The agitation against the bottling unit of a multinational soft drink giant in water-starved Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu is fast turning into a battle against the privatisation of water resources.
RESISTANCE to the Rs.30-crore beverage bottling plant coming up in the southern Tamil Nadu district of Tirunelveli is intensifying. The protesters allege that the unit, a water-intensive one will lead to the depletion and contamination of groundwater and affect agriculture in the drought-prone district.
The plant is being set up to manufacture branded items of the multinational soft drink giant, Coca-Cola. Construction work for the unit under the South India Bottling Company (P) Limited (SIBCL), is under way in the Industrial Growth Centre of the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) at Gangaikondan, 15 km from Tirunelveli. The Left parties and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are spearheading the protest.
In the latest of a series of protests, held on September 23, nearly 1,000 activists of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and the Students Federation of India (SFI) were arrested when they staged a demonstration and road roko at Duraiyur, on the Tirunelveli-Madurai National Highway, close to the SIPCOT centre. DYFI State secretary S. Kannan, cautioned that the State government's action in placing a huge quantum of water from the Thamiraparani river at the disposal of the bottling unit might mark the beginning of a major thrust in the direction of privatising drinking water resources consistent with its loyalty to World Bank-driven neoliberal policies. Kannan said the agitation would continue "until the licence to the unit is withdrawn by the government".
Ten days earlier, over 2,000 volunteers, including a substantial number of women, of the People's Art and Literary Association (PALA), the Peasants Liberation Front, the Revolutionary Students and Youth Front and the New Democratic Labour Front, all Marxist groups from different parts of the State, participated in a rally in Tirunelveli against the granting of the licence. A Bangalore-based group of 50 "revolutionary students and youth" were also among the protesters. When the agitators later marched towards the construction site to stage a demonstration, they were arrested.
The organisers of the September 12 protest had to seek judicial intervention after the police denied them permission to hold the rally in order to frustrate their months-long mobilisation efforts. V. Marudhaiyan, PALA general secretary said the organisation also planned to seek legal remedy.
The people of Rajapathi village near Gangaikondan went on a mass fast demanding withdrawal of the permission to the unit. This followed awareness campaigns conducted by the activists among people in Tirunelveli and the neighbouring districts of Thoothukkudi, Kanyakumari and Virudhunagar. Handbills, pamphlets and booklets detailing the disastrous consequences of the multinational beverage giant's unfettered operations in the country with the blessings of the governments were distributed in scores of villages to educate the people on the adverse consequences of the policy of privatisation of water. They highlighted the agricultural ruin, environmental degradation, and depletion and contamination of water sources caused by beverage bottling units at Plachimada in Kerala, and nearer home, at Padamathur in Sivaganga district, where the units had to shut down following massive protests.
The issue was raised in the Lok Sabha by M. Appadurai of the Communist Party of India and P. Mohan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Both demanded the Centre's intervention to protect the region's water resources and agriculture.
WHAT is significant in the case of the Gangaikondan unit is that the State government has not only granted licence to the water-intensive plant disregarding the track record of the beverage giant, but also extended to it all the benefits of an industrial estate, which include assured supply of a huge quantity of water through pipelines, knowing full well that in this specific case water is going to be put to commercial use as a vital input for its products. SIPCOT, a government organisation established in 1972 to serve as a catalyst in the development of small, medium and large industries, has created so far 17 industrial complexes, parks and growth centres in the State and the Gangaikondan growth centre is one among them. For the aspiring entrepreneurs, it offers "readymade infrastructure", project assistance, single-window clearance, grants and State incentives and marketing assistance.
The Gangaikondan SIPCOT centre, situated on 2,017 acres (816.25 hectares), has a saleable area of 1,543 acres (624.43 ha). It has a capacity to supply to the industrial units in its complex 45 lakh litres of water every day from the water it draws from the Thamiraparani, the only perennial river now in the region and the lifeline of the district. The water is brought to the centre from the river at a point near Seevalapperi, about 25 km away, through a pipeline. It is this water that is shared with the bottling unit to be made into value-added water to be put up for sale. It is to be noted that scores of villages in the region, though not far away from the river, are yet to get protected water supply through pipelines.
Although the Gangaikondan SIPCOT centre came into being five years ago in this backward region, which saw large-scale caste-related violence in the late 1990s, it has not been able to woo more than a couple of industrial units so far. The centre is, in fact, part of the State government's development initiatives launched in the region to counter caste forces' activities. In response to an application submitted by the Chennai-based SIBCL to SIPCOT for 10 plots measuring a total of 31.64 acres (12.80 ha), the government agency allotted it, through an order dated October 21, 2004, the land at the rate of Rs.3 lakhs an acre, a substantial proportion of which formed development charges, "on lease for a period of ninety-nine years to set up an industrial unit for the manufacture of soft drinks, aerated water (bottling plant)". A notable point is that the application (dated September 30, 2004) was cleared in less than 15 working days. The allotment order states: "SIPCOT will, subject to availability, supply up to 6,00,000 (six lakhs only) litres of water per day at the rate fixed by SIPCOT from time to time." So, water, the principal component of and input for the product, is to be supplied to the bottling unit as part of a package provided by SIPCOT to any industrial unit on payment of a nominal charge, the current rate being just Rs.18 for one kilo litre.
