Resistance in Kerala

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The World Water Conference at Plachimada adds immense strength to the local people's fight against the exploitation of their groundwater resources by Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

THE `Battle of Plachimada', for the people's right to water, is now being fought in the courts of Kerala, but the world is fast becoming its grand stage, much to the discomfiture of the profit-guzzling soft-drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Following the 2004 meeting of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai, the small village of Plachimada in Palakkad district of Kerala witnessed a rare union of radical unionists, `Green' politicians, environmentalists and social activists from around the world, expressing solidarity with villagers who have been hopelessly engaged in a battle for their right to water with the multinationals for over two years.

The three-day World Water Conference at Plachimada from January 21, organised by the Perumatty panchayat, has come as a catapulting event for the people near the local Coca-Cola unit as well as those living near the bottling plant of rival soft-drink behemoth, Pepsi, located in the neighbouring panchayat of Puthusseri.

Both cola giants have in a short span of two years sucked their neighbourhoods dry, according to the villagers. Alarmingly, as a BBC Radio 4 inquiry found in August 2003, Coca-Cola is in the dock also for distributing sludge containing dangerously high levels of the toxic elements cadmium and lead to the villagers who were made to believe that it was "fertilizer". The companies have been maintaining that the drought-like conditions in the villages are a result mainly of poor rainfall and that the sludge was but only "harmless" soil conditioner. The State government and, for a long time, the panchayat authorities too continued to be apathetic, as villagers, including those in 10 colonies of Dalits and tribal people, found that their drying groundwater sources were also getting highly polluted and unsuitable for use.

In late 2003, after Plachimada caught the attention of the global media following the BBC Radio 4 inquiry, the Perumatty panchayat decided to order the closure of the Coca-Cola factory, a move shot down by the State government. A domino action by the Puthusseri panchayat against the Pepsi unit too met with a similar response from the government. Both panchayats have since approached the courts. In December, a Single Bench of the Kerala High Court ordered Coca-Cola to find altrernative sources of water for its high production needs (Frontline, January 30). But the court also took the stand that the panchayat should not interfere in the functioning of the cola unit if the company could find alternative sources of water for its use.

For the villagers, hopes of an early solution through the courts were shattered when a Division Bench of the High Court subsequently ordered the appointment of a multi-agency expert committee to ascertain whether the current level of exploitation of groundwater by the company was indeed the reason for the scarcity of water experienced in the region. The committee in turn has informed the court that it would take at least a year for it to prepare a final report. Plachimada was bracing for a long-drawn out court battle between multi-million dollar industrial behemoths and the two panchayats with meagre resources.

What the aggrieved villagers, a lot of them poor farmers, Dalits and tribal people, badly needed was to connect their isolated woes to similar struggles taking place elsewhere against corporate theft of the world's most valuable resource. "Globalise your struggles to globalise your hopes," the inaugural message by Jose Bove, the redoubtable leader of `Confederation Paysanne'(a leftist peasant farmers' union in France) and a symbol of the growing resistance against all things corporate, was a sharply targeted one. "The struggle at Plachimada is part of the worldwide struggle against transnational companies that exploit natural resources like water. These companies have made water a priced commodity to make profit. We will take this issue across the globe as the finest example of overexploitation of water resources by companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi," he said.

Not many of the villagers who listened to Jose Bove at Plachimada would have heard about him. But, by their presence at the conference, unimaginable for the villagers a few months earlier, standard-bearers like Bove were quick-linking the 640-day lack-lusture struggle at Plachimada to the anti-globalisation efforts worldwide. "Yours is a just struggle. These companies have to quit. You have every right to ask them to get out of your lives. We do not know how long the battle will last. But you know that your fight is right and you will be successful. You have the support of the farmers of France and members of other anti-globalisation resistance movements in different parts of the world," Bove said.

Like Bove and Maude Barlow, the Ottawa-based activist and writer described as `the Joan of Arc of those opposed to the sale of water', there were a number of leading activists and environmentalists from across the world who were in Plachimada to listen to the people affected by the Coca-Cola-Pepsi water mining. They included Heidi Hautala, Inger Schoerling and Steve Emmott from Sweden, Ward Morehouse from the United States and Hosse Bube from France.

Barlow said that multinational companies were playing with the lives of millions of people by trying to privatise scarce water resources. "Transnational corporations were trying to control the remaining precious water because those who now control the `Blue Gold' would control the world," the author of Blue Gold, a book on the theft of the world's water and of huge corporations seeking control of the world's water supply, said. "The struggle at Plachimada is to prove that water belongs to the people. We urge Coca-Cola to close down its operation in the village quickly," she said, pledging support of the people of Canada and elsewhere who were engaged in the fight to protect their drinking water supplies.

"The new water policy of the government is geared towards privatisation. There is no substitute for water. We will see to it that the resistance against the privatisation of water, against the stealing of water from the common man, is soon globalised. There is only one politics in this and that is to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people are protected," environmental activist Vandana Shiva, a key speaker at the conference, said.

The question of why toxic materials were detected in the sludge distributed to farmers by the Coca-Cola factory was also a point of discussion at the conference. Inger Schoerling, a delegate from Sweden and a member of the European Parliament, said that the European Union (E.U.) was in the process of formulating a law that would prevent