The much publicised battle between the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCBPL) and the Perumatty grama panchayat over the over-exploitation of water resources has hopefully entered a decisive phase, with the Division Bench of the High Court of Kerala on January 7, directing the company to ensure installing water meters at the six borewells and the two open wells to check the amount of water that is being used by the company.

Tribal women courting arrest during a protest against Coca Cola's exploitation of ground water in front of the plant at Plachimada village

The division bench directive came on an appeal filed by HCBPL, against the order by a single bench on December 16, 2003 which asked the soft drink major to find alternative sources of water for its bottling plant, spread over 34 acres of land at Plachimada in Palakkad and stop using the six borewells it had dug in its plant premises within one month of the court order. The case came before the single bench as the Perumatty grama panchayat filed a writ petition against the state government's order staying the cancellation of licence of the company.

The single bench had felt the company should be allowed to use only that much quantity of water which a land owner with 34 acres of land required. The panchayat and the State Government had been directed to ensure that the company did not extract any excess ground water after one month. They were also to ensure that all the bore wells were closed after one month. As per this directive, the panchayat, with the assistance of the Ground Water Department, had to find out the quantity of water a landowner with 34 acres could use for domestic and agricultural purposes. This inspection had to be done in the presence of accredited journalists to ensure transparency, the single bench had ordered.

February 18 update: The Kerala state cabinet has asked Coca-Cola to halt extracting groundwater at its Plachimada plant until June 15. The decision was taken considering the unprecedented drought the Palakkad district was facing, said Chief Minister AK Antony. The district collector will monitor if the company is violating the directive.

The complaint against that the company has been that through over-exploitation of groundwater resources, it has upset the water table of the area. Plachimada had the highest amount of ground water resources in the state (which is why Coke chose the area to set up its plant). Now, three years after the company started operations, the water level has plummeted to deplorable levels. It is feared that the place would soon become unfit for agriculture. Added to this is the allegation that, the sludge from the company was passed off as fertiliser to local farmers.

While the Coke says there is nothing to prove that the company activities led to ground water depletion, farmers and the panchayat feel otherwise. The panchayat had cancelled the licence given to the company and also issued a show cause notice on it for closing down the plant. Plachimada is part of the Chittoor constituency and K Krishnankutty, state secretary general of Janata Dal and former MLA says that thorny bushes which herald desertification have started showing up in the area and the situation would turn grimmer, with more dip in the water level.

Now, on the court directive, a 11-member expert team, headed by EJ James, executive director of Centre for Water Resources, Development and Management (CWRDM), Kozhikode, has been set up to analyse data on rainfall, water table fluctuations, groundwater extraction and groundwater potential of the area. It will also draw an inference whether the current level of extraction by the company could affect the availability of water in the nearby areas. While the team has sought one year to complete the investigation, it has asked for a monitoring phase of further two years. But with the available information, an interim report would be submitted at the end of three months of the probe.

As per the recent Division Bench directive, water meters have been set up at the six bore wells and two open wells of the company to ascertain the quantity of ground water drawn by the company. The tanker lorry which brings water to the company (the company had started procuring water from outside as what was available wasn’t enough for production) also has been fitted with a meter. A tenth meter would register the amount of water clocked by these nine meters put together, informed A Krishnan, president of the Perumatty grama panchayat. The quantity of water is checked every Monday. President and secretary of the panchayat, a member of the expert committee and the quality control manager of the HCBPL would be present for the weekly water meter check-ups. This will be continued till February 12, when the case comes up for hearing again.

So far, a weekly average of 3,71,000 litres have been registered, which according to Krishnankutty, is 71,000 litres more than what the company had earlier declared. This is despite the fact that the production capacity has been reduced to half, he adds. There is also widespread apprehension that the company has reduced production to project a low requirement for water.

The court directive has also brought an end to the strike that HCBPL employees had been carrying on in front of the panchayat against its move to close down the plant. But the agitation by the people living adjacent to the Coca Cola plant is continuing. These people, mostly residents of the Vijayanagaram adivasi colony which shares a border with the plant, are one of the worst affected by the change in the water distribution levels. Without exception, all the wells in the colony have salty water with acidic taste. The water is not even fit for washing and the people, after a day’s work on the fields, walk two kilometers in the evening to fetch drinking water from the neighbouring village. HCBPL’s efforts to placate the agitating people by supplying them with drinking water brought in tanker lorries have had no effect, says V Venugopal, an activist fighting for the villagers.

The local people fear that if Coke gets its extraction span extended for the entire period of the expert team’s study, it will leave no water for any one.
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The people fear that the real issue of livelihood and right to honourable life may be submerged before money power and personal interests. If Coke gets its extraction span extended for the entire period of the expert team’s study, it will leave no water for any one, they say. They view the water monitoring by meters with suspicion and distrust.

A global level water conference was held from Jan 21-23 at Plachimada. The conference saw delegates from 25 discussing water related issues arising from globalisation. "The recent world water forum has given a boost to our confidence to continue with efforts to protect the water rights of the local people," said A.Krishnana, president, Perumatty Gram Panchayat. (Quest Features and Footage)