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Cola Bill

Published : Mar 25, 2011 00:00 IST

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KAMAL NARANG

KAMAL NARANG

The State Assembly passes a Bill to set up a tribunal to recover compensation from Coca-Cola's bottling unit in Plachimada.

THE road ahead seems to be a difficult one for the Bill passed recently by the Kerala Assembly for the establishment of a special tribunal to make the polluter pay and recover compensation for the people affected by the activities of Coca-Cola's controversial bottling unit at Plachimada in Palakkad district. The Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, 2011, proposed by the Left Democratic Front government at the fag end of its term, was passed without discussion on February 24, the last day of the last session of the 12th Assembly, while members of the LDF and the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) were busy trading corruption allegations.

Amidst criticism that a Bill on an issue that falls under the residuary powers of legislation of Parliament (Article 248) may not be within the constitutionally mandated jurisdiction of a State Assembly, the Kerala government has decided to send the Bill for the President of India's assent, before it can become law and rules can be framed on its basis.

Under the proposed law, the tribunal is sought to be established for the adjudication of disputes and recovery of compensation for the damages caused by the company by entertaining original applications (from the affected people) and by transferring cases pending before the various courts and other authorities to the tribunal. The tribunal can also entertain grievances regarding violation of laws relating to the environment and air and water pollution or the implementation of such laws.

The three-member tribunal is to have all the powers and authority of a civil court and is to decide its award by applying the principles of sustainable development, precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle. All cases involving local residents arising out of violations of laws relating to the environment and air and water, in which the company is a party, and are pending before any court, except the High Court or the Supreme Court, have to be transferred to the tribunal as and when it is established by a government notification. The High Court can also refer any matter pending before it relating to the company on which the tribunal is empowered to adjudicate.

Some organisations that had participated in the agitation against the Coca-Cola unit described the Bill as a historic victory for the people of Plachimada. Others, including former Law Minister K.M. Mani (a prominent leader of the UDF), described it as an election gimmick and said the Assembly had passed a Bill on an issue over which it did not have jurisdiction. The Coca-Cola company said it was disappointed in the Plachimada Tribunal Bill and the flawed process on which it is based.

The company claimed in a press statement that none of the scientific studies conducted by various government bodies had found its operations responsible for any of the instances of damage alleged in the Bill. It said the Bill is devoid of facts, scientific data or any input from HCCB (Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages) and that at no time was HCCB offered an opportunity to present facts, engage in dialogue around this issue or share independent data before the Bill was tabled or approved.

The company also argued that any government committee or panel reviewing claims should have first determined, through scientific study and established process of law, whether any damage was caused to the local residents. And, second, if such damage was caused, who or what was responsible (for it). Currently, HCCB is reviewing all available options, but remains willing to engage with all stakeholders on the issue. It is likely that the people of Kerala may soon realise that any action against the soft-drink giant is easier said than done.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 25, 2011.)

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