Behind me a child holds a placard that says, ‘fresh air, fresh water, our birth right!’ Villagers have been keeping an ongoing vigil here for 518 days now, and I’ve come to find out why. Coca-Cola arrived in Plachimada three years ago.
The site was chosen because it had one of the most plentiful supplies of groundwater in Kerala and because it provided an ideal location from which to supply soft drinks to both Kerala and Tamil Nadu; the village is situated close to the border between the two states. Quite why Kerala needed Coca-Cola at all was a bit of a puzzle to me: on my visit I passed stalls all over the place selling delicious freshly blended fruit juices in a multitude of flavours. But the corporation took 38 hectares of prime agricultural land near the village and built a big factory that soon began turning water into fizzy pop, churning out as many as 1,224,000 bottles per day.
This massive operation requires a lot of water: around one and a half million litres of groundwater per day in fact. That’s five times the amount of water that ends up in the bottles. Needless to say, Coca-Cola pays nothing to the local villagers for their precious groundwater.
‘It wasn’t long after Coca-Cola arrived that our problems began,’ says Veloor Somindan, the leader of the campaign against the Plachimada bottling plant. ‘Once this district, Chittur taluk, was known as the rice bowl of Kerala. We had the most fertile soil and the best yields anywhere in the state. But now the ground is dry, rice and coconut harvests across the taluk have declined to as low as one quarter of what they once were.’ Across the district, around 20,000 farmers have seen their income plummet over the last two years. Somindan, who has a wife and two daughters, says he can barely afford to support his family anymore. It is not only the fields that have dried up. So have the wells. Whereas before Coca-Cola’s arrival villagers were able to draw water from wells just 150 feet deep, now they often don’t reach it at a depth of 500 feet. And even that water is useless.
A year after Coca-Cola arrived, the water in the local wells turned a strange colour, and villagers began complaining of fever, stomach pains, headaches and diarrhoea. Child mortality rates also increased suddenly. It was as late as August last year that the district medical officer eventually told the people of Plachimada that their water was toxic and unsafe for drinking. Now all 800 families have no choice but to make a four-kilometre round trip on foot, twice daily, to collect water from outside the toxic zone. It is usually the women who get shouldered with this work. They spend so much of the day collecting water that they are unable to seek other employment that could supplement the declining income that the land provides.
No one is totally sure what caused the poisoning of the local water supply, but all the theories on offer link the problem to Coca-Cola. Dr Mark Chernaik, a scientist with the international network Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide attributes the toxicity to the dissolution of limestone or clay caused by the excessively rapid flow of water through the rock during groundwater extraction. Others claim, quite plausibly, that the water supply has been polluted by Coca-Cola’s waste, which leeches through into the groundwater. The latter theory is particularly likely in view of Coca-Cola’s criminal distribution of waste sludge to local farmers. The farmers were encouraged to spread the sludge on their land; the corporation said it was an excellent fertiliser that would improve their yields. This provided a cheap and convenient waste disposal mechanism for the factory.
Last July BBC presenter John Waite sent a sample of this ‘fertiliser’ to a laboratory at Exeter University. Tests conducted at the lab revealed that the sludge contained dangerous levels of toxic metals including lead, cadmium, and chromium. Samples of water from local wells, in which all three metals were found to be present, were also sent to the laboratory. The lab’s principal scientist, David Santillo, states: ‘The presence of high levels of lead and cadmium is of particular concern. Lead is a developmental toxin in humans, particularly noted for its ability to retard the developing nervous system. Cadmium is especially toxic to the kidney, but also to the liver. It is classified as a known human carcinogen.’ Shortly after these results were made public, Coca-Cola stopped dumping its sludge on local farmers. But this was too late for the water supply. Even now villagers are unable to drink or even wash in water from any wells within a two-kilometre radius of the bottling plant.
On 7 April 2003, Perumatty panchayat, the local authority within whose boundaries the Plachimada plant is situated, refused to renew Coca-Cola’s license to operate in the area. Coca-Cola subsequently went to the High Court and had the panchayat’s decision overruled. But according to local activists, the High Court does not have the power to issue such rulings. I checked this with Clifton D’Rozario of the Alternative Law Forum, a group of lawyers and legal experts based in Bangalore. ‘The High Court ruling contravenes the spirit of [Indian] constitutional amendments brought in to enforce decentralisation of powers, functions and decision-making capacities,’ D’Rozario insists. ‘The aim of the amendments was to ensure that the panchayats could make decisions regarding resources in a manner that is beneficial to them. Hence Perumatty panchayat was totally within its constitutional rights to cancel Coca-Cola’s license to operate in the area.’ It seems, however, that Coca-Cola, which is the biggest US corporate investor in India, has the country’s law makers in the palm of its hand. In a letter to the principal secretary of Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill wrote: ‘I would like to bring to your attention, and to seek your help in resolving, a potentially serious investment problem of some significance to both our countries. The case involves Coca-Cola, one of the largest single foreign investors in India.’ The ‘problem’ Blackwill was referring to was that Indian law stipulates that foreign companies with operations in India must divest 49 per cent of the equity stake in those operations to Indian shareholders within a few years of their entry into the country.
The original purpose of this law was to ensure that Indians had some control over businesses based in their country. Unhappy with any such devolution of power, Coca-Cola used a combination of intensive lobbying and covert threats to change government policy to ensure that, while 49 per cent of the equity of its Indian subsidiaries is Indian-owned, its Indian shareholders have no voting rights whatsoever. This might just about qualify as complying with the letter of the law, but it certainly doesn’t comply with its spirit or the manner in which it had previously been enforced. Faced with a company wielding this much political clout, the villagers of Plachimada realised that their rights would only be defended as a result of grassroots pressure. In recent months their struggle has intensified.
