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Coca-Cola Refused Licence

By Karthika Thampan

27 April, 2005

The Perumatty grama panchayath (local council) yesterday refused to renew the licence of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverage Limited at Plachimada, in the Indian state of Kerala. This is the latest twist in the tale of long proctrated battle between the Coca-Cola company and the villagers who fight for their right over drinking water.

The Panchayath unanimously decided to reject an application submitted by Coca-Cola on April 13 to renew its licence as it had not submitted along with the application the clearance of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board and a licence issued under the Factories Act. On April 7, 2005 the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court had ordered the panchayath to grant licence to the company if it submitted an application within two weeks along with the above certificates.

"The company informed the panchayath that it has the licence issued under the Factories Act and the clearance of the of the State Pollution Control Board. But it has not produced the documents to the panchayath." Perumatty Panchayath president Mr A.Krishnan told the media.

The Division Bench also ordered that the company could extract up to half a million litres of groundwater a day form the 34 acre premises of its bottling plant at Plachimada during 2005-06. The Bench said that "a person has the right to extract water from his property,unless is prohibited by a statute." The Perumatty panchayath has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of India against the Kerala Hight Court order.

Ever since the the panchayath cancelled the licence of the company on April 7, 2003, at the risk of losing almost half of its annual income - some 700,000 rupees or $16300 - on the plea that it had received complaints from local people that the drawing of huge quantity of ground water by the company had resulted in wells drying up, causing acute drinking water scarcity in the area. But the factory managed to function till March 10, 2004 on the strength of a Government order and a stay from a Single Bench of the Kerala High Court overruling the civic body's decision.

The bottling unit was established in 2000 on 34 acres (15.2 hectares) of mostly multi-cropped agricultural land in Palghat District, barely 2 km away from the river Chitturpuzha and near a number of reservoirs and irrigation canals. Palghat is tradionally called the rice bowl of Kerala.

Every day the company drew nearly 1.5 million litres of groundwater and about 85 truckloads of products left the factory premises. The company also resorted to bringing water from borewells in neighbouring villages because the borewells it had sunk on its premises had failed to provide the required yield. The company siphons off enough water to meet the minimum requirements of about 20,000 people. They have not only lost their water but, with the dried-out farms closing, also their jobs. Those worst affected are up to 10,000 landless labourers.

Then there is pollution. Chemical effluents produced by bottle-washing contaminate the groundwater. Early attempts to dry the foul-smelling sludge and market it as fertiliser failed when farmers started to develop sores on their skin and noticed that their coconut palms were dying. The plant tried to give it away but no one wanted it.

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.

On December 16, 2003, a Single Bench of the High Court directed the coke unit to stop exploiting the ground water resources of the panchayath and find alternative sources for its production needs. Though a Division Bench set aside the Single Bench ruling, the Kerala State Cabinet on February 17, 2004 directed the company to stop the operation in view of the acute drought situation in Palakkad district. Consequently, the unit stopped operation on March 10, 2004.

The decision of the Perumatty Panchayath comes just five days after the anticoke struggle completed three years. On 22 nd April, Political leaders and social activists gathered at Plachimada and pledged support to the struggle. Addressing the 'anti-Cola people's meet' organised to mark the occasion, Janata Dal leader M P Veerendrakumar said the struggle would be carried on till the plant is closed as the key issue involved was a community's vital right over drinking water.Powerful multinationals might not even be afraid of the Bush Administration, but they had been rattled by the true grit and determination with which the poor people in Plachimada had kept up the struggle to ascertain their right over drinking water and against its exploitation by the soft drink plant, Veerendrakumar said.

Adivasi Gotra Mahasabha leader C K Janu demanded a legislation to ensure people's right over water and check its commercial exploitation. Mayilamma, a tribal woman in the forefront of the Plachimada stir, inaugurated the meet. A Krishnan, president of Perumatty panchayat where the plant is located, read out the 'anti-Cola pledge.'











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