Taking The Fizz Out Of Coca-Cola

Updated: Jun 30 2002, 05:30am hrs
It's essentially an agitation for access to potable water. Coca-Colas role seems only incidental. Once agricultural land, the little hamlet of Plachimada in Palakkad district, tucked away near Keralas border with Tamil Nadu, is parched now. The local residents, mostly tribals, have launched a war against Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt Ltds bottling plant, which, they believe, has been drying the water sources and turning the place into a wasteland.

The primary demands of the agitators are that the factory should stop what they call indiscriminate and illegal tapping of groundwater, pay compensation to the people, ensure sustainable water supply to the hamlets around, and put an end to contamination of air and soil. They allege that over 60 bore-wells have been sunk in the 40-acre agricultural land allotted to the company.

Factory sources discount this charge and say there are just six bore-wells and two open wells. Also, the company is very conscious about its social responsibility as a major corporate and has engaged itself in water harvesting as also water supply to the local residents, adds Coca-Cola Indias area general manager Morris Wilson.

Cola Camps For Health

Unfazed by the agitation against its bottling plant in Palakkad, Coca-Cola India has launched a community health initiative in the Capital. The cola major has joined hands with St Johns Ambulance Brigade for a month-long health programme.

The programme will cover eight slums and include free health check-ups, immunisation and health education for the slum dwellers. The first of these camps was inaugurated on June 25 at Akshar school in Yamuna Pushta (West), by Shatrughan Sinha, member of Parliament.

According to Nantoo Banerjee, director, Public Affairs & Communication, Coca-Cola India: Our company will provide the financial and infrastructural support to the St Johns Ambulance Brigade for effective functioning of these camps.

Coca-Cola India will take care of the cost of medicines apart from the expenses incurred by the medical team including doctors, paramedics and volunteers. The company will also bear the cost of transportation, publicity material and prizes for the quiz contests.

Speaking on the occasion, Satish Chand Goyal, deputy commissioner, St Johns Ambulance Brigade, said: While these camps will provide free general health check-up to slum dwellers, the special emphasis will be on mosquito and water-borne diseases, which are most common in slum areas during the monsoon season.

People visiting the camps will be given immunisation treatment against contagious diseases as a preventive measure. Free medicines will be provided to the sick. The camps will also focus on health education through interactive quiz competition and audio-visual presentation on health and sanitation.
Ruchi Sud

However, Vellodi Venu, an environmentalist and one-time activist of an extremist organisation, who is spearheading the agitation, says the company had just five to six bore-wells at a time. But over the two years since it started operations in the area, it has sunk over 50-60 bore-wells. The strategy is to dig only five to six bore-wells at a time and, when the wells go dry, dig the next set of wells. Thus, over the last two years, at least 50-60 bore-wells have been dug, the agitators say, quoting numbers given to them by the contractors who sank the bore-wells.

According to C R Neelakantan Namboodiri, an engineer and environmental activist, who courted arrest during a protest march in front of the factory nearly a fortnight ago, samples of the water from the wells nearby were sent for testing and it has been proved that there were high levels of chemicals in them. The wells were dug at depths up to nearly 600 feet when the permissible level is only 300 feet. Overexploitation of water has led to dissolution of limestone, which is part of the groundwater deposit. Besides, excessive extraction of water has left very little water in the wells, which is not potable.

Factory officials also dispute the claim of excessive water use. According to statistics furnished by plant manager P Janardhanan, water intake during peak time (nearly two and a half months in summer) is just 600 kilolitres (kl) per day. This is used to produce 150 kl of aerated drinks. During the off-season of nearly nine months, the daily intake is 300 kl and the production is just 75 kl.

This is a blatant lie, allege those involved in the agitation. On an average, 85 lorries of beverage products and mineral water are sent out of the factory daily. They claim that each lorry has around 600 cases and each case has 24 bottles of 300 ml. This goes to prove that at least 150 kl of water go out of the factory daily. If the claims of the factory officials are to be believed, it uses just 600 kl of water. A good part of this is used to wash the bottles. Unlike other factories, bottles are washed manually here. Chemicals are used in the process.

According to studies, an individual needs 40 litres of water a day. And if the factory officials are to be believed, the amount of water extracted would suffice for 1,500 people daily. This is a criminal waste, charge the Plachimada agitators.

Incidentally, the agitators are mainly tribals from the backward Eravalar and Malasar communities. Political parties and trade unions are siding with the company so as to protect the jobs of the people. Here is a classical case of both the opposition and the ruling front coming together against the people, says Mr Namboodiri.

Though the top factory officials claim that waste is treated, residents say that the waste, mostly foul-smelling semi-liquid and dry sedimented slurry, was earlier given to the farmers of the area as good fertiliser. When they found that the waste did not decompose and, instead, spread a foul odour all over, the local residents refused to take it any more. Then the company was forced to dump it indiscriminately along the bank canals and within the factory premises.

There is also the charge that the company, which was built on agricultural land, had circumvented the land laws and would soon move to greener pastures just across the state once the water sources dried up. Indications of this were clear when the company had to bring in water to its factories to meet the peak season demand this summer, say the tribals. The 150-odd casual workers will lose their jobs once the factory moves out and they will be reduced to living on the wasteland where there is no water, only sand and rock, argues Mr Venu.

The level of water level depletion can be well gauged by the drying up of the three irrigation reservoirs at Meenkara, Kambalathara and Venkalakayam. These reservoirs which used to irrigate Plachimada and the nearby villages have now become places for small-time farming.

No up-to-date studies have been done on the water level in Chitoor taluk where Plachimada is or the district for that matter. The Central Ground Water Authority has statistics available only up to 1997. Over the last few years, Palakkad has received very little rainfall during both the south-west and north-east monsoons. The region has been dry for nearly seven months now, which has led to an acute water scarcity.

Adding to the problem are the umpteen programmes undertaken by successive governments to sink excessive bore- wells. It is believed that as part of the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, over 1,990 bore-wells were sunk during 1970-90. The number will have gone up by another 1,000 by now. This has affected the groundwater balance in the district. The district officials say the law does not permit them to put a check on indiscriminate digging of bore-wells.

The role of the Coca-Cola factory need not be viewed in isolation. The factory has only made the crisis noticeable and brought to the fore what is in storeor not storedin the days to come. It may be a small agitation for the common cause of water, but its ripples may spread far and wide.