Plachimada is today synonymous with the struggle for right to life through water! Nobody in his/her sense would dispute the need for drinking water to sustain life on this planet. And it cannot also be disputed that the right of human beings to this most essential and barest 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 who are most greedy for a share of that (loot) join hands? Plachimadas!
If I remember correct, it was in the 1970s that Coca Cola was banned in India. Unfortunately I do not remember the reason given at that time for imposing such a ban. But it was around the same time that the term socialist was introduced in the preamble of the Constitution and the biggest private sector banks of that time were also nationalized! And then Humpty Dumpty had that big fall! But even when the Emergency evoked sharp responses in the northern states, Kerala is one of the states that actually took a liking to the discipline it enforced on the work force, especially the public servants. Employees actually reached offices in time, red tape and corruption practically disappeared. But the turn of events later seems to have proved disastrous to the extent that when P V Narasimha Rao took over the reins of the government in 1991 he was forced to mortgage even the nation’s gold reserves to turn the economy around. And that later became an excuse for uncontrolled foreign investments in the country. I remember having read in the media one of those days that had it not been for Narasimha Rao’s political maturity and wisdom Man Mohan Singh’s economic policies would have turned India into another soviet union, where, following Perestroika, people were forced to queue up for a loaf of bread! Looks prophetic in retrospect! And, unfortunately for Kerala, it was the LDF government lead 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 place both these multinationals chose to set up their bottling plants happened to be 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. And both these places happen to be rain shadow regions in a state blessed with two monsoons spread over almost 6 months in 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 these places, they are touted to have the second biggest aquifer in the state too and the MNCs had a priori knowledge of this from the satellite images collected by their governments! Activists associated with the struggle at Plachimada remember clearly the full page advertisement taken out by the then LDF government welcoming Coca Cola that started setting up their plant at Plachimada! It became operational in March 2000.
Within a year of the plant going on steam, the locals started experiencing the adverse effects, with water availability reducing and available water being polluted. The closer the dwellings were to the plant the more severe were the problems, leaving no doubts about the source of the problem. Complaint to the authorities, as usual, fell on deaf ears and the first protest was launched in front of the company in Feb 2002. Finding no positive response from the company or the authorities, an indefinite protest was launched on 22 Apr 2002, lead by adivasi women Mayilamma and C K Janu. As the protest gained momentum, the protestors (by now organized as Plachimada Coca cola Virudha Samara Samithi, that is The Plachimada Anti-Coca Cola Agitation Committee) and those supporting them ( Plachimada Coca Cola Virudha Samara Aikyadhardya Samithi or The Plachimada Anti-Coca Cola Agitation Solidarity Committee) fine tuned their demands to four non negotiable one: the company should compensate the local people for the damages, the company should be prosecuted for their crimes, the local self governing bodies should be given the legal right to protect the natural resources within their jurisdiction and necessary changes to be introduced in the Panchayati Raj and pollution control laws to ensure that situation as in Plachimada never get repeated. In an act that can be termed treason, all the political parties got together and condemned this agitation. The only argument that they could cite to incite the people was the possibility of loss of job for the handful of employees of the company! All the authorities of the government 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. But soon national leaders like Medha Patkar and Vandana Shiva took up the issue and support for the local agitators starting growing. It soon got an international following. A team from BBC came, took samples of even the effluents to UK and announced that these contained heavy metals like lead and cadmium much beyond the permissible limits. And it was these effluents that the company was selling to the gullible farmers as fertilizers! Around the same time Centre for Science and Environment also came out with a report that the Cola drinks were themselves contaminated and contained pesticides. And, with elections round the corner, the time was ripe for the local panchayat to get into the act. In Apr 2003 the Panchayat refused to renew the license of the company and thus started the series of battles on another front- the courts!
