exploitation and toxic contamination caused by the company at Plachimada occurred during 2000-2004,” he told South First.
“The NDA government at the Centre cheated us by succumbing to the pressure of the multinational giant and forcing the President to return the Bill,” Vijayan Amabalakkad, a leader of the committee that had headed the anti-Coca-Cola struggle, said.
“Both the LDF and UDF have not responded to our demand to re-enact the legislation,” he added.
“The anti-Coke struggle posed several questions to the civil society and the political-judicial systems of the country. They are related to the ownership of groundwater and other natural resources,” Faizi said.
“The company was established, ignoring objections from the local panchayat. Its warnings were often ignored and overruled. In an agrarian society, its water resources were diverted for industrial use. Now, is the government protecting the polluter from paying up,” Faizi asked.
Faizi’s questions remain unanswered even three years after Coke had coined another slogan: Together Tastes Better.