The Cola Giants In Kerala
By R Krishnakumar
31 January, 2004
`Battle of Plachimada', for the people's right to water, is now being
fought in the courts of Kerala, but the world is fast becoming its grand
stage, much to the discomfiture of the profit-guzzling soft-drink giants
Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
in front of the Coca-Cola unit at Plachimada on January 22, led by,
among others, M.P. Veerendrakumar, Jose Bove and Vandana Shiva.
Following the 2004
meeting of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai, the small village
of Plachimada in Palakkad district of Kerala witnessed a rare union
of radical unionists, `Green' politicians, environmentalists and social
activists from around the world, expressing solidarity with villagers
who have been hopelessly engaged in a battle for their right to water
with the multinationals for over two years.
The three-day World
Water Conference at Plachimada from January 21, organised by the Perumatty
panchayat, has come as a catapulting event for the people near the local
Coca-Cola unit as well as those living near the bottling plant of rival
soft-drink behemoth, Pepsi, located in the neighbouring panchayat of
Both cola giants
have in a short span of two years sucked their neighbourhoods dry, according
to the villagers. Alarmingly, as a BBC Radio 4 inquiry found in August
2003, Coca-Cola is in the dock also for distributing sludge containing
dangerously high levels of the toxic elements cadmium and lead to the
villagers who were made to believe that it was "fertilizer".
The companies have been maintaining that the drought-like conditions
in the villages are a result mainly of poor rainfall and that the sludge
was but only "harmless" soil conditioner. The State government
and, for a long time, the panchayat authorities too continued to be
apathetic, as villagers, including those in 10 colonies of Dalits and
tribal people, found that their drying groundwater sources were also
getting highly polluted and unsuitable for use.
In late 2003, after
Plachimada caught the attention of the global media following the BBC
Radio 4 inquiry, the Perumatty panchayat decided to order the closure
of the Coca-Cola factory, a move shot down by the State government.
A domino action by the Puthusseri panchayat against the Pepsi unit too
met with a similar response from the government. Both panchayats have
since approached the courts. In December, a Single Bench of the Kerala
High Court ordered Coca-Cola to find altrernative sources of water for
its high production needs (Frontline, January 30). But the court also
took the stand that the panchayat should not interfere in the functioning
of the cola unit if the company could find alternative sources of water
for its use.
For the villagers,
hopes of an early solution through the courts were shattered when a
Division Bench of the High Court subsequently ordered the appointment
of a multi-agency expert committee to ascertain whether the current
level of exploitation of groundwater by the company was indeed the reason
for the scarcity of water experienced in the region. The committee in
turn has informed the court that it would take at least a year for it
to prepare a final report. Plachimada was bracing for a long-drawn out
court battle between multi-million dollar industrial behemoths and the
two panchayats with meagre resources.
What the aggrieved
villagers, a lot of them poor farmers, Dalits and tribal people, badly
needed was to connect their isolated woes to similar struggles taking
place elsewhere against corporate theft of the world's most valuable
resource. "Globalise your struggles to globalise your hopes,"
the inaugural message by Jose Bove, the redoubtable leader of `Confederation
Paysanne'(a leftist peasant farmers' union in France) and a symbol of
the growing resistance against all things corporate, was a sharply targeted
one. "The struggle at Plachimada is part of the worldwide struggle
against transnational companies that exploit natural resources like
water. These companies have made water a priced commodity to make profit.
We will take this issue across the globe as the finest example of overexploitation
of water resources by companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi," he said.
Not many of the
villagers who listened to Jose Bove at Plachimada would have heard about
him. But, by their presence at the conference, unimaginable for the
villagers a few months earlier, standard-bearers like Bove were quick-linking
the 640-day lack-lusture struggle at Plachimada to the anti-globalisation
efforts worldwide. "Yours is a just struggle. These companies have
to quit. You have every right to ask them to get out of your lives.
We do not know how long the battle will last. But you know that your
fight is right and you will be successful. You have the support of the
farmers of France and members of other anti-globalisation resistance
movements in different parts of the world," Bove said.
Like Bove and Maude
Barlow, the Ottawa-based activist and writer described as `the Joan
of Arc of those opposed to the sale of water', there were a number of
leading activists and environmentalists from across the world who were
in Plachimada to listen to the people affected by the Coca-Cola-Pepsi
water mining. They included Heidi Hautala, Inger Schoerling and Steve
Emmott from Sweden, Ward Morehouse from the United States and Hosse
Bube from France.
Barlow said that
multinational companies were playing with the lives of millions of people
by trying to privatise scarce water resources. "Transnational corporations
were trying to control the remaining precious water because those who
now control the `Blue Gold' would control the world," the author
of Blue Gold, a book on the theft of the world's water and of huge corporations
seeking control of the world's water supply, said. "The struggle
at Plachimada is to prove that water belongs to the people. We urge
Coca-Cola to close down its operation in the village quickly,"
she said, pledging support of the people of Canada and elsewhere who
were engaged in the fight to protect their drinking water supplies.
"The new water
policy of the government is geared towards privatisation. There is no
substitute for water. We will see to it that the resistance against
the privatisation of water, against the stealing of water from the common
man, is soon globalised. There is only one politics in this and that
is to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people are protected,"
environmental activist Vandana Shiva, a key speaker at the conference,
The question of
why toxic materials were detected in the sludge distributed to farmers
by the Coca-Cola factory was also a point of discussion at the conference.
Inger Schoerling, a delegate from Sweden and a member of the European
Parliament, said that the European Union (E.U.) was in the process of
formulating a law that would prevent the use of pesticides beyond a
certain level by the food and beverage industry. The global transnationals
had already begun to lobby for leniency in the provisions of the proposed
law, Schoerling said.
"We are in
a struggle to end the powers of the corporate giants since democracy
can survive only if they are expelled, author and human rights activist
Ward Morehouse, the man who carried the torch of the Bhopal struggle
out of India, told the conference. A few transnational companies based
in rich nations were increasingly controlling the world's natural resources.
The need was to fight against such concentration of wealth in the hands
of a few, if democracy was to survive, he said.
Some 300 persons,
including tribal people, politicians and activists from India and abroad,
took part in the dharna in front of the Coke plant, which was led by
Vandana Shiva, Jose Bove and key organisers of the conference, litteratur
Sukumar Azhikode, president of the Indian Newspaper Society M.P. Veerendrakumar
and Member of Parliament N. N. Krishnadas. A march led by activists
was taken out to the Hindustan Coca-Cola company in Plachimada where
they shouted slogans saying `no!' to Coke and Pepsi, demanded clean
drinking water and declaring support to the tribal people in their 640-day
agitation in front of the factory gates. Raising slogans for the villagers'
right to water, the demonstrators demanded that Coca-Cola wind up its
operations in the village. "We want drinking water. No Coke, No
Pepsi," a slogan read.
The three-day conference
ended on January 23 in the neighbouring Puthusseri panchayat, near where
the Pepsi plant is located, with a call for a struggle against the looting
of water by multi-national companies in different parts of the world.
An India-wide agitation against the privatisation of water is being
planned, Vanadana Shiva announced at the concluding session.
declaration' adopted at the end of the conference began with the assertion
that water is not a private property, not a commodity, but a common
resource, a fundamental right of man. "We should resist all criminal
attempts to marketise, privatise and corporatise water. Only through
these means can we ensure the fundamental and inalienable right to water
for the people all over the world," it said, indicating that the
country's water policy should be formulated on the basis of this outlook.
read out by Sukumar Azhikode and Maude Barlow, said that "the right
to conserve, use and manage water is fully vested with the local community.
This is the very basis of water democracy. Any attempt to reduce or
deny this right is a crime." He said that the production and marketing
of the "poisonous products of the Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola corporates"
would lead to total destruction and pollution endangering the very existence
of local communities. It described the resistance that has come up at
Plachimada and Puthusseri as "symbols of our valiant struggle against
the devilish corporate gangs who pirate our water" and said: "We,
who are in the battlefield in full solidarity with the Adivasis who
have put up resistance against the tortures of the horrid commercial
forces in Plachimada, exhort the people all over the world to boycott
the products of Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. Coca-Cola-Pepsi Cola, `Quit
The next hearing
in Coca-Cola vs Perumatty panchayat is scheduled before the Division
Bench of the High Court on February 12, when the expert committee is
expected to be ready with a preliminary report, including a record of
the water currently being drawn by the company from the area. Despite
an earlier Single Bench ruling that `groundwater is a public property
held in trust by a government', everyone at the conference was acutely
aware of the snail's pace at which events were moving for a resolution
of the woes of the people in the two panchayats. But, as Perumatty village
panchayat president A. Krishnan, a Dalit leader, told the conference:
"It is for the first time in India that a small village like Plachimada
is attracting international attention because of severe water scarcity.
It is for the first time that a small village is hosting a world event
to underline that multinational companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are
exploiting Indian villages."
In a way, the two
village communities in the northern Kerala district seemed to be telling
their powerful opponents, "We too have friends all over the world.
We are now part of the global resistance. And, the world would be watching."