The first petition was allowed by the courts with a direction to the Panchayat to give notice to the company, hear them and take a decision within 2 weeks. The Panchayat confirmed its decision not to renew the license. And the company downed its shutters for the first time on 16 May 2003. The company appealed to the Department of Local Self Government who 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 the state govt ordered the company to stop production till the monsoon set in. The company refused and challenged the order in the courts but was not granted the stay sought by them. Around this time the World Water Day was also organized at Plachimada. The company then started bringing water in tankers which was also 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 was natural resource and could not be over exploited by any single entity. The next, 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: no water should be drawn from within the panchayat, the effluents should not be discharged and the company should prove to the panchayat authorities that their 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 persist with their struggle to assert their right over their natural resources. The struggles of the project affected people of Sardar Sarovar and that of the Bhopal Gas leak disaster victims for justice teach their own lessons. Fortunately the political environment in Kerala has been different from the rest of the country and the swinging of the fortunes between LDF and UDF helped in bringing politicians of all hues to Plachimada at some time or the other and made them promise their support. Oomen Chandy as well as V S Achuthanandan had done it.
While the UDF wasted its tenure from 2001 to 2006 blaming it on LDF for bringing the 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 the 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 its production of soft drinks and over exploitation of water without any hindrance! And finally as the next elections loomed on the horizon, the government lead by V S Achuthanandan 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 (better known as Polluting Board!), Ground Water Authority etc. After almost a year of extensive effort, the committee submitted its report and the crux of the report was that the company should be made to pay Rs 216 cr as compensation to the local people and to restore the ecology it had grossly polluted. A tribunal was to be set up for going through the claims and awarding the compensation. And right on the eve of the elections 2011, the Kerala Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a bill to constitute tribunal. This bill, known as the Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, 2011, was sent to the Central Government for getting the President’s assent. Opinion is divided 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 and firmly in saddle, fears were aroused about the actual intentions of the Congress led UPA at the Centre and 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 amoungst the population. Rumour mills have it that a Union Minister from the State has a major role in this effort. Of course the company itself is known to use all means available to it, ethical or not, to discredit and even annihilate all opposition to its programs. And as part of this effort it has challenged even the competence of the State Government to legislate such a Bill. And the two advocates- K K Venugopal and Fali S Nariman- employed by it to protect its interests had spared no effort in doing it. Fortunately, and thanks in part to the Right to Information Act, knowledgeable people have accessed the contentions of these advocates and repudiated each and every argument of theirs, partly blaming the false information on which these arguments had been 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 it was decided to take the agitation to the next level- almost like Gandhiji making salt defying the law made by the colonizers. And so it was, in an expression of asserting the ultimate right of the citizens to justice, a march was organized to the company on 17 Dec 2011 and outwitting the police present in sufficient strength to protect the criminal company and its assets, some of the protestors entered the premises of the company and declared it ‘taken over’ by the people themselves! Of course they- 22 in all, including 4 women- were arrested and produced before a magistrate who granted them bail. 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 also demanding that the state government intervened effectively to get the assent of the President for the Bill. But 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 the follow up action on the Bill would be taken up in earnest. And then came another shock- the Minister for Water Resources declared that the State Government had sent the Bill back to the Central Government almost a month back, with appropriate explanations! That brought an end to the fast and the satyagraha at the district headquarters. When produced before the magistrate on completion of the remand period, the arrested availed bail and were given receptions at Plachimada, Thrisur and Palakkad. But the battle lines remain.
The next phase could well be a Chengara like situation. In Chengara the landless adivasis, fed up with the false promises of the people whom they had voted to power, had finally occupied a plantation and even held the police at bay by threatening to commit mass suicide after getting on to tree tops with a noose around their neck. To those who swear by Gandhiji and his satyagraha one can easily say today that the britishers were gentlemen. With the current dispensation even Gandhiji would have either been neglected like Irom Sharmila or cheated like Bhopal Gas victims or Kasargode Endosulphan victims! Chengara has shown one way to deal with such treason. The other 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! Into that land of extremism my Lord, let my people be not lead. But ultimately, between the extremisms of corruption coupled with state terror on one end and that of opportunist outfits on the other, the choice becomes really difficult for the ordinary citizen. But whichever choice he makes one cannot really blame him/her because, as the truism goes, whether the leaf falls on the thorn or the thorn falls on the leaf it will be the leaf that will be hurt! But ‘no pain, no gain’ is also a truism!