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Saturday 7 January 2012

Plachimada: the struggle for water and … life!

Plachimada: the struggle for water and … life!

P M Ravindran, 7 January 2012

Plachimada is today synonymous with the struggle for right to life through water! There can be no dispute about the need for drinking water to sustain life. Nor can it be disputed that the right of human beings to this most essential need is inalienable. But what happens when a multinational company with tons of money (accumulated mostly through exploitative means world over!) and some people in government greedy for a handful of crumbs (from that loot) join hands? Plachimadas!

In the 1970s, Coca Cola was booted from India, albeit for political posturing by a prominent politician. Prior to that, also for political posturing, the term socialist was introduced in the Preamble of the Constitution. Though the Emergency evokes sharp responses in the northern states, Kerala actually took a liking to the discipline it enforced on the work force, especially public servants. Employees actually reached offices on time; red tape and corruption practically disappeared.

Much later, when Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao took over the reins of the government in 1991, he was forced to mortgage the nation’s gold reserves to turn the economy around. That later became an excuse for uncontrolled foreign investments in India. I recall reading an analysis that had it not been for Narasimha Rao’s political maturity and wisdom, Manmohan Singh’s economic policies would have turned India into another Soviet Union where, following perestroika, people had been forced to queue up for a loaf of bread! Seems prophetic in retrospect!

Unfortunately for Kerala, it was the LDF government led by the CPI (M) that actually invited Coca Cola and Pepsi to invest in the state in 1999, with the promise of practically free water and electricity! Worse, the places these multinationals chose to set up their bottling plants were in the remote areas of Palakkad – Plachimada, an Adivasi belt and Pudussery, an industrial area, both separated by about 10 kms as the crow flies.

Both places fall in rain shadow regions in a state blessed with two monsoons spread over almost 6 months a year and 44 rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea! By a quirk of nature, though the availability of surface water is limited in both places, they are touted to share the second biggest aquifer in the state, and the MNCs had a priori knowledge of this from the satellite images collected by their governments! Activists associated with the struggle at Plachimada clearly remember the full page advertisement taken out by the then LDF government welcoming Coca Cola on setting up its plant at Plachimada! The plant became operational in March 2000.

Within a year of the plant going on steam, the locals started experiencing the adverse effects, with water availability declining and available water becoming polluted. The closer the dwellings were to the plant, the more severe the problems, leaving no doubt as to the source of the problems.

Complaints to the authorities not unexpectedly fell on deaf ears. The first protest was launched in front of the company office in February 2002. Finding no positive response from the company or the authorities, an indefinite protest was launched on 22 April 2002, led by Adivasi women Mayilamma and C.K. Janu.

As the protest gained momentum, the protestors – now organized as Plachimada Coca Cola Virudha Samara Samithi or The Plachimada Anti-Coca Cola Agitation Committee – and those supporting them, namely the Plachimada Coca Cola Virudha Samara Aikyadhardya Samithi or The Plachimada Anti-Coca Cola Agitation Solidarity Committee, fine-tuned their demands.

These boiled down to four non negotiables:
[1] The company should compensate the local people for the damages, [2] the company should be prosecuted for its crimes, [3] the local self governing bodies should be given the legal right to protect the natural resources within their jurisdiction and [4] necessary changes must be introduced in the Panchayati Raj and Pollution Control laws to ensure that situations like Plachimada never get repeated.

In an act that can only be understood as treason, all political parties joined hands and condemned this agitation. The only reason they could cite to incite the people was the possibility of loss of jobs for the handful of employees of the company!

All governmental authorities responsible for ensuring that the company functioned within internationally accepted parameters for safety and quality toed the politician’s line and gave false reports intended to help the company. However, well known activists like Medha Patkar visited the place and support for the local agitators kept growing and soon got international attention. Coca Cola was banned in many universities of the United States itself for human rights violations in third world countries!

A BBC team came and took samples of the effluents to the UK and announced that these contained heavy metals like lead and cadmium, far beyond permissible limits. Shockingly, the company was selling these very effluents to innocent farmers as fertilizers!

Around the same time, the Centre for Science and Environment came out with a report that the Cola drinks were themselves contaminated with pesticides. The sale of the colas was banned in the Parliament canteen! With elections round the corner, the local panchayat got into the act. In April 2003, the Panchayat refused to renew the company’s license, which unleashed a series of battles in the courts. 

The first petition was allowed by the courts with a direction to the Panchayat to give notice to the company, give it a hearing and then take a decision within 2 weeks. The Panchayat confirmed its decision not to renew the license. The company downed its shutters for the first time on 16 May 2003. It appealed to the Department of Local Self Government which stayed the order of the Panchayat and the company resumed production.

Meanwhile, a Joint Parliamentary Committee was set up to investigate the allegations of pesticides in the cola drinks. It confirmed the allegations of the CSE and BBC and the State Government ordered the company to stop production till the monsoon set in. The company refused and challenged the order in the courts, but was denied the stay it sought. Around this time, the World Water Day was organized at Plachimada. The company then started bringing water in tankers, which was resisted by the people.

It is important to quote two orders of the Kerala High Court here. The first one, by a single judge, held that water is a natural resource and cannot be over-exploited by any single entity. The second, by a division bench, overturned this order stating that ‘the right of a company to draw water from its property even for commercial purposes is the same as the right of an individual to draw water from his property for personal consumption’! The latter went to the extent of directing the Perumatty Panchayat to renew the license within two weeks and told the company that if the license was not renewed within this period, the company could take it as renewed and proceed accordingly!

The Panchayat, under threat of contempt of court, renewed the license conditionally. The three conditions imposed were: [1] no water should be drawn from within the panchayat, [2] the effluents should not be discharged and [3] the company should prove to the panchayat authorities that its products did not have any contamination. The company downed it shutters once again. The matter is now before the apex court.

With neither politicians nor judiciary inspiring confidence, the people of Plachimada had no choice but to persist with their struggle to assert their right over their natural resources. The struggles for justice of the project-affected people of Sardar Sarovar Dam and of the Bhopal Gas leak disaster victims, both on for over 25 years now, teach their own lessons.

Fortunately, Kerala’s political environment is different from the rest of the country and the swinging of fortunes between LDF and UDF helped bring politicians of all hues to Plachimada at some time or other and made them promise support. Both Oommen Chandy and V.S. Achuthanandan did so.

While the UDF wasted its tenure from 2001 to 2006 on blaming the LDF for bringing MNCs into the state, the LDF came back to power in 2006 with the promise of resolving the imbroglio within a month. But its first ban on production and sale of cola drinks was held invalid by the court.

But even while the Coca Cola factory at Plachimada remained closed due to the inability of the company to abide by the conditions set by the Panchayat, the Pepsi company, located in an industrial belt, continued production of soft drinks and over-exploitation of water without any hindrance!  

Finally, when the next elections loomed on the horizon, the Achuthanandan government set up a high powered committee to go into the issues at Plachimada. The committee was headed by an additional secretary to the Government of Kerala, K. Jayakumar, and assisted by experts from all relevant fields, the Pollution Control Board, Ground Water Authority etc. The committee submitted its report after nearly a year of intensive efforts. It said the company should be made to pay Rs 216 crore as compensation to the local people and to restore the ecology it had grossly polluted. A tribunal was to be set up to go through the claims and award compensation.

Smack on the eve of elections 2011, the Kerala Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a bill to constitute the tribunal. The Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, 2011, was sent to the Central Government for the President’s assent. Opinion is divided on whether this was required or not. But suffice to say that after holding the Bill for over six months, the Union Home Ministry sent it back to the Government of Kerala seeking certain clarifications. With elections over, fears rose about the actual intentions of the Congress-led UPA at the Centre and the UDF in the State. Coca Cola had already been co-opted to provide drinking water in certain government hospitals in the State.

This has been seen as an effort to project the multinational company as a philanthropic entity amongst the population. Rumour mills have it that a Union Minister from the State had a major role in this effort, though the company itself is known to use all means available, ethical or otherwise, to discredit and even annihilate all opposition to its programs. As part of this effort it has challenged even the competence of the State Government to legislate such a Bill. The two advocates – K.K. Venugopal and Fali S. Nariman – employed to protect the company’s interests have spared no efforts. Fortunately, and thanks partly to the Right to Information Act, knowledgeable people have accessed the contentions of these advocates and repudiated each and every argument, partly blaming the false information on which their arguments were based.

The net effect of these omissions and commissions was that those agitating at Plachimada grew wary of the fate of the Bill and so decided to take the agitation to the next level, almost like Gandhi making salt in defiance of a colonial law. Thus, asserting the ultimate rights of citizens to justice, a march was organized to the company on 17 December 2011, and outwitting the police present in sufficient strength to protect the company and its assets, some of the protestors entered the premises and declared it ‘taken over’ by the people themselves!

Of course, all 22 including 4 women, were arrested. The magistrate granted them bail, but the protestors refused to accept bail and courted arrest. They were remanded for 7 days.

With this, satyagraha was launched in almost every district headquarters besides Plachimada, condemning the arrest and demanding that the state government intervene effectively to get the President’s assent to the Bill. It all seemed to fall on deaf ears. After 4 days in jail, the remanded activists declared they would fast until the government assured them that follow up action on the Bill would be taken up in earnest. They commenced their fast the next day.

Then came another shock - the Minister for Water Resources declared that the State Government had sent the Bill back to the Centre almost a month back, with appropriate explanations! That brought an end to the fast and the satyagraha at district headquarters. When produced before the magistrate on completion of the remand period, the arrested accepted bail and were given people’s receptions at Plachimada, Thrissur and Palakkad. But the battle lines remain.

The next phase could well be a Chengara like situation. In Chengara, landless Adivasis, fed up with false promises from their elected representatives, finally occupied a plantation and even held the police at bay by threatening to commit mass suicide after climbing on to tree tops with nooses around their necks.

Our current rulers can either neglect us as they have done to Irom Sharmila or cheat us as they have done in the cases of the Bhopal Gas victims or Kasargode Endosulphan victims! Chengara has shown one way to deal with such treason. Another way that seems to work is the way of the Naxalites or Maoists whose writ is supposed to run in one-third of the country!

Do we really want to push people into that arena of extremism? What should the ordinary citizen choose between the extremisms of corruption-cum-state terror on one side and opportunist outfits on the other?  Whichever choice he makes is hurtful for, as the saying goes, whether the leaf falls on the thorn or the thorn falls on the leaf it is the leaf that will be hurt! But ‘no pain, no gain’ is also a truism!

Major P M Ravindran (retd) is a social activist; he lives in Palakkad, Kerala

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