18 April, 2005
along the road in the little Tata Indica, driven prestissimo by Sudhi,
we crossed the state line from Tamil Nadu into Kerala, branched off
the main road and ended up in the settlement of Plachimada, mostly inhabited
by extremely poor people. There on one side of the street was the Coca-Cola
plant, among the largest in Asia, and on the other a shack filled with
locals eager to impart the news that they were now, as of April 2, in
Day 1076 of their struggle against the plant.
Coca-Cola came to
India in 1993, looking for water and markets in a country where one
third of all villages are without anything approaching adequate water
and shortages are growing every day. Indeed India is facing a gigantic
water crisis, even as Coca Cola and other companies haul free water
to the cities from the countryside and water parks and golf courses
metastasize around cities like Mumbai.
The bloom was on
neoliberalism back then when Coca-Cola came in, with central and state
authorities falling over themselves to lease, sell or simply hand over
India's national assets in the name of economic "reform".
They still are, but the popular mood has changed.
The apex posterboy
of neo-liberalism, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, feted by Bill
Clinton, John Wolfenson and Bill Gates and such nabobs of nonsense as
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, was tossed out in elections a
year ago. Naidu's fans in the west and indeed in India's elites, were
thunderstruck. The reason was simple. Below the top tier, hundreds of
millions of Indians went to the polls last year to register a furious
No. There are hundreds of parables to explain this. Here's one, courtesy
Across India's give-away
decade Coca-Cola took over some 22 Indian bottling companies, capturing
their marketing and distribution systems and easily beating back various
legal assaults for predatory practices to eliminate competition. Senior
civil servants and politicians, some of them pocketing covert subventions,
made tremulous speeches about the New India. Meanwhile out in the real
world of the Indian countryside, Coca-Cola's bottling plants were getting
less enthusiastic reviews.
Coca-Cola had sound
reasons in zoning in on Plachimada. A rain-shadow region in the heart
of Kerala's water belt, it has large underground water deposits. The
site Coca-Cola picked was set between two large reservoirs and ten meters
south of an irrigation canal. The ground water reserves had apparently
showed up on satellite surveys done by the company's prospectors. The
Coke site is surrounded by colonies where several hundred poor people
live in crowded conditions, with an average holding of four-tenths of
an acre. Virtually the sole source of employment is wage labor, usually
for no more than 100 to 120 days in the year.
Ushered in by Kerala's
present "reform"-minded government, the plant duly got a license
from the local council, known as the Perumatty Grama panchayat. Under
India's constitution the panchayats have total discretion in such matters.
Coca-Cola bought a property of some 40 acres held by a couple of large
landowners, built a plant, sank six bore wells, and commenced operations.
Within six months
the villagers saw the level of their water drop sharply, even run dry.
The water they did draw was awful. It gave some people diarrhea and
bouts of dizziness. To wash in it was to get skin rashes,a burning feel
on the skin. It left their hair greasy and sticky. The women found that
rice and dal did not get cooked but became hard. A thousand families
have been directly affected, and well water affected up to a three or
four kilometers from the plant.
The locals, mostly
indigenous adivasis and dalits had never had much, after allocation
of a bit of land from the true, earth-shaking reforms of Kerala's Communist
government, democratically elected in 1956. And they had had plenty
of good water. On April 22, 2002 the locals commenced peaceful agitation
and shut the plant down. Responding to popular pressure, the panchayat
rescinded its license to Coca-Cola on August 7,2003. Four days later
the local Medical Officer ruled that water in wells near the plant was
unfit for human use, a judgement reached by various testing labs months
All of this was
amiably conveyed to us in brisk and vivid detail by the villagers. Then
Mylamma, an impressively eloquent woman, led us down a path to one of
the local village wells nearby. It was a soundly built square well,
some 10 feet from side to side. About five feet from the top we could
see the old water line, but no water. Peering twenty feet further down
in the semi-darkness we could see a stagnant glint.
Today, in a region
known as the rice bowl of Kerala, women in Plachimada have to walk a
4-kilometer round trip to get drinkable water, toting the big vessels
on hip or their head. Even better-off folk face ruin. One man said he'd
been farming eight acres of rice paddy, hiring 20 workers, but now,
with no water for the paddy, he survives on the charity of his son-in-law.
The old village
wells had formerly gone down to 150 to 200 feet. The company's bore
wells go down to 750 to 1000 feet. As the water table dropped, all manner
of toxic matter began to rise too, leaching up to higher levels as the
soil dried out.
The whole process
would play well on The Simpsons. It has a ghastly comicality to it.
When the plant was running at full tilt 85 truck loads rolled out of
the plant gates, each load consisting of 550 to 600 cases, 24 bottles
to the case, all containing Plachimada's prime asset, water, now enhanced
in cash value by Cola's infusions of its syrups.