Last January Plachimada provided the venue for the inauguration of a nationwide ‘yatra’, or march, organised by the National Alliance of People’s Movements. The yatra toured the whole country, uniting people from diverse grassroots struggles under the banner, ‘save the nation, build the nation’. Thousands of villagers, city dwellers, activists and concerned citizens travelled on foot, by train, in trucks and buses from Plachimada to distant corners of India in a groundbreaking display of resistance. The diversity of languages and the array of colours in evidence on the march was rivalled only by the number of slogans chanted by those in attendance. Then on 21 September, a huge rally was held outside the gates of the Plachimada plant. Activists from across India attended, including internationally renowned environmentalist Vandana Shiva. Hundreds flocked to the rally, blocking the road and sending a strong message to Coca-Cola that they were not welcome in Plachimada. More recently, a joint parliamentary committee set up by the Indian government published a report in February which held the Plachimada plant responsible for ‘causing pollution of water, depleting groundwater… reducing crop yields [and] causing ailments to human beings’. In response, letters poured into the office of the chief minister of Kerala from around the world, urging him to take immediate remedial action against Coca-Cola. The attitude of the police to the campaign has been firm and uncompromising. More than 300 arrests have been made during the course of the struggle in Plachimada. Parallel struggles by local villagers affected by Coca-Cola’s four other Indian bottling plants have been met with an even more heavy-handed response. The Mehdiganj plant near the holy city Varanassi in the north Indian state Uttar Pradesh is accused of discharging toxic waste into neighbouring fields and causing a serious water shortage in the surrounding area. When around 1,000 protesters held a peaceful demonstration outside the plant in September hundreds were beaten by Coca-Cola security personnel. Police looked on impassively while the attacks occurred, then detained around 400 demonstrators and kept 88 under arrest. Well-known Indian activist Dr Sandeep Pandey suffered injuries to his foot, back and head inflicted by blows from an iron rod, batons and a rifle butt.
When I phoned the Kerala government’s groundwater department it told me that it had ordered Coca-Cola to cut its groundwater use by half and to invest instead in rainwater harvesting. I asked the villagers of Plachimada whether they had been told about this; they said that they hadn’t. Dr Terry Machado, a scientist at Kerala’s Integrated Rural Technology Centre, claims that even if the state government is telling the truth, such changes would be insufficient to solve the area’s severe water problem. To provide a lasting solution, Machado argues, there is no other option but for Coca-Cola to heed the protesters’ demand and ‘quit Plachimada’. Corporate Watch India is even more skeptical. It suggests that Coca-Cola is being forced to seek an alternative water supply not by the Keralan government but because the corporation has depleted Plachimada’s groundwater so severely that there is simply not enough left to meet its demands. To make up for this shortfall, Corporate Watch claims, Coca-Cola has begun trucking in tanks of water extracted from bore wells in neighbouring villages. But Coca-Cola is clearly worried about the publicity that the Plachimada campaign has generated, and the implications that this may have for its brand image.
In January 2003 the corporation’s website boldly asserted: ‘Coca-Cola India’s bottling plant in Kerala has been the target of a handful of extremist protesters alleging the company is misusing local water resources. These allegations are false. Neighbouring communities, tribal leaders, NGOs, environmental scientists and government officials have repeatedly rejected the extremists’ allegations as totally groundless.’ There is no such brazenness now. Although Coca-Cola’s website still denies the allegations made about its Plachimada plant, it no longer does so with such an air of dismissiveness. In an attempt to reconcile the differences between Coca-Cola and the Plachimada campaigners, I tried to speak directly to the company. Despite several attempts to contact various senior employees in India, Coca-Cola repeatedly declined to answer any of my questions. The plant manager at Plachimada referred me to the company’s president of corporate communications, who in turn referred me to Coca-Cola India’s vice-president, who apologised for being unavailable to comment on each of the several occasions on which I called him. I began to understand how frustrated the people of Plachimada must feel when they attempt to speak directly to Coke about their problems. Yet it was clear that the corporation is feeling the heat.
There is still a long way to go to bring justice to the people of Plachimada and Chittur taluk, but if Coca-Cola begins to worry that its international brand name is at stake then there is every reason to believe that justice will be won. In fact, the pressure on the corporation has been mounting for some time. Coca-Cola’s reputation has already been seriously tarnished by a lawsuit filed in Florida in July 2001, which charged it with using paramilitary death squads to murder, torture, kidnap and threaten labour leaders in an attempt to force the Sinaltrainal trade union out of its bottling plants in Colombia. A call for a boycott of Coca-Cola issued by the London-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign led to a national student campaign in the US to ‘kick Coke off campus’.
A further blow came when Coke was targeted by campaigners for discriminating against HIV-positive employees in its African plants. And in May 2003 Coca-Cola was fined $300,000 for polluting the Matasnillo River in Panama. Just one thing, though. Don’t start drinking Pepsi instead of Coke. Down the road from Plachimada, Pepsi is busy draining the groundwater in Kanjikode.
Keith Hyams is researching a PhD in political philosophy at Oxford University.
For more information about the campaign to get Coca-Cola to clean up its act in India, please email email@example.com.
Action Aid is campaigning for communities’ rights to their resources. For more information see www.actionaid.org
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2004