Women from near Plachimada begin their milelong trek in search of water in a region suffering from three years of scant rainfall. (Mathruboomi Daily photo by Madhuraj)

On, D. Rajeev reports:

PLACHIMADA, India - In the end it was the ‘generosity’ of Coca-Cola in distributing cadmium-laden waste sludge as ‘free fertilizer’ to the tribal aborigines who live near the beverage giant’s bottling plant in this remote Kerala village that proved to be its undoing.

On Friday, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) ordered the plant shut down to the jubilation of tribal leaders and green activists who had focused more on the ‘water mining’ activities of the plant rather than its production of toxic cadmium sludge.

‘’One way or another, this plant should be shut down and the management made to pay compensation for destroying our paddy fields, fooling us with fake fertilizer and drying out our wells,'’ Paru Amma, an aboriginal woman who lives in this once lush, water-abundant area, told IPS.

Chairman of the KSPCB, G. Rajmohan, said the closure was ordered because the plant ‘’does not have adequate waste treatment systems and toxic products from the plant were affecting drinking water in nearby villages'’ and that the plant ‘’has also not provided drinking water in a satisfying manner to local residents'’.

Apparently, the generosity of the Coca-Cola plant was limited to distributing sludge and waste water free and did not extend to providing drinking water to people seriously affected by its operations.

In a statement Saturday, Coca-Cola said it was ‘’reviewing the order passed by the chairman of the Pollution Control Board, Kerala state,'’ and that ‘’going forward, we are in the process of evaluating future steps, including a judicial review'’.

The KSPCB closure order is only the latest episode in a see-saw battle between Coca-Cola and the impoverished but plucky local residents ever since the Atlanta-based company began operating its 25 million-dollar bottling plant in this village, located in the state’s fertile Palakkad district, in 2001.

Along the way, pollution control authorities, political parties, the judiciary and global environmental groups, starting with Greenpeace International, became involved in the dispute and Plachimada grew into a global symbol of resistance by local people to powerful trans-national corporations trying to snatch away their water rights.

Although the local people had begun protesting against their wells running dry months after the plant began operations, serious trouble for the company began a little more than two years ago when a local doctor declared the water still available in the wells unfit for consumption.

In July 2003, a BBC Radio-4 report, after carrying out tests at the University of Exeter in Britain, pronounced the sludge as dangerously laden with heavy metals, especially cadmium and lead and already contaminating the food chain. The sludge also had no value as fertilizer, the report said.

Cadmium is a known carcinogen which causes kidney damage while exposure to lead can lead to mental derangement and death and is particularly dangerous for children causing them severe anemia and mental retardation.

The BBC report quoted Prof. John Henry, leading toxic expert and consultant at St Mary’s Hospital in London, warn of ‘’devastating consequences for those living near areas where this waste has been dumped and for the thousands who depend on crops produced in these (paddy) fields'’.

In August 2003, the KSPCB, ordered the plant to stop distributing sludge to farmers, but then its official, K.V. Indulal, charged with carrying out investigations, unexpectedly announced that he found contamination levels ‘’not beyond tolerable limits'’.

Allegations of bribery and corruption by Coca-Cola followed and the official Indulal is presently under investigation by the state’s Anti- corruption Bureau which carried out raids on his residence and properties spread across three Kerala cities earlier this month.

The Kerala High Court initially supported the Plachimada villagers and in a Dec.16, 2003 ruling, ordered Coca-Cola not to mine water through its deep bore wells but allowed the plant to draw water in amounts comparable to that normally used for agricultural or domestic purposes in the area.

Coca-Cola approached the court after the panchayat (elected local body) cancelled the plant’s operating licence for mining water and a single judge ruled that the state government had no right to allow a private party to extract large quantities of ground water which it deemed ‘’property held by it (the government) in trust'’.

But on Apr. 7 this year, a High Court bench allowed the plant to extract up to 500,000 liters of water a day saying that existing laws on water ownership were inadequate. The ruling angered activists and triggered off a series of clashes outside the gates of the plant between agitating local people and police.

‘’The High Court ruling is a great disappointment to everyone concerned with Coke’s abusive practices around the world,'’ said Corporate Accountability International’s executive director Kathryn Mulvey in a statement.

Mulvey predicted that resistance to Coke’s practices in Plachimada and throughout India would only grow. ‘’We join with community leaders and allies around the world in calling on Coke to close the Plachimada facility permanently, and to pay back the community for the damage it has caused,'’ she said.

Nevertheless, on the strength of the court ruling, the plant resumed what were described as ‘trial operations’ on Aug. 8 after the 561,000- liter capacity plant that manufactures such brands as Coca-Cola, Limca and Fanta had lain shut for 17 months.

Barely ten days later, on Friday, the KSPCB stepped in with its closure order for inability to explain the high cadmium levels and for failing to provide piped drinking water to people, whose wells had become contaminated, as required by the body.

Internationally-known environmental scientist and activist, Vandana Shiva, who leads the New Delhi-based, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, has alleged that after Coca-Cola was restrained from dumping sludge or distributing it as fertilizer, it had begun injecting waste into dry boreholes and contaminating deep-water aquifers.

It has not helped Coca-Cola that the discovery of heavy metal in the sludge in 2003 followed findings by the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), another well-known, New Delhi-based non-governmental organization, that nearly all colas and ‘mineral water’ produced in India contained unacceptably large doses of commonly-used pesticides.

The CSE findings seriously dented the image of Coke and its rival Pepsi, both of which were banned by nationalist governments for decades in India and allowed to return only when this country began a process of economic reforms following a serious balance of payments crisis in 1991.

Said Veerendrakumar, member of parliament and editor of the influential ‘Mathrubhumi’ newspaper: ‘’The fact of the matter is that that water from underground sources is being pumped out free, bottled and sold to our people to make millions for cola companies while destroying the environment and damaging public health'’.

‘’We welcome the order shutting the factory down,'’ said R. Ajayan of the Plachimada Solidarity Committee, which was largely responsible for approaching the KSPCB. ‘’We have to continue to work with the state government to ensure that Coca-Cola abides by the order and that there are no more violations'’.

Coca-Cola is already in deep trouble in India, its sales having dropped 14 percent in the last quarter (April-June), and the company is presently undergoing major reorganization and changing its top leadership in an effort to stem plummeting popularity.

The state government has announced that it will also challenge in the Supreme Court Coca-Cola’s claim to extract water taking advantage of the fact that existing laws on who owns groundwater are vague.

‘’We welcome the actions by the state agencies in Kerala to stop the arrogance and criminal activities of the Coca-Cola company,'’ said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaigner. ‘’These actions are major victories for the community of Plachimada, which has all along been demanding that the state do what it is supposed to do - safeguard the interests of the community'’.

Sunita Narain, who led the CSE’s high-profile investigation and exposure of the presence of pesticides in colas manufactured in India, said the real value of the Plachimada struggle lies in the fact that it has highlighted the role that local communities can have in protecting groundwater resources.

In January 2004, the agitating villagers received a boost when global activists converged on Plachimada for a three-day World Water Conference and joined in demonstrations in front of the main gate of the Coca-Cola plant, one of the largest in its chain of 27 plants in India.

Jose Bove, who leads ‘Confederation Paysanne’ (a left-leaning union of peasants and farmers in France), declared that the struggle at Plachimada was ‘’ part of the worldwide struggle against trans-national companies that exploit natural resources like water'’.

Bove was joined by Maude Barlow, the Ottawa-based author of ‘Blue Gold’, a book on corporate theft of water resources, in pledging to turn Plachimada into another Cochabamba — the city in Bolivia where people- power thwarted plans to turn the water supply system over to the U.S. transnational Bechtel five years ago.

The question of toxic materials in the sludge distributed to farmers by the Coca-Cola factory as fertilizer was also highlighted, among others, by Inger Schorling, a delegate from Sweden and a green member of the European Parliament.

A ‘Plachimada Declaration’ adopted at the end of the conference asserted that people everywhere should ‘’resist all criminal attempts to market, privatize and corporatize water'’.

© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service