The victims of the Plachimada disaster have started an indefinite strike protesting against the delay in the reintroduction of Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill. 17 years ago, the Panchayat of the tiny hamlet of Plachimada, in Palakkad district, gave permission to the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCCBPL) to start its plant. Soon, the residents of Plachimada noticed that the water levels depleting, and getting contaminated. Today, though the plant has been shut down, the victims of the groundwater contamination that was caused by the plant releasing toxics into the soil and water, are yet to get justice. We take a look at the timeline of the events that have passed since the time Coca Cola set up its plant there:
1998 – 2000: HCCBPL, the Indian subsidiary of the Atlanta based Coca Cola Company, acquires 34 acres of land, mostly paddy fields, to set up the plant. In January 2000, the Plachimada Panchayat grants the company license. In March 2000, HCCBPL commences operations. The permit, issued by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), allows the plant to produce 5.61 lakh litres of soft drinks daily. The water is drawn from six bore wells and two ponds, with 20 lakh litres of water extracted daily. Within six months of commencement, the villagers complain of water levels reducing dramatically. The water also turned brackish. Several villagers take ill and crop yield decreases. To add on, the chemical sludge from the bottle washing that takes place in the plant, is dumped on the roadside.
2002: Complaints to local authorities fall on deaf ears. In February 2002, the first protest is launched in front of the plant. On 22 April 2002, an indefinite protest is launched by Adivasi women Mayilamma and C.K. Janu. The protest gains momentum and the Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (Anti Coca – Cola Peoples Struggle Committee) is formed. It begins its protest against the plant with 1,500 people demanding the shutdown of the Coca Cola plant, with immediate effect. Protests become constant, with the police cracking down on, and arresting protestors.
2003: The contamination and depletion of groundwater continues to affect the health of the villagers, and crop output. In April 2003, the protest takes a legal turn. The Perumatty Grama Panchayat refuses the renewal of the plant’s license on grounds that it is causing acute drinking water shortage in the Perumatty Panchayat and nearby villages. The company challenges this decision at the Kerala High Court, which directs Coca Cola to approach the Local Self-Government Department (LSD) of the State Government. On July 3, 2003, BBC airs a programme titled, ‘Face the Facts’, which reported that there were carcinogens present in the waste deposited by the plant.
In August 2003, the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi comes out with a report stating that the soft drinks had considerable amounts of pesticides in them. The KSPCB confirms BBC’s report. It orders the company to stop dumping waste nearby and clear up all the waste it has already dumped and store it within the plant’s premises. The High Court challenges the Village Council’s decision to revoke the license. While asking the Village Council to renew the license, it also orders the plant to stop drawing groundwater within a month. The Panchayat renews it license, but under three conditions: no water should be drawn from within the Panchayat, no effluents should be discharged and the company should prove to the Panchayat that its products do not have any contaminants.
2004: In January 2004, the Plachimada Declaration is adopted, during a World Water Conference held in Palakkad district. It declares, “Water is not a commodity… We should resist all criminal attempts to marketise, privatise and corporatise water…” In February, the Palakkad District Panchayat declares the district to be drought affected. It orders the company to stop using groundwater. Coco Cola plant stops operations in March 2004.
2005: The Divisional bench of the High Court grants permission to the plant to extract up to a maximum of 5,00,000 litres of ground water per day. It also orders that the Panchayat to issue a new license within a week. The company files for a five year renewal of the license, which is denied by the Panchayat over non conformation to conditions set by the High Court.
April 22, 2005 marks the third year of the protest, a huge rally is organised. The High Court again orders the renewal of the license within a week or it would be deemed that the license stands renewed for two years from June 2004. The Panchayat issues a three month license, subject to strict regulations. Over 100 activists from the Yuvajana Vedi youth organization, march to the factory gates. They clash with police, resulting in four protestors being severely injured, and 43 arrested. In August 2005, the KSPCB orders the closure of the plant over non-compliance of pollution control norms. In November 2005, the High Court again demands that the license be issued, but by then the new rules established by the Kerala Groundwater (Control and Regulation) Act, come into place.
January 2006: The plant halts all operations and starts to look at ways of moving operations elsewhere. A memorandum submitted by then Chief Minister VS Achutanandan and other cabinet members, demands the permanent closure of the bottling plant, compensation of the affected community and prosecution of the Coca Cola Company over criminal charges. In August 2006, the KSPCB orders the ban of manufacture and sale of Coca Cola in the state, based on the allegations by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, that is contains pesticides and harmful chemicals. Coca Cola refutes the charges, stating in a press release that “We are completely confident in the safety of our soft drinks in India because they are produced to the same level of purity, regarding pesticides, as the stringent EU criteria for bottled water.” In September 2006, the Kerala Government lifts the ban against the company.
2010: Then CM Achutanandan announces the state decision to appoint a high level legal committee to look into the issues at Plachimada. A year later, the committee submits its report, which states that the company should be made to pay Rs 216 crore as compensation to the local people, apart from restoring the ecology of the area.
2011: The Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, 2011, is passed unanimously by the Kerala Legislative Assembly and sent to the Central Government for President’s approval. The Bill aims at the establishment of a Special Tribunal for the adjucation of disputes and the recovery of compensation for the victims. The Union Home Ministry, in coordination with other Ministries – law, environment and forests, agriculture returns the Bill to state after receiving legal opinion from the counsels of the HCCBPL that the Bill is not valid. The Home Ministry urges the state to scrap it.
2016: In February 2016, the President returns to Bill without giving an assent. The Kerala Assembly plans to reintroduce the Bill with some changes.
2017: On the 15th anniversary of the Plachimada agitation, the victims of the exploitation and pollution caused by the plant, go on an indefinite strike, protesting against the delay over reintroducing the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill in the Assembly.