Coke: Black Spring In Plachimada
By Prabhat Sharan
06 April, 2010
The Verdict Weekly
The green belt undulating along the western coastline of India has been facing a black spring for the last 10 years. The emerald-sapphire streams and rivulets, in Palakkad, Kerala, shimmering, with prismatic rays, now sluggishly move with sludge of black morass.
The reason: Coca Plant at the behest of the State has managed to erect a plant in this rain shadow region, called - Plachimada. Not many knew about Plachimada 10 years back. But today it has become a sign of a Goliath vs David clash.
Set up by the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCBPL) factory in the village predominantly full of landless agricultural labourers with almost 80 per cent of the population depending on agriculture.
It was but natural that an industrial plant with heavy consumption of water set up in a socially and economically backward and drought prone area would disrupt the ecological balance and adversely affect the life and livelihood of the people.
Situated around 34 acres of land the company has been drawing water from 6 bore wells and 2 open wells. There are varying estimates of factory’s demand for water. According to the 2002 report of Dr R N Athavale, a consultant for Coca Cola, the factory would require at full capacity 6.35 lakh litres per day. The interim report says that the Plant would use roughly 5 lakh litres per day. The waste water released was to the tune of 1.5 to 3 lakh litres per day.
The extraction of over 5 lakh litres of water daily has upset the natural balance and adversely affected availability of water. Bore wells and shallow open wells dried up. The quality of water deteriorated with reported increase in salinity and hardness of ground water. The toxic chemicals in the waste water have contaminated the ground water making it unsuitable for irrigation.
According to the Report of the High Power Committee set up for assessing the extent of damages caused by the Coca Cola Plant at Plachimada and Claiming Compensation, the Company had obtained a license from Perumatty Grama Panchayat for installing 2600 HP electrical motor for running the Coca Cola bottling plant. However, no license was obtained from the Panchayat for installing motor for drawing water, though the company was extracting water from the bore wells and open wells.
The committee found that factory’s operations has caused excessive depletion of the groundwater resource and has polluted the ground water which will take years to mitigate.
Besides this the solid waste (ETP sludge) has further exacerbated the crisis as large quantities of it were trucked out and disposed off in the farmlands all around and far off places.
Though in the initial stages the factory hoodwinked the peasants that it was good manure later research reports revealed that while sludge had no nitrogen content it had dangerous levels of cadmium and lead making it a hazardous waste.
Too much of cadmium in the soil has lead to the leaching into the wells. Farming households have suffered a steep decline in yield to less than half the levels of what obtained before 2000. Further, the number of coconut palms assigned for toddy tapping also declined to nearly half during this period, since tapping contractors selected only the irrigated trees. Ninety-one percent of the farming households reported that owing to reduction in crop productivity, their agricultural income declined drastically. So they had reduced employment of hired labour. Consequently, the number of days of employment of agricultural labour dwindled. Of the 916 workers who moved to other villages in search of work, 72 per cent reported that they experienced severe unemployment in their own village since 2000. In other words, migration was forced upon most of them.
The fodder and water in Plachimada and surrounding areas were contaminated with copper, cadmium, lead and chromium, more than the admissible level by the World Health Organization (WHO). The Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) has found that the fodder, milk, meat and egg samples collected from Plachimada area contain the above elements, at a toxic level and that would explain not only the loss of animals and birds but also the reduction in the productive capacity of the animals. Production of milk, meat and egg declined which in turn affected the household income and health of the people.
Particularly hard hit are the dalits, tribals, women and children of the surrounding area. As the water supply deteriorated, the women had to travel about 5 kms to fetch drinking water. This has resulted in loss of wages for these women. Serious damage caused by the contamination of aquifers and springs had adversely affected agriculture yield and productivity.
During the rainy season, these deposits have spread into paddy fields, canals and wells, causing a serious health hazard. The Company abandoned this practice and began pumping dirty water into dry bore holes that had been drilled on the site for the disposal of solid waste. This polluted the aquifers.
In 2003, the District Medical Officer advised the people of Plachimada that their water was polluted and unfit for consumption. The natural water resource at Plachimada has been ruined beyond immediate replenishment. It will take decades for natural replenishment. At present water in the open wells in the area, which were the sources of drinking water, is unfit for drinking. All these point to the gross violation of pollution control laws, basic human rights and the right to life as guaranteed in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
HCBPL has neither acknowledged the existence of any of these problems nor shown a readiness to appreciate the truth behind these findings. On the other hand the Company has always been eager to downplay public agitation against these human problems. But the fact that the Company has violated a number of provisions in the various laws is irrefutable.
The Committee in its conclusion stated that the Company is responsible for these damages and it is obligatory that they pay the compensation to the affected people for the agricultural losses, health problems, loss of wages, loss of educational opportunities, and the pollution caused to the water resources. The value of water extracted and depleted has not been calculated though it needs to be compensated. These calculations are only indicative in nature and should not be treated as the outer limit of compensation to be claimed which has to be arrived at by the dedicated adjudicating agency to be created. However, on an estimation based on available inputs, Rs 216.26 crore could be claimed as reasonable compensation (See Table).
The recommendations and observations of this Report can be summed up as follows:
The Coca Cola Company at Plachimada has been causing environmental degradation by over extraction of ground water and irresponsible disposal of the sludge.
The Coca Cola Company is culpable under several laws in force.
The water resources of the area have been affected and the water scarcity has been compounded.
By passing off the sludge as manure, the Company has not only misguided the farmers but has become responsible for the soil degradation, water contamination and consequential loss of agriculture.
There has been a steady decline in the agriculture production in the area.
The production of milk, meat and eggs also has suffered.
Metals like cadmium, lead and chromium have been detected in the sludge and this has affected the health of the people.
The general health of the people has been affected with skin ailments, breathing problems and other debilities.
Low birth weight of children has also been noticed.
Environment of the Village has acutely been damaged by polluting water and soil.
Drinking water has become scarce and women have to walk long distances and this has deprived them of their wages, and this needs to be compensated.
Children have dropped out of the school on account of the social, health and economic factors caused by the pollution caused and this opportunity cost has to be compensated.
The Grama Panchayat has been providing drinking water in tanker lorries ever since the wells and water bodies have been rendered useless by the Company by its extraction of water and disposal and effluents.
The actual economic loss on account of the depletion of water resources has not been quantified but its proxies have been used.
There are sufficient provisions under the existing laws to claim this compensation of these damages from the Company under the ‘polluter pays principle’.
However it is desirable to set up a dedicated institution to adjudicate the individual claims. Such a dedicated mechanism could either be a Tribunal under Article 323 B of the Constitution of India to be legislated by the state legislature or an Authority under section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to be created by the Central Government.
Once Government decides on a suitable mechanism and it comes into being, individual claims will have to be assessed and actual compensation decreed and the polluter Company made to pay it.
The company located in this drought-prone area, should not resume its operation.
The compensation that could be claimed on various losses has been calculated as below:
Description Amount (Rs. in Cr)
Agriculture loss 84. 16
Health damages 30. 00
Cost of providing water 20.00
Wage loss and opportunity cost 20.00
Cost of pollution of the water resources 62.10
Prabhat Sharan, is a Senior Journalist with interest in social, human interest, working class, wild-life conservation, philosophical and literary studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org