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Conniving with Cola, Government delays payment of Compensation

Organiser of Swadeshi Jagran Manch, South India Sri K V Biju, who is also the Convenor of the Plachimada struggle solidarity committee   and 17 others have began their fast on 20, December, 2011 evening in Viyur jail protesting against the apathy of the State and Central Governments in getting the compensation of Rs. 216.26 crores from the multinational giant Coca Cola to the victims.


On 16th December, around 300 people headed by the Plachimada Anti-Coca Cola Agitation Committee and Plachimada  Struggle Solidarity Committee "occupied" the premises of Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Company in Plachimada demanding that early steps should be taken to pay the compensation to the victims.  22 activists including Sri K V Biju were arrested.  When produced, the Magistrate ordered their release on furnishing personal bond but the activists refused to take bail condemning the delaying and subverting tactics of the Governments in favour of Coca Cola.


They all were sent to Chittur Sub-jail for a remand period of 15 days. On 19th when they declared observance of indefinite fast in the jail, the authorities transferred them to Viyur central prison. The fast commenced there on 20th evening.  Former Minister Sri V.M.Sudheeran visited the jail on 22nd and discussed the issue with the agitators but, no agreement was reached.


On the second day of the fast, Sri V.M.Sudheeran discussed the issue with the Ministers and Chief Minister Sri Omen Chandy.  As a result, the Water Resources Minister Sri P.J.Joseph sent a fax message to the jail assuring the agitators that Plachimada tribunal would be formed as early as possible.  On the assurance, the agitators ended the fasting at 5 pm.


The Struggle Solidarity Committee arranged protest programs in 13 district capitals. On 17th evening, SJM workers protested in Palakkad and Trivandrum districts.  SJM State Co-convenor Sri M Gopal led the protest march in Trivandrum. On the next day, in 5 districts, Struggle Solidarity Committee started fasting. In Ernakulam, former NEC member Sri P Krishnadas and in Palakkad and Thrissur BMS district leaders joined the fast. Many other eminent social activists took part in the fast in different places.


Leading personalities like former Minister Sri N K Premachandran , Sri K P  Rajendran , AIYF All India Secretary, State Secretary Sri P K Rajan, BMS State Secretary Sri K Radhakrishnan, state Vice President Sri Sankaranarayanan and Sri M Gangadharan  and Rama. Nambi Narayanan, State Organising Secretary, SJM, TN visited the jail.


The local Court has released the activists unconditionally on 24th December, 2011.  After their release, a huge reception was arranged in Thrissur Town where many people participated.


But the prolonged battle against the Cola has a decade old history that needs a vivid account.


Plachimada, a predominantly  Adivasi village in Perumatty Gram Panchayat in Palakkad District, Kerala,  had over the last one decade, become synonymous with the fight of the common people against multinational corporate's over-exploitation of natural resources.


Plachimada is an important agricultural region of the Western Ghats and being in a rain shadow and drought prone area, it requires large quantities of ground water for irrigation.  The villagers are predominantly agricultural labourers.  The Coca Cola Bottling Plant set up in March, 2000 began drawing over five-lakh litres of ground water on its premises each day.


The people of Plachimada began to experience severe adversities within six months after the establishment of Coca Cola plant. The availability of ground water diminished considerably. Even the available water in the wells and rivers was contaminated after getting mixed with the toxic waste dumped from the factory which contained metals like cadmium, lead, nickel and chromium. The pollution came from the sludge, Coca Cola dumped in the area surrounding its plant, which the BBC had tested and declared to have a high content of cadmium and nickel.  The Central Pollution Control Board had found the presence of lethal cadmium as high as 333.8 mg/kg, more than six times the permissible limit.  It was heavily dumped into the agricultural fields making the poor and innocent farmers of the place believe that the sludge is of high quality manure. The disposal of the sludge also affected the general health of the people causing them skin ailments, breathing problems and other debilities.


The functioning of the plant caused environmental and soil degradation, water contamination due to over-extraction of ground water and leading to scarcity of drinking water, and hence decline in agriculture. As consequences, public health deteriorated and the agricultural economy was shattered. The plant operations thus caused gross violation of the villagers' human rights to life, livelihood and a pollution-free environment.


The local people started agitating and protesting against the Company within a year. Several non-governmental organizations and other sections of the mainstream society joined them.  Sensing the mood of the people, the Perumatty Panchayat rescinded the license granted to the Company, on August 7th, 2003, and the Plant in the 40 acres of land was shut down.  The matter is pending adjudication before the Supreme Court as the State has challenged the Kerala High Court's order quashing the cancellation of license.


