The left’s big victory a few weeks ago in the south western Indian state of Kerala has yielded swift fruit this week in the form of yet another vigorous rebuff to Coca-Cola. For several years the vast company’s Indian subsidiary has been trying to reopen its bottling plant in Plachimada, in Kerala. Locals in Plachimada initially shut it down in 2002, after seeing their wells run dry, as described here by Alexander Cockburn, after he visited Plachimada last year.
The Plachimada fight has become a rousing symbol of resistance across India to Coca Cola, a company welcomed in by India’s neoliberals, who see “modernity” and “progress” in the sordid business of privatizing a publicly owned asset (water), adding syrup to it and then selling it back to original users of the water at an extortionate price. Coca-Cola had been confident that its clout would soon bring the Plachimada protesters to heel, but resistance has been spirited and determined, in a decade when public consciousness of a world water crisis has been growing swiftly.
What follows is a report relayed to us by Amit Srivastava, of the India Resource Center.
Trivandrum: In a major breakthrough for the campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable, the newly elected state government of Kerala has assured community leaders that the government will take proactive measures against the Coca-Cola bottling plant in south India.
Key community leaders met with Kerala’s new Chief Minister, Mr. V. S. Achutanandan, and cabinet members on June 15 and submitted a memorandum outlining their demands, including the permanent shut down of the Plachimada bottling plant, compensation to affected community members and the prosecution of the Coca-Cola company for criminal offences. The meeting resulted in significant commitments from the state government towards resolving the crisis.
The election of the new government in Kerala had been received with cautious optimism. Mr. Achutanandan has been an outspoken critic of the Coca-Cola company during his role as the leader of the opposition.
Coca-Cola’s bottling operations in Plachimada have created severe water shortages for the community and the groundwater and soil have been polluted, resulting in further hardships to the community.
The Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada has remained shut down since March 2004 because of the widespread community opposition to the plant and the company has suffered a series of setbacks in its attempts to re-open the factory. The Kerala Pollution Control Board issued a stop order notice in August 2005 because of high levels of cadmium and lead in and around the plant.
The state government of Kerala has also challenged Coca-Cola’s right to extract water to the Supreme Court of India, arguing that water is being taken from poor communities to produce drinking water for the rich.
During the meeting with Chief Minister Mr. V. S. Achutanandan and cabinet members, the delegation from Plachimada received a number of assurances from the government including:
• Mr. V. S. Achutanandan, the Chief Minister, will work closely with the groups in Plachimada to take necessary steps to resolve the problems associated with the Coca-Cola bottling plant.
• Mr. Mullakara Ratnakaram, the Minister for Agriculture, will constitute an expert committee to assess the impacts of water shortages and pollution on farmers and the community.
• Ms. P.K Sreemathy, the Minister for Health and Family Welfare, who is also in charge of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), issued directions to the Director of Health Services to conduct a comprehensive health camp as an interim measure. Ms. Sreemathy said she would hold discussions with the Law Department and KSPCB to explore the possibility of framing criminal charges against the company under appropriate provisions.
• Mr. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the Home Minister, issued directions to withdraw all criminal cases against hundreds of community members involved in the campaign.
• Mr. A.K. Balan, Minister for Welfare of Backward & Scheduled Communities, committed to exploring criminal litigation against the Coca-Cola company because of the pollution caused by the company which has disproportionately affected Backward & Scheduled Communities.
• Mr. M. Vijayakumar, the Law Minister, will appoint a Special Prosecutor in the Supreme Court of India to specifically support the state government’s appeal challenging the Coca-Cola company’s right to extract water.
• Mr. N.K Premachandran, the Water Resource Minister, will follow up with further action on the notification of Chittur Taluk, where Plachimada is located. In November 2005, the Kerala government declared the area of Plachimada as "over-exploited" in water resources, and as a result, all industries have to obtain additional clearances from the government to draw groundwater.
"We are hopeful that we will see the logical conclusion to the Coca-Cola company’s crimes with actions from the new government in Kerala," said R. Ajayan of the Plachimada Solidarity Committee.
"The Kerala state government’s pronouncements are welcome. We are committed to working with the community in Plachimada to ensure that the state officials live up to their words," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization.
The delegation from Plachimada struggle consisted of Veloor Swaminathan, Mylamma, Vilayodi Venugopal and Mariappan of the Anti Coca-Cola Struggle Committee and R. Ajayan of the Plachimada Solidarity Committee.
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