SIPCOT's allotment order also states: "10 a) The allottee shall not sink any well/borewell/tubewell within the plot leased to them. In case of short supply from SIPCOT sources the allottee can apply for permission, which can be considered subject to the conditions as applicable. 10 b) If any such open/bore well exists already in the plot allotted, it shall be under the custody of SIPCOT."
The order further states: "12 a) SIPCOT shall have the right to lay pipelines, sink borewells or put up any facilities for common use within a strip of 5 metres left open all sides within the periphery of the plot on the plot allotted to the company/firm without payment of any compensation of rental, etc., to the company/firm."
Another condition is: "20. The allottee shall not draw water from their own borewell/tubewell sunk in private lands adjacent to SIPCOT Industrial Complex/Park/Growth Centre through pipeline unauthorisedly trespassing into SIPCOT premises. If at any time, such trespass is found by SIPCOT, water supply will be disconnected besides severing the trespassed water line."
The order insists that the company should establish a zero-discharge effluent treatment plant as prescribed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and obtain its approval before commencing production. It also stipulates that no solid or liquid waste be disposed of at the growth centre.
It is on these conditions that the bottling unit bases a major part of its defence. SIBCL's argument is that since it has agreed to comply with these conditions, the fears of depletion and contamination of groundwater are irrelevant and ill founded.
Critics, however, do not agree. According to them, there has been no independent monitoring mechanism to ensure strict compliance and there is no guarantee that the unit will not step up its demand for water when it starts running to full capacity. In fact, they point out, SIPCOT itself seems to have provided for such eventuality as is borne out by some of the conditions that do not completely rule out permission to go in for additional water use when needed.
The company's contention that the unit could generate jobs for about 500 local people has no takers. Vice-president of the State unit of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), S. Kasiviswanathan, said the unit would be highly mechanised and might not need a large workforce. He said that even for construction work the unit had brought in labour from Andhra Pradesh.
RIGHT from the day SIBCL started its construction activities early this year, the agitation against the unit began to take shape. Among the early campaigners was a group of committed members of the Tirunelveli divisional unit of the All India Insurance Employees Association, led by C. Muthukumarasami, who is also the district secretary of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum. In coordination with a number of NGOs, including the Navajeevan Trust, Manitha Urimai Kalam and Vanmuhil, the CPI(M) took the initiative to form the Thamiraparani and Groundwater Protection Forum under the leadership of R. Krishnan, a former member of the State Assembly. The forum organised a series of meetings in different parts of the district to create awareness among the people. A padayatra (march) with `Save Thamiraparani' as the theme was undertaken in July from Papanasam, where the river originates, to Athur, where it empties itself into the sea, to create awareness among the people. The CPI and its youth and trade union wings also held campaign meetings at several places. Several other parties, including Puthiya Thamizhagam, threw their weight behind the protesters.
The campaigners appealed to the traditional anti-imperialistic sentiments of the people of the region by recalling the heroic fight against the English East India Company by Veerapandia Kattabomman who refused to pay tax to the alien rulers and faced the gallows, the launching of a swadeshi shipping service from Tuticorin to Colombo by V.O. Chidambaram in the early 1900s to compete with foreign shipping companies, and the patriotic acts of Subramania Bharati, who inspired freedom fighters with his powerful poems. They also recalled the glory of the Thamiraparani, hailed by poets from Valmiki to Bharati, and appealed to the people to save it from plunder. They brought to the notice of the people the laboratory findings about the toxic nature of the beverages sold by multinationals.
Krishnan said the campaign initially was slow in making any impact among the people of the villages around the SIPCOT growth centre. In fact, the local people did not come forward to criticise the plant, because they believed that it could generate job opportunities for them. However, Krishnan said, a visit to Plachimada and Padamathur in Sivaganga district (Frontline, June 20, 2003)by the leaders of the local community, arranged by the campaigners, brought a qualitative shift in these people's attitude to the bottling plant. Among those who changed their stand was V. Kamsan (who died of jaundice on August 30), president of the Gangaikondan panchayat, which had given its approval to the building plan of the plant. After his visit to Plachimada, he was convinced that the unit ruined agriculture in the Kerala villages around the factory (Frontline, May 6) and supported a resolution against the construction of the building by the Gangaikondan unit. (He retracted his position once again.)
"When we saw with our own eyes the damage caused by the Plachimada plant to the local agriculture and water resources, we realised the magnitude of the hazards we faced," said Niraikulathan, a former president of the Gangaikondan panchayat. He came out in support of the protest action. C.S. Mani, a member of the Manoor Panchayat Union Council, said that he had sent notice of a resolution to the Union Council, which would press for a refusal of licence to the unit to start running the plant, when approached as required by the law. "Now that we have made a breakthrough by convincing the local communities, we will move on to involve the people in a more broad-based and intensive struggle," said R. Karumalaiyan, secretary of the district unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.