No water? Drink Coke!
The commodification of water in Kerala
June, 2002: PLACHIMADA, KERALA -- On 22 April, 2002, more than 2,000 irate protestors, consisting mostly of indigenous people and dalits gathered at the gates of the Hindustan Coca Cola factory in Plachimada, Palghat district, Kerala. Residents from the villages surrounding Coke's greenfield soft-drink bottling factory here say that Coke's indiscriminate mining of groundwater has dried up many wells, and contaminated the remainder. At least 50 villagers have maintained a picket outside the factory gate every day since the strike began. According to local sources, the villagers are angry enough to destroy the factory failing government action to shut down the water-intensive unit. Till date, the Government has taken no action to check groundwater depletion by Coke in the region. Police, however, had arrested several villagers on the first day of the strike. A contingent of police is currently posted at the factory to protect it from any potential trouble caused by the water-starved community. Coke's recent placatory gesture of supplying a truckload of water each day to the two worst affected villages hasnt impressed the protestors. They say that Coke will have to pay for restoring the damaged groundwater aquifers and for long-term water supply to all the impacted villages. A Coke spokesperson who declined to be named, dismisses the protests as a non-issue. "There is absolutely no water issue in [Plachimada]. We have not found any change in the water situation. The issue there is highly politicized." Villagers, on the other hand, say that the company, not the struggle, is politicized. They accuse the local leaders of political parties of colluding with Coke. Lending credence to this allegation is the fact that barring the youth wing of the Congress party, none of the political parties active in the villages have issued a statement in support of the people's struggle against Coke. Wells Run Dry Coca Cola's bottling plant was set up three years ago in the middle of fertile agricultural land. "Coca Cola's plant is illegal because they haven't even obtained clearance for putting agricultural land to non-agricultural uses," says M. Swaminathan, a tribal leader from Velloor, one of the tribal villages affected by Coke's activities. Kerala states Land Utilization Act requires prior approval for conducting non-agricultural activities on designated agricultural land. Given its proximity to a number of reservoirs and irrigation canals, the region has access to healthy groundwater resources. Until recently, Coke was drawing 1.5 million liters/day from the common groundwater resource. This year, the water scarcity has hit even Coke. The company is only able to extract only 800,000 liters from the borewells. The remainder is supplied by water trucks that carry water extracted from borewells in neighboring villages. According to local estimates, Coke's water mining has parched the lands of more than 2000 people residing within 1.2 miles of the factory. Barely six months after the factory set up, villagers and farmers living around the bottling unit began noticing changes in the quantity and quality of well water. Water from a well in Plachimada, a tribal colony with nearly 100 families living along the eastern wall of the factory, rapidly turned brackish and milky white in color. The water was unfit for drinking, cooking and bathing. "Coca Cola has made life miserable for us, for our women. Our women have had to walk nearly one kilometer to get water from a neighboring village, and return in time to get to work," says Swaminathan. Those who are unable to make the trek for water continue to depend on the contaminated water. Of late, nearly 100 people have reported recurring stomach aches, which they relate to the water they are being forced to drink. The water crisis has hit the farmers too. Theivathal Gounder and her son R. Krishnaswamy harvest coconuts, paddy and peanuts on their 7-acre farm. Over the last two years, they have seen their wells yield plummet. "Earlier, we had enough water to run the pump for 18-20 hours. Now, after four hours of pumping, the well is dry, and what water we get is rapidly turning brackish like the wells on the other side," says Theivathal. The Gounders say they spent Rs. 60,000 last year deepening their well after Cokes pumps sucked their water away. This year, the company sunk yet another borewell barely 20 meters from their well. According to Theivathal, the water has receded by another five feet as a result. "We told them when they sunk the bore. But the Coca Cola people said they'll sink a well wherever they choose on their land," laments Theivathal. The Coca Cola official who spoke to CorpWatchIndia has a similar take on the matter. "We have bought the land. No law regulates us on our use of water. Okay, we may be mining water, but so are others. At least, we have some rain water harvesting," he says. The Gounders say the Coke-induced scarcity of water has resulted in a six-fold decrease in their coconut yield. Water Declared Very Hard CorpWatchIndia sent samples of water from the wells in Plachimada and the Gounders farm for scientific analyses at a Chennai-based Government-approved laboratory. Interpreting the results, Dr. Mark Chernaik, a staff scientist with Oregon-based E-LAW US--a network of public interest environmental lawyers writes: "Water from the village well and the farmer's well would be classified as 'very hard.' Use of this water for bathing and washing would cause severe nuisance and hardship. Water from the [village] well and, to a lesser extent, water from the farmer's well would have an objectionable taste because of the high levels of calcium and magnesium." According to Dr. Chernaik, the results lend some corroboration to villagers claims that the water problems are caused by Coke's over-exploitation of the groundwater. "Excessive calcium and magnesium in groundwater usually is the result of the dissolution of limestone that is associated with the groundwater deposit. Therefore, this water quality analysis supports the following hypothesis . . . [that] rapid extraction of water from the aquifer (after the arrival of the Coca-Cola bottling plant) would increase the rate at which water is flowing through the limestone or clay. Faster flowing water would break apart some of the limestone or clay, resulting in the addition of limestone or clay particles to the water supply." Coke's Track Record Community complaints about Coke's exploitation of common groundwater resources are not peculiar to Plachimada. Neither does its track record in India and elsewhere corroborate its claims of "responsible corporate citizenship."
June 2002 Nityanand Jayaraman is the India organizer for CorpWatch India. This article is republished with permission. Footnotes