Adivasi Groups Vs. Coca-Cola
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C. R Bijoy  

This article marks significant turning points in the 3 year struggle against Coca- Cola’s environmental record. Listing the events, the author then goes on to ask what solutions can be made available given that the state appears to have divested itself of all autonomy in the face of multi-national capital.

Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (Anti Coca Cola Peoples Struggle Committee) consists of the people in and around Plachimada, mostly landless agricultural labourers belonging to the Eravalar and Malasar Scheduled Tribe communities who are classified as ‘Primitive Tribes’ by the Government of Kerala. Besides, there are also the Dalits and small farmers from different castes and religions. The Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee is constituted by 32 organisations from across the State of Kerala in support of the just struggle of the people of Plachimada.

On 15 January 2005 the Adivasi struggle against MNC soft-drink giant, Coca-Cola entered the 1000th day. The date was marked with a blockade of the factory at Plachimada, Kerala. The Adivasis had established a picket in front of the Coca-Cola factory since 22 April 2002. It was reiterated that the people would prevent the reopening of the factory at all cost. It was on 9 March 2004 that the Coca-Cola factory suspended production.

On 22 April 2005, the struggle against Coca-Cola in Plachimada completed three years. The Anti Coca Cola Struggle Committee and Plachimada Struggle 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.

The struggle had drawn diverse organizations such as Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha, Democratic Youth federation of India, All India Youth Federation, Solidarity Youth Movement, Yuva Janatha Dal, Yuvajana Vedi, Gandhi Yuva Mandalam, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, National Alliance of People’s Movements Lohia Vichar Vedi, Kerala Swathanthra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishath, Adivasi Samrakshana Sangham, Desiya Karshaka Sangham, Poraattam, Students Christian Movement, Small Traders Association, Pattikajathi-Pattikavarga Munnani (Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe Front), Palakkad Munnottu and many others besides many political parties such as Janatha Dal, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Socialist Unity Center of India, Communist Party of India-ML (Red Flag), Communist Party of India-ML (Liberation), Samajvadi Jana Parishad and a host of others in active support of the struggle.

On 14 February 2005 the Investigation Team constituted by the High Court on 19 December 2003 submitted the Final Report on Investigations on the Extraction of Groundwater by Hindustan Coca-Cola beverages Pvt. Ltd (HCCB) at Plachimada. The Expert Committee had permitted extraction with restrictions up to 5 lakh liters per day and lesser according to the extent of rainfall. This report was flawed on a number of counts which were pointed out by a number of people. But the High Court preferred to go by the recommendations in the Report instead. The High Court declared on 7 April 2005 that the Panchayat was not justified in not issuing the license and ordered that license be issued within one week of the application by HCCB, provided that the company had the license under the Factories Act and the necessary clearance from the Pollution Control Board. On 13 April 2005, HCCB filed an application to the Panchayat for renewal of license for a period of five years from 1 April 2005. On 26 April the Panchayat rejected the application citing non-fulfillment of the conditions set by the High Court for issue of license.

Outlook news magazine had commissioned Sargam Metals Laboratories (Coca Cola is one of their clients and they are recognized by the Department of Science and technology, Government of India) to carry out a water analysis on 23 April 2005 from a well. The lab reported that the water "chemically does not meet the requirements for most of the parameters tested for potability as per ISO 10500 specifications set by the Bureau of Indian Standards.”A pH value of 3.53 (against the permissible 6.5-8.5 at 25 degree C), making it "highly acidic". ."If consumed, it will burn up your insides." Such water cannot be used for cooking, washing or agriculture. "Clothes could tear if washed in such water, food will rot, crops will wither”. While the permissible level of total dissolved solids (TDS) in potable water is 2,000, the water…recorded a TDS count of 9,624. The permissible manganese level is 0.3, but was 6.18 in the tested sample. Likewise, iron was 1.58 while it should be 1 or less.”

The High Court on 1 June 2005 ordered the Perumatty Panchayat to consider issuing license within a week of application for the same by HCCB, and if the Panchayat did not issue the license in favour of the company then the company was to be deemed to have received license for operation effective from 10 June. The Court in effect overrode the law rather than uphold the law! On June 6 the Panchayat issued a three-month license, imposing conditions, which were not acceptable to HCCB. But Coca-Cola resumed production on 8 August, fraudulently citing the High Court as permitting to operate as though it had the license when it did not.

Renewal application of the company of 20 September 2004 for commencing operation from 1 January 2005 was pending with Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB). KSPCB did not consider the application as the plant itself was ordered closed down by the High Court since 9 March 2004. Since the application was defective on a number of counts, especially the silence over the source of cadmium in its waste, the Pollution Control Board rejected the application on 19 August 2005 when the High Court permitted Coca Cola to seek license and commence operation. KSPCB stated that the “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”. Coca Cola had also not complied with the order to supply piped drinking water to the affected families as per the direction of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee. Coca Cola had also not installed Reverse Osmosis System or any other more efficient system for better treatment of effluent. Therefore the KSPCB refused grant of clearance. Meanwhile, both the Panchayat and the State government appealed to the Supreme Court against the High Court orders.

In another setback to Coca Cola, on 19 November 2005 the Kerala Water Resources Minister announced the government decision to declare of 31 panchayats under clause 6 of the Kerala Ground Water (Control and Regulation), Act, 2002 as ‘notified area’. Perumatty Panchayat where Plachimada was located was significant. Once again the charge of local communities that the Panchayat has been facing acute survival problems on account of debilitating quality of water and acute shortage of water stood validated. The Ground Water Authority can now even reject the request of use of ground water for industrial purpose in the notified area.

Coca Cola has been making claims that “their production process follows zero discharge” meaning that all their waste water was reused; “a rainwater harvesting system has been implemented that recharges ground water with more than what the company extracted” and that the waste was not hazardous. With the declaration of Perumatty Panchayat as a “notified area” by the government, once again it indicts Coca Cola for making patently false claims and promoting untruths. Perumatty Panchayat is now classified as “over exploited”. Obviously, “over exploited” by Coca Cola making all their claims as nothing but cheap public relations work to bluff the media and the people.

The lack of improvement in the quality and quantity of ground water in Plachimada even after more than a year of the closure of Coca Cola plant was proof enough that the area’s sub-surface water cannot even marginally be recharged by rainwater harvesting. If this was so, there should have been a remarkable improvement in both the quality and quantity if ground water from the rains combined with the absence of extraction of ground water by Coca-Cola in the last one year.

Meanwhile, worldwide the struggle has gained widespread support including amongst students in Europe and US. Coca-Cola has been losing out on contracts in the university campuses and colleges.

HCCB has not only been violating the rights of the people and the laws of the land, but it has even ignored/disobeyed the valid and lawful orders of the government departments, the institutions of self-governance, the state government as well as the courts. HCCB has demonstrated its utter disregard of the local communities, the elected representatives, and the civil society organizations besides the structures of governance and law.

Why have political actions by political parties been restricted to the public space and in the streets only? Why have not political actions been extended to examine relevant state laws and central laws, and their rules and regulations considering unanimity in perception on the basic issues in Plachimada amongst both Left Democratic Front and the ruling United Democratic Front besides the Panchayat and State government? Both the political party alliances are also partners at the center in the United Political Alliance. Is it not time for the political parties and others to accept that the present state and central laws, and the administration of the laws are grossly inadequate to handle such gross and blatant violation by such companies as Coca Cola who has been willfully violating laws with confidence that they can get away? That the people of Plachimada continue to suffer with polluted water and lack of potable water due to (rapid) extraction by HCCB and that HCCB continues to get away with non-compliance of existing laws indicate that the laws, and rules and regulations are not inadequate and have failed to act as a deterrent or prevent such problems, nor are they sufficient to prosecute in the event of willful violation of laws that threaten both lives and livelihoods of people? Therefore review of central legislations, their rules and regulations could be undertaken to propose changes/amendments to existing central legislations? These could be construed as the proper political interventions that political parties and the central and state governments can do. Why there is total silence on these fronts when these are obvious? These actions can also overcome the current legal impediments, if any. After all, it is the legislature/parliament that can enact or change laws. It can also overcome the court orders, which may due to weak laws or absence of laws. Why is the State government and political parties not wanting to take the issue outside of the court into the political arena of legislation and/or executive decisions/actions as per relevant laws which is amply demonstrated in the recent turn around of the state government to go on appeal against the high court judgment and activating the Ministry of Health to ensure that KSPCB acts as per law? The state government, until recently, had consistently acted against the interest of the people of Plachimada, for instance by the acts of omission and commission of KSPCB by attempting to frustrate the legally valid actions of Perumatty Panchayat.

Was this not a clear signal that foreign investors were welcome to invest, extract natural resources including survival resources of the people, and violate the law as long as they can get away with such violations? Was it also not a clear signal that the state and the judiciary would remain passive or even active collaborators to such violations as long as public protests and people’s resistance can be contained?

The struggle has clearly outlined that the state has lost its capacity to act on its own against capital. Public protests to raise issues, provide explanation to the issues and provide direction to resolving them does not any longer lead to the requisite political, administrative or judicial response. The struggle has also to define the solution and develop the strategy for solution. This is so in this era of globalisation. The earlier notion of struggle in the form of street protests and other forms of protests are no longer sufficient to resolve the issue. In addition to these, the struggle has also to provide the solution which would transform the governance system as the present governance system has become subservient to, controlled/influenced by and an instrument of market and global capital. Therefore a governance system controlled by the masses need to be thought about.

In this case, the command over ground water and the right to protect the environment should be transferred from being the exclusive prerogative of the state agencies to the people directly as community rights for which Panchayat Raj Act (local self government system) amendments could be made empowering the gram sabha (village assembly) directly. There are already precedents in the constitution for instance in the Panchayat Raj (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996.

The agenda has to move beyond and not away from ‘anti-coca cola’ to the agenda for people’s rights and powers. In other words, solutions for problems of democracy lie in further democratization. The state of Kerala is simply just ripe for this after the many experiences in decentralization and people’s planning. The challenge is to move away from decentralization to that of evolution of non-centralized governance system.


First published in Ghadar []