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Parched Village Sues to Shut Tap at Coke

Drought-hit Indians say Plant Draining Groundwater

MARK WILLIAMS / SF Chronicle 6mar2005

[More on Coca-Cola in India]

 

Plachimada, India As legal battles go, few have appeared to be so unequal.

The plaintiff is a rural panchayat, a committee of village elders representing tribal people at the bottom rung of India's caste system. The defendant is arguably the world's most famous consumer brand the Coca-Cola Co.

photo: Mathruboomi Daily by Madhuraj - Parched Village Sues to Shut Tap at Coke: Drought-hit Indians say Plant Draining Groundwater MARK WILLIAMS / SF Chronicle 6mar2005

Sometime this month, the high court of the southern state of Kerala is expected to rule whether the panchayat in Plachimada, a village of about 30, 000 inhabitants, exceeded its power by denying water to the mega-corporation. If the court decides it has not, the decision could be a rallying cry in other drought-stricken states where peasant farmers are blaming Coca-Cola for siphoning off badly needed water, activists say.

By law, panchayats are empowered to protect the public good. At the end of 2003, the Kerala high court agreed that Plachimada could deny the local Coca-Cola plant, set amid paddies and coconut groves, access to groundwater to protect area farmers suffering from a lack of water. It ordered the company to close down its $25 million plant, which was opened in 2001, and seek an alternative source of water. If Coca-Cola loses its appeal this month, it may have to shut down its operation for good.

"Unless we can get an agreement with the panchayat that says once and for all they accept what we are doing, I don't see any reason why we would reopen that plant," said David Cox, Coca-Cola Asia's communications director.

Company officials say that inadequate rainfall in the past three years is the major culprit for drought conditions. There isn't a "shred of evidence to back up what they are saying (about the plant using too much water). We have absolutely no interest in locating a $25 million plant over a supply of water that's going to run out," Cox said.

He also says his company is being demonized by anti-globalization activists and points out that a nearby Indian brewery, which he says uses more water than Coke's Plachimada plant, has been left alone by activists.

To be sure, anti-globalization activists have joined area farmers to begin a nationwide campaign against the soft drink giant, appropriating the "Quit India" slogan used by Mohandas Gandhi to demand immediate independence from British rule. In January, protesters singled out the 87 Coke and Pepsi plants in India on the grounds that they had violated Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to life.

While local governments own state groundwater, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution give village councils the power to intervene in water- rights issues if their residents' livelihoods are threatened.

"The fundamental question here is, 'Who has the authority over groundwater?' " asked C.R. Bijoy, a prominent tribal rights activist in neighboring Tamil Nadu state. "Rights over water have to be linked to the broader struggle of marginalized people."

The legal proceeding in Kerala state is the latest skirmish in an increasingly bitter dispute between the Atlanta-based company and Plachimada villagers, who have organized demonstrations outside the plant's gates for more than three years and pledge to continue until Coke packs its bags.

"After Coca-Cola came here, my land became a desert, and we have become beggars," said P.V. Shahulhameed, 65, who grows peanuts, tomatoes and chilies on 3 acres of parched land.

A decision for the plaintiffs would be a major blow for Coke, because India is its fastest-growing market, expanding by 23 percent in 2004. It would also bolster protests in other rural areas, where residents have similar complaints.

In the northern town of Mehdiganj, located 12 miles from the holy city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state, the water table has plummeted 60 feet since Coca Cola arrived three years ago, village leaders say. Last November, police beat back residents trying to storm the plant. As many as 200 people were arrested, and the protests are continuing.

"If the Coca-Cola plant isn't closed, it will be impossible to live here, " said Mehdiganj resident Shakuntala Devi.

But Plachimada remains at the center of the confrontation between Coke and community water rights. During summer months, the plant uses deep-bore wells to extract about 132,125 gallons of water a day, the company says, to churn out Coke, Fanta and bottled water. Environmental activists say the plant uses three times that amount.

Plachimada farmers, who are predominantly adivasis ("indigenous people"), say toxic metals from the plant polluted farms and caused skin disorders after Coke supplied to villagers waste "sludge" containing cadmium and lead for use as a fertilizer. Although the Kerala state Pollution Control Board concurred that toxic metals were present, it also said the amounts did not pose a health risk.

Villagers also allege that waste from the Coke plant has leached into the soil, contaminating drinking water. A federal Supreme Court monitoring committee, which visited Plachimada last August, agreed. Groundwater had become "unfit for drinking" since the plant opened, said the committee's report.

But Coke spokesman Cox says the company's plants do not have the capacity to cause such environmental damage. And Bharat Sharma, a Delhi-based scientist with the International Water Management Institute, says reduced groundwater is predominantly the result of a lack of rainfall, not the plant's usage.

In the meantime, legal experts say the law is on the villagers' side.

"When it comes to local resources, the Constitution is clear that local people are the key stakeholders," said K.C. Sivaramakrishnan of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "That's the guarantee the Kerala courts have so far upheld."

And Vandana Shiva, a leading New Delhi activist in the campaign against Coca-Cola, says a victory for Plachimada will reverberate throughout the country.

"If they win, the fight will be replicated across India," she said.

source: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/03/06/MNGE2BL7161.DTL&type=printable 6mar2005

 

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