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Coca-Cola puts Kerala tribals on global beat

Nilanjana Bhaduri JHA

Thursday 25 September 2003, by JHA*Nilanjana Bhaduri

NEW DELHI: If the cola giants thought the worst was over, they could use a crystal ball. In January next year, environmentalists from all over the world will assemble in Kerala for an anti-cola conference.

The venue is unusual. Plachimada in the remote village of Perumatti in Palakkad district, where poor tribals have been sitting on a satyagraha for the last 538 days in front of a Coca-Cola factory. Well-known environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who visited the site last week, announced the convention, to be held on January 10 and 11 next.

The World Water Conference will discuss water exploitation by cola companies, river diversion and water as a right not a commodity, on the first day. The second day will see discussions on globalisation and corporatisation, alternatives to water privatisation and also a review of the recent WTO summit at Cancun.

While details were being worked out, Shiva told Times News Network she expected "international organisations and everyone working on water issues and against corporate criminals to participate."

Among those being invited is Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, which had only recently blown the whistle on pesticide levels in Coke and Pepsi. The cola majors are now engaged in a major damage-control exercise as a Joint Parliamentary Committee looks into the matter.

The Plachimada issue, Shiva pointed out, was far more basic. There was no ’to drink or not to drink’ choice. It is more about ’not a drop to drink’.

The tribal villagers are up in arms against Coca-Cola, which has a huge bottling plant there, drawing over a million litres of water everyday. An echo can already be heard in Shivganga in Tamil Nadu where a similar movement is now building up against another such plant.

MP Virendra Kumar, managing director of leading Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi , described the tribals’ struggle as that of a poor people fighting for water without either understanding or caring for the economic or political ramifications.

"It is a movement that has no political roots. Political parties were forced to join as the issue became bigger," he said.

Kumar said that the Perumatti panchayat had also sent a notice for closure of the Coca-Cola plant. He quoted a recent survey that showed that the area, where ground water could be accessed at 80 to 120 feet two years ago, did not yield water now at 800 to 1000 feet now. "The water table going down is a macro phenomenon, but in this area it has been very drastic," he added.

At the core of the villagers’ protest was the fact that the Coke plant had been allowed to dig only one or two wells but had gone ahead and dug far more, Kumar alleged.

There is drinking water shortage and agriculture has been hit too in the area, which has been declared drought-prone by the state government. And, said Kumar, what was left of the water was polluted and unfit for drinking.

According to him, the tribals had a simple theory: "We’ll die without water anyway so we would rather die for this cause". Kumar on his part has done his bit. His daily has refused to carry cola advertisements for the past year.

The multinational, he said, had been harvesting rain water and distributing potable water but that scarcely made up for the loss of ground water.

Not at all, said an injured Coke. The multinational insisted that it was doing its bit for the community’s development - hiring 250 people directly at the plant, rain water harvesting and employing ?a more efficient manufacturing process.

Coca-Cola India vice-president, public affairs and communications, Sunil Gupta denied that the plant used a million litres of water a day and said that only 3 lakh litres a day was used.

The state government had allowed the plant to use about 5.6 lakh litres a day, but the plant had an installed capacity for 4.5 lakh litres, earlier used 4 lakh litres and now only 3 lakh litres.

Gupta reeled off a list of local, state and central bodies that, he said, had not only given the Coke operations in Plachimada the clean chit, but also a thumbs up on community service. "We are continuing with our efforts at community development as Coke does everywhere. We deny all allegations and as always the law will take its course," he said.

Gupta claimed that he was mystified why the tribals were agitating and said repeated efforts by the soft drink company to talk to them had proved futile.

Plachimada was last in the news when a report published on the BBC website said residual sludge being supplied by Coca-Cola’s plant to farmers in the area as fertiliser contained "dangerous levels of the known carcinogen cadmium."

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The Times of India, Thursday, September 25, 2003.

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