Soft drinks and hard choices

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

The people in Sivganga in Tamil Nadu are agitating against a soft drink maker's plans to exploit large amounts of water from the region, which is already facing water scarcity.

in Sivaganga

A STRUGGLE against Coca-Cola and the exploitation of scarce groundwater resources for its sake, is gaining momentum in Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu. On April 28, more than 7,000 people, a substantial number of them women, defied a ban order to participate in a rally against Sakthi Sugar Mills at Padamathur, about 20 km from the district headquarters town. The sugar mill has entered into a contract with the transnational soft drink maker to prepare and package some of its products using groundwater resources, 75,000 litres a day according to the mill authorities. The protesters raised slogans against attempts to appropriate a common natural resource and deprive the people access to it. Leaders of the movement explained the implications of the mill's deal for the local community with respect to its irrigation and drinking water needs.

The police registered cases against 1,900 persons for defying the ban order and taking part in the rally, organised by a committee formed jointly by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Campaign for Right to Livelihood and Food Security (Tamil Nadu), a few self-help groups (SHGs) of women and Dalit organisations. Unlike at Plachimada in Kerala where the simmering resentment among the local people manifested itself as an angry protest only three years after the bottling plant began operations, the agitation in Sivaganga was a pre-emptive one. The sugar mill had planned to operate the unit from April 14.

The rally was preceded by a three-month long campaign during which the committee distributed handbills, put up posters and organised meetings and street plays to create awareness among the people of the potential impact of the bottling unit's operations on their water resources, which are already under pressure owing to years of drought and sand-mining on the riverbeds. Youth and women's organisations, particularly SHGs of women, played a significant role in the campaign, said M. Arjunan, secretary of the district unit of the CPI(M).

Explaining the local community's apprehensions, Arjunan told Frontline that the packaging unit might resort to indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater, which would lead to scarcity of water for drinking and irrigation purposes. He alleged that the unit had plans to dig borewells up to a depth of 3,000 feet (900 metres) on the Vaigai riverbed, besides using the unutilised part of the quantum of water permitted (49 lakh litres a day) specifically for industrial use by the sugar mill. Arjunan said that the plans would affect the water supply to Sivaganga, Manamadurai and Thiruppuvanam towns and about 80 villages covered by the Comprehensive Drinking Water Supply Scheme, the requirements of which are now met by water from the Vaigai riverbed. The scheme covers more than 3.5 lakh people. Exposed to acute drought conditions for several years, the people of the district, particularly in the villages, have had little access to water.

The protesters also apprehend that chemical waste discharged from the unit may cause environmental problems and diseases. They say that effluents let into a canal during a trial run of the unit caused the death of a couple of cows and a score of sheep in Kannaarkudiyiruppu village, close to the factory. Waste products from the factory, with a pungent smell, have already affected their water sources, the protesters complain.

The demonstrators demanded that the packaging plant be banned, the sugar mill be permitted to draw water only on the basis of its actual average use for the permitted purpose during the last 15 years, and a study group comprising environmental experts and representatives of political parties and agriculturists' associations be formed to monitor the way the sugar mill was using its borewells.

Arjunan said that though the organisations involved in the struggle had brought the issue to the notice of the government through letters and memoranda, it had not spelt out its stand. The struggle would, therefore, be intensified.

The sprawling Ramnad district, of which Sivaganga district was a part until the early 1980s, was known for its perennial water famine. Although post-Independence development initiatives and the decentralisation of administration after the trifurcation of the district brought about some changes, these were not enough to provide clean and adequate drinking water to the people of this rain shadow region. In several towns, piped water is supplied on alternate days or once in three days.

Ganesan (55) of Thiruppachethi village, a sugarcane farmer who owns about 3 hectares of land, said that for the past several years, farmers in the area who supplied cane to the sugar mill were passing through a difficult phase. Payments for supplies were not made promptly and the mill management blamed the delay on adverse market conditions. The payment of wages to over four lakh agricultural workers employed for harvesting was delayed for months. About 13,000 growers had been affected by the payment delays, Ganesan said. He said that because of the delay in harvesting for want of money to pay wages, the recovery rate of cane also had fallen considerably. Ganesan said that the agriculturists were not against the mill as such.

P. Muniyandi, president of the Sivaganga district unit of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, said that the mill did not pay the government-fixed price for sugarcane. (It was Rs.782 a tonne in 2002 and Rs.832 this year.) Several people in the village said that the effluents discharged by the mill into a canal had spoiled its water, which they generally used for non-drinking purposes. The water damaged their vessels and clothes.

THE senior general manager of the sugar mill, K. Arumugam, said that the deal with Coca-Cola related only to the soft drink packaging unit and that there was no plan to bottle drinking water. He said that the unit would use only the surplus of water available to the mill. Of the permitted quota of 49 lakh litres of water a day, the mill had been using only 7 to 10 lakh litres, he said. The water required for the packaging unit - about 75,000 litres a day - would be drawn only from the two wells it had already been using, Arumugam said. There was no plan to dig more borewells. He felt that there was no need for any apprehension that the plant would cause large-scale depletion of water resources.

Arumugam said that the Sivaganga unit was one of the five sugar mills run by the group, which also had stakes in the textile, transport and finance sectors. He said that the sugar industry was passing through a difficult phase. The poor financial position was responsible for certain payment delays, he said. He added that several sugar mills were trying to diversify operations and that it was in such a context that the group's deal with the beverage giant had to be seen. "Ours is an allied business and already Coca-Cola and Pepsi are our customers. Last year we sold sugar worth Rs.40 crores to Coca-Cola. This year we hope to increase our sales to Rs.60 crores," Arumugam said.

He denied that there was any trial run. However, the building and the machinery for the Rs.20-crore unit were ready. The unit would commence operations after the government cleared the project. He does not expect any difficulty in getting permission. The plant will have a production capacity of 600 bottles a minute. He said that the water allotted was for `industrial use' and that the packaging of beverages came under the `industry' category. Moreover, it was allied to the main product, sugar, which would be used by the plant, he said. A recent report, prepared by the Executive Engineer, Public Works Department (PWD), had observed that the water drawn by the sugar mill would not cause depletion of groundwater. Arumugam said that the packaging unit would have an effluent treatment arrangement, like the one the sugar mill had. He denied charges relating to waste disposal by the sugar plant.

EVEN as fears about the factory extracting water indiscriminately are sought to be shown as exaggerated concerns, scientific studies in places such as Plachimada have proved that these apprehensions are not entirely misplaced. A study team of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) has indicated that the Plachimada bottling plant could lead to an environmental disaster in the area if steps are not taken to check the exploitation of groundwater resources. K. Sreedharan, a member of the team, observed that the company could be extracting water from the limited quantity of groundwater available between the layers of rocks underneath. Although such an aquifer might be spread over several square kilometres, it is unlikely to get recharged owing to the peculiarities of the terrain in a rain shadow region. Under such circumstances, large-scale exploitation of water would affect farming in the neighbouring areas and result in other borewells drying up.

Although a comprehensive scientific study of groundwater availability in the Sivaganga region is yet to be made, the PWD report indicates disturbing trends. In the Thiruppuvanam panchayat union, where the two wells of the sugar mill are located, the groundwater reserves have fallen significantly - from 13,351 hectare metres in 1985 to 7,463 hectare metres in 1992. The report reveals that the intensity of groundwater extraction has increased rapidly. The quantum of water drawn as a proportion of the water remaining underground, increased from 3 per cent in 1985 to 6 per cent in 1992.

Although the report does not mention figures of the extent of extraction since then, it reveals that the intensity of extraction has accelerated in the decade since 1992. Water extraction, as a proportion of the water remaining underground, was 12 per cent in 2003, double the level in 1992. The data, though sketchy, indicate that the packaging plant is being set up at a time when groundwater availability in the area is falling rapidly.

State general-secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) U. Vasuki, who participated in the April 28 rally, told Frontline that the government's response to the situation was not adequate. It should come out with a clear water policy that would protect the State's water resources from being exploited by multinationals and safeguard the people's right to livelihood, she said.

It was not surprising that women played a crucial part in the struggle; after all, they bear the burden of fetching water in an environment of famine. The recent upsurge of resentment against the U.S., following its invasion of Iraq also appears to have given an added edge to the struggle against the U.S.-based multinational.

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