Women from near Plachimada
begin their milelong trek in search of water in a region suffering from
three years of scant rainfall.
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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''.