Also trundling through
the gates came 36 lorries a day, each with six 50-gallon drums of sludge
from the plant's filtering and bottle cleaning processes, said sludge
resembling buff-colored puke in its visual aspect, a white-to-yellow
granular sauce blended with a darker garnish of blended fabric, insulating
material and other fibrous matter, plus a sulphuric acid smell very
unpleasing to the nostrils.
Coca Cola was "giving
back" to Plachimada, the give-back taking the form of the toxic
sludge, along with profuse daily donations of foul wastewater.
The company told
the locals the sludge was good for the land and dumped loads of it in
the surrounding fields and on the banks of the irrigation canal, heralding
it as free fertilizer. Aside from stinking so badly it made old folk
and children sick, people coming in contact with it got rashes and kindred
infections and the crops which it was supposed to nourish died.
Lab analysis by
the Kerala State Pollution Control Board has shown dangerous levels
of cadmium in the sludge. Another report done at Exeter University in
England at the request of the BBC Radio 4 (whose reporter John Waite
visited Plachimada and broadcast his report in July of 2003) found in
water in a well near the plant not only impermissible amounts of cadmium
but lead at levels that "could have devastating consequences",
particularly for pregnant women. The Exeter lab also found the sludge
useless as fertiliser, a finding which did not faze Coca-Cola's Indian
vice-president Sunil Gupta who swore the sludge was "absolutely
safe" and "good for crops".
Plachimada is in
a district, the Perumatti Panchayat, ruled by the Janata Dal (Secular).
M.P. Veerendrakumar is the President of the Kerala state unit of this
party and represents the constituency of Kozhikode in the Indian Parliament.
Veerendrakumar is also chairman and managing director of Mathrubhumi,
a newspaper which sells over a million copies a day in Malayalam, Kerala's
a forceful man in his late sixties and a former federal minister, tells
me that for the past two years Mathrubhumi has refused to run any ads
for Coca-Cola and the company's other brand names drinks such as Mirinda,
7 Up, Sprite, Fanta, Kinley Soda, Thums Up. Veerendrakumar's group includes
in its ban ads for Pepsi, which he says has a plant ten kilometers from
Plachimada that has produced the same problems. He says his company's
net loss of advertising revenue amounts thus far to a very hefty sum,
though far, far less as he told India's parliament in Delhi, than
what farmers around Plachimada have collectively lost through crop failure
consequent on the loss of water.
fact", Veerendrakumar told the Indian parliament as he handed over
a well-documented report on the toxic outputs of the plant, "is
that water from our underground sources is pumped out free and sold
to our people to make millions every day, at the same time destroying
our environment and damaging the health of our people. For us rivers,
dams and water sources are the property of the nation and her people."
The locals won't
let the plant reopen, to the fury of Kerala's present pro-Coke government,
which has tried, unconstitutionally, to overrule the local council (it
told the panchayat it could only spend $5 a day in public money on its
case) and hopes the courts will do the right thing and grease Coca-Cola's
wheels. Kerala's High Court did just that last week, and the panchayat,
helped by private donations, is now taking its cased to India's Supreme
Court. K. Krishnan, President of the Perumatti Panchayat, where the
Coca-Cola plant is situated, has withstood all blandishments, which
is more than can be said about many other individuals.
Drive along almost
any road in Kerala and you'll see cocoanut palms. What Keralites term
as tender cocoanut water really is good for you. Ask any local rat.
A trio of biochemists at the University of Kerala recently put rats
on it and their levels of cholesterol and triglycerides sank significantly,
with anti-oxidant enzymes putting up a fine show. For the rats dosed
on Coca-Cola the tests readings weren't pretty, starting with "short,
swollen, ulcerated and broken villi in the intestine and severe nuclear
"What is the
use of the Coca-Cola Company," cried Phulwanti Mhase of Kudus village,
in Maharashtra state, where women wash clothes in dirty puddles after
Hindustan Coca-Cola built a plant there. "These are outsiders.
They take our water, filter it and then resell it to us at a price."
Phulwanti is cited
(in a very useful pamphlet put out by the All India Democratic Women's
Association) as issuing this brisk précis of Marx's Capital from
the vantage point of her teashop from which can be descried the outlines
of the plant, which churns out sodas including a mineral water called
Kinley. Phulwanti has one bottle of Kinley in her store for people passing
through, remarking, "I get angry. This is our water and they sell
it to us for 12 rupees, which is what a tribal woman would make for
eight hours' work."
Taking a leaf out
of the self-realization catechism, Coca-Cola flaunts its slogan in Hindi,
"Jo chahe ho jahe", meaning "Whatever you want, happens"
, translated by the local women as "Jo Coke chahe ho jahe",
"Whatever Coke wants, happens."
But not in Plachimada.