However, despite the plant closure, the company was not ready to give compensation to the victims and the struggle was continued demanding compensation.  So, the Kerala Government constituted a 14-member High Power Committee in May 2009 to be chaired by its Agriculture Production Commissioner to investigate whether the functioning of Coca Cola has resulted in the alleged violations, and if so, the cost of the damage.  The Committee comprised of directors of various departments like agriculture, animal husbandry and groundwater, deans of Kerala Agricultural University, the representative of Kerala State Pollution Control Board, an environmental expert, and a retired judge. 


The panel held eight meetings and conducted a public hearing at Perumatty Panchayat office which was attended by the affected people, voluntary workers, concerned citizens, and the panchayat representatives. It evaluated all the available reports on Plachimada besides visiting the village and also organizing two panel discussions with experts.  The findings of the Committee are :


• The Coca Cola company caused environmental degradation through over-extraction of groundwater and irresponsible disposal of sludge. The water sources of the area have been affected and the water scarcity has become more acute.     
• The company misguided the farmers by passing off the sludge as manure and is responsible for soil degradation, water contamination, and the consequent agricultural losses.
• There has been a steady decline in the agriculture production in the area and the production of milk, meat, and eggs has declined.
• Metals like cadmium, lead, and chromium have been detected in the sludge. Skin ailments, breathing problems, and other debilities among the locals have been on the rise.
• Low birth-weight in newborns has also been noticed.
• Women have to fetch drinking water from far-off places and this has deprived them of their wages.
• Children have dropped out of schools on account of the social, health, and economic factors caused by the pollution.
• The gram panchayat has been providing drinking water through tankers ever since the wells and water bodies were rendered useless by the pollution.
• The Coca Cola company is guilty under several laws in force.


The Committee has assessed the damages caused to be Rs. 216.26 crores, the break-up details of which are as follows :


Agricultural losses:                                Rs. 84. 16 crores    
Health damages:                                   Rs. 30. 00 crores
The cost of providing water:                  Rs. 20.00 crores
Wage losses and opportunity cost:        Rs. 20.00 crores
The cost of polluting resources:             Rs. 62.10 crores
Total:                                                  Rs. 216.26 crores


Even though there are sufficient provisions under the existing laws to claim compensation from the company under the 'polluter pays principle', the panel felt it desirable to set up a dedicated institution to adjudicate the individual claims. It said that this body 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. The tribunal/authority can then assess the individual claims and the polluter company made to pay it.


Based on the recommendation of the High Power Committee, the Kerala State Assembly, with the support of all the 140 MLAs, unanimously passed the 'Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims' Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, 2011' on 24 February 2011. 

As the High Power Committee had found that the Coca Cola company also violated the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974; the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986; the Factories Act, 1948; Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989; the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989; the Indian Penal Code; the Land Utilization Order, 1967; the Kerala Groundwater (Control and Regulation) Act, 2002; and the Indian Easement Act, 1882, the State Government, in its wisdom, thought it fit to send the bill for Presidential assent.


The Kerala Governor had forwarded the bill for Presidential assent on March 30, 2011 and it had reached the Union Home Ministry on April 4. The Ministry had, in turn, referred it to the Ministries of Law, Agriculture, Environment and Forests and Water for comments on April 18.  As per the Cabinet guidelines for disposal of State Legislative Assembly matters, the Bill would be processed without waiting for further comments if the concerned Ministry failed to submit their observations within six weeks. Within six weeks, the Home Ministry, which was coordinating the Bill at the Centre, received comments only from the Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Law and Justice and Ministry of Agriculture. The Home Ministry, headed by Mr. P. Chidambaram, instead of forwarding the Bill to the President, took cognizance of the legal opinion sent by the Coca Cola Company and sent the Bill back to the Kerala seeking explanation as reported by Mr. P K Biju, MP from Kerala at the Lok Sabha in December 2011.


Thus even after the passage of the bill in February 2011, the Central Government has slept over it for more than 9 months and sent it back to the State Government raising queries.   This is a clear indication that the Central Government favours the multinational company at the cost of the poor people, denying them the due compensation for the losses suffered.  The protest of the Agitation Committee is therefore significant in this context and if the people rise against the apathetic attitude again, squarely the blame lies with the Central Government.


Report by Rama. Nambi Narayanan,

State Organising Secretary, SJM, Tamil Nadu



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