Pepsicola India Holdings' bottling plant in Kerala is extracting excess groundwater and has also run into complaints of groundwater contamination, according to a study done by Kerala's State Groundwater Department some months ago. The study has traced toxic chemicals in the water samples from the company site, and has asked the State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) to take immediate measures to prevent spreading of contamination. The plant operates in the Wise Park Industrial Estate in the arid Palakkad district of Kerala.

The report submitted by the expert committee consisting of four hydro-geologists of the groundwater department warns that the factory should not be allowed to draw more than 2.34 lakh litres of groundwater a day, as against the present 6 lakh litres. Pepsi holds 53 acres of land in 750-acres industrial park, and extracts 48 per cent of the groundwater in the area, points out the expert committee. The company with its seven bore wells depends solely on groundwater for its soft drink and bottled water production. The state government has not made the report public.

The groundwater flow in the area is directed towards the factory site and the report warns that unless water extraction is checked, it will trigger serious problems. The total groundwater availability of Pudussery Grama Panchayat in which Pepsi functions is 7.81 million cubic metres and 93.3 per cent of this has already been exploited. According to the norms fixed by the Groundwater Estimation Committee (GEC) and approved by the Water Resources Ministry in 2004, the panchayat is in a critical state, reveals the study. "A judicious approach has to be observed in the future on the exploitation of groundwater, otherwise the area will be in the over-exploited category," the report warns.

The study also reveals that the company’s claim of storing its solid wastes in a secured landfill is baseless. In fact, the company dumps its sludge in a shed open on all sides and chemicals could get into the soil and groundwater during rains and this might contaminate the groundwater in the entire area, warns the report. Pepsi claims that it disposes the sludges in a scientific way — in a sanitary landfill. (A scientific landfill has to have a concrete basement or a structure using high density polythene to ensure that there is no infiltration. Toxic materials are neutralized and filled in bags.)

The expert committee also found presence of calcium, magnesium, chloride, sodium and bicarbonates in the groundwater samples taken from the factory site. Though the chemical content in the effluents released by the plant is within the limit set by the KSPCB, the effluents seep into ground water, the report says. It notes unscientific management of effluents and sludge leads to subsequent leaching of chemicals to the soil.

The maximum permissible limit of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in fresh water is 1,000 mg/litre. Water samples from bore wells at the plant’s premise contain 5,684 mg/litre and the contamination is 10 times higher than in the wells outside the plant. The report says the pollution can spread because the company extracts water in a large-scale.

Pepsi did not defend itself to the finer points of the report in an Assembly Subject Committee meeting and confined itself to generalities like 'they are abiding by all the norms and regulations', according to a highly placed source. Pepsi's office Pudussery declined to comment, the corporate office in New Delhi could not be reached.

State pollution board differs

While the report recommends immediate measures, the authorities seem to be reluctant to act upon it. The KSPCB insists that the company does not violate any norms and regulations regarding industrial waste.

“Pepsi does not pollute,” asserts G Rajmohan, the KSPCB chairman. “The company has taken all stipulated pollution control measures regarding effluents and solid wastes, and they are of international standards.” He even goes to the extent of saying that Pepsi’s pollution control measures are better than that of Coca Cola, which had to close down its plant at Plachimada in the same district.

But Rajmohan forgets that the chemical analysis of the sludge done by the KSPCB itself at Pepsi site in May last year had traced the presence of hazardous and toxic substances like lead, cadmium, nickel and manganese. The discharge of effluents and disposal of sludge must be in accordance with the Hazardous Wastes (Management & Handling) Rules 1989.

The Assembly Subject Committee on Irrigation was convened five times to evaluate the Pepsi report, but failed to reach a consensus on the action to be taken. The report has also not been tabled in the Assembly itself.

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While the KSPCB argues for Pepsi, the State Ground Water Authority prefers to be silent. Kerala enacted a legislation -- The Kerala Groundwater (Control and Regulation) Act -— and set up the authority in 2002 exclusively for the conservation of ground water, when it realised that in many regions of the state water level has considerably depleted.

The Director of the Groundwater Department, the body that commissioned the report, is also the Secretary of the Groundwater Authority. The Authority has all necessary powers for controlling and regulating groundwater use. According to Section 15(g) of the Act, the Authority can even seize the machinery of a factory that extracts groundwater in excess or causes pollution. However it doesn’t seem to be very keen on exercising the powers.

The expert committee to look into Pepsi's water extraction was formed in April 2007 following an order from the Kerala High Court. The court, while considering a petition by Pepsi against the village panchayat’s decision to revoke the factory’s license for operation, had already ruled that the local body had no powers to cancel the license since the company lies within an industrial estate.

The license for running the plant had been granted to Pepsi in 2000 by the Kerala Industrial Single Window Clearance Board. But the panchayat cancelled Pepsi’s license in 2003 stating that there was acute drinking water scarcity in the areas near the company due to over-exploitation of groundwater. While delivering a verdict favouring Pepsi, the HC asked the state government to find out whether the apprehensions expressed by the local body were true.

“We want Pepsi to close down its factory because over 45,000 people here experience severe water shortage. Groundwater is their only source,” says K Suresh, the panchayat president. He points out that many bore wells of farmers in the vicinity of the Pepsi plant have become useless due to unavailability of water and the second paddy crop has become impossible. Malampuzha block which Pudussery panchayat belongs to is a rainshadow region and receives an average rainfall of 1243 mm, which is far less than the average rainfall of Kerala (3000mm) and the district average (1800mm).

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on 11 February 2008 upheld the judgment of the Kerala High Court verdict favouring Pepsi. The apex court too observed that the village panchayat had no powers to cancel the license of a factory functioning within an industrial estate. In fact, it was the then CPI(M)–led Left Democratic Front government that exempted the industrial estates from the ambit of the powers vested on the local self-government bodies under the Panchayati Raj Act in 1999.

“Now, the panchayat is helpless,” points out Suresh. “It’s the Industries Department that should act against the company.” But the Industries Department, so far, is totally silent on the Pepsi issue.

It is to be noted that the state government filed the Special Leave Petition against the High Court’s verdict on the ground that there was severe water scarcity in the panchayat and it was the responsibility of the local body to provide drinking water. “It’s absurd that the government is moving courts against its own laws,” points out Sunny Paikada, an environmental activist. “If the government has the political will it should back the powers of the local bodies it took away.”

The authorities seem to be bent on buying time. Even though the expert committee submitted its report almost 10 months ago, the government has not shown any interest in implementing the committee’s recommendations. The report has not even been made public. The Assembly Subject Committee on Irrigation and Power was convened five times to evaluate the Pepsi report, but failed to reach a consensus on the action to be taken. The last meeting was in January 2008.

Except the KSPCB, no government body has disputed the report. The report has not been placed before the Assembly.

In the meantime, inside sources reveal that the KSPCB is suggesting yet another study by an outside agency discarding the present report. It might take at least two to three years for the new study and its evaluation to be over, and by that time the tenure of the present LDF government will be over. The government must make the report public and implement its recommendations to prevent over-exploitation and contamination of groundwater in the region. (The Quest Features & Footage)