Plachimada: People win, Coca Cola lose

Coca Cola, one of the largest soft drink makers finally left Plachimada.

The company realised that it could no longer resist the combined power of public action and years long litigation. Coca Cola dramatically informed it’s decision in the Supreme Court where the case has been going on for years, that it had no intention to open and resume operations in its Plachimada factory. When the advocate appearing for the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Corporation informed the decision, the court ordered to shut down the case. This submission of Coca Cola is also a victory of public protests against exploitation of natural resources by the corporates.

The Coca Cola Company commenced operations in Plachimada, a hamlet in Palakkad district in 2000. In a few months, the area around the plant was endangered and HCCBPL soon became a burden for the people. The local residents realised that the company which drew 5, 10, 000 litres of groundwater each day could cause extreme water shortages. For every 3.75 litres of water, the factory manufactured a litre of the beverage and several litres of waste water. The residents began a protest against the plant. When the village panchayat refused to renew the license of HCCBPL in 2003, the corporate interests and public demands locked horns openly. The state government but annulled the decision of the village panchayat. However, the single bench of Kerala High Court upheld the panchayat’s decision. But the court made clear that the licence shouldn’t be denied as long as the company wasn’t extracting the excessive groundwater. The factory in Plachimada was ‘temporarily’ shut down in 2004. Coca Cola refuting the allegations, lodged an appeal and the High Court division bench ruled in favour of the company. The plea filed in the Supreme Court by the village panchayat in November 2005 is what’s being going on at present.

To believe that the company stepped back on its own in order to evade bigger failures is justifiable. Certain observations of the Kerala High Court single bench had earlier proved contradictory to the company’s claims. The HCCBPL had claimed that it had the right to make use of the water from the land owned by the company. The court responded by citing new developments in the world environment conference. The question as to what extent resources like water could be ‘privatised’ has been raised as slogans by the people in several countries against the corporates. The claim that when such resources are overly exploited, it is the responsibility of the government to put an end to such practices, has been gaining acceptance. It’s because the government is only a care taker; it’s the people who are the owners. Individuals have the right to life just like the corporates that have the right to engage in businesses. Like the excessive exploitation of resources, pollution too affects all people.

Whether the panchayat has the right to deny the permission to resume operations by citing environment issues, is also included in the matters under consideration of the court. The question whether the ownership over a land alone would give the right to uncontrolled exploitation of water, was also raised. The company might have withdrawn due to dearth of justifications to deem that the law would back its unwarranted consumption of water resources. Even as the victory of the people is being celebrated, the question that the verdict against corporate exploitation got aborted due to the company’s calculated withdrawal could also be raised. The public awareness about the water, air and land resources that has been gaining momentum globally should be receiving legal backing in India as well. The Plachimada panchayat and Kerala assembly later had demanded their right to claim compensation from the company through legislatures. After the Bhopal tragedy, such a law is the need as well as right of India as a whole. People have been successful in achieving legal victory against soft drink companies in the US and Ecuador. The Centre should be willing to take necessary steps through the right legislatures.

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