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The village and the behemoth

Published : Jan 15, 2010 00:00 IST

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THE biggest river in Kerala, the Periyar, has long lost its pristine glory. It flows through the central districts of Idukki and Ernakulam and caters to the needs of nearly 50 local bodies. Six power plants and a large number of industrial units depend on it. As it flows into the industrial belt in Ernakulam, just before joining the Arabian Sea, its nature is altered by indiscriminate sand mining and its supply is heavily utilised. Since its mouth is below sea level, salt water intrudes far into the river whenever there is reduced flow downstream. Industries depending on it are shut down periodically and domestic water supply is affected by pollution and increased salinity.

Yet, a grand scheme proposed by the Congress-led government in 2001 was to allow private investors to draw 200 million litres a day (MLD) of water from the Periyar and purify and distribute it exclusively to industries, commercial establishments and other bulk consumers in the Greater Cochin area. The proposed beneficiaries included private and public sector industries, super-speciality hospitals, universities and industrial parks. The Rs.330-crore scheme would have given the investor company exclusive rights, initially for 20 years, to draw its share of water from a location upstream of the government water supply plants and to build check dams as long-term steps to improve the flow rate in the river. Details of the scheme were never disclosed.

The government also announced a plan to let private investors, including foreign companies, run a similar mega scheme to supply water to the Kanjikode industrial belt and the Pudusseri industrial area in drought-hit Palakkad district.

At least three similar schemes, for the temple town of Guruvayur and the tourist resorts at Kumarakom and Kovalam, were also offered to investors.

But an avalanche of questions about the implications of the schemes for local communities, protests in the project areas and media criticism made the government, which had just then launched its flagship event, the Global Investors Meet, in Kochi, beat a hasty retreat. For the first time, and nearly a year after Coca-Cola and Pepsi quietly set up their bottling units in Palakkad district, Kerala was jolted out of its complacency by the governments brazen attempts to privatise community water resources. The proposals were never revived because another battle had by then taken centre stage. At Plachimada village in Palakkad, the local community had taken on the soft-drink giant Coca-Cola in what was to become a symbol of the struggles worldwide for peoples right to public resources. The struggle crossed its fourth year in April (2006).

Coca-Cola arrogantly ignored the demands of the villagers initially, denied the accusations of acute water shortage and pollution caused by it, and influenced the government and its agencies.

Within a few months, the agitators forced the local Perumatti panchayat to act on their behalf. The village body refused to renew the companys licence and when the State government intervened supporting the multinational, it approached the court. Eventually, when the issue reached the Supreme Court, the State government and its agencies too were compelled to argue the case against the company.

By March 2004, Coca-Cola was made to shut down its plant, supply drinking water in tanker lorries to the affected villages and take measures to contain pollution. And despite the confidence expressed by company officials about winning the court battles very soon, Coca-Colas efforts to reopen the unit have been frustrated by the protesters.

In November 2005, the company said in a letter to the government that, as a last resort, it was willing to relocate its bottling plant to the Kanjikode industrial estate if other options failed and if the government could ensure that it had water and electricity and a trouble-free environment. Kanjikode is about 50 km from Plachimada, and a similar unit of Pepsi located there is facing less trouble as it draws water from within an industrial area.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 15, 2010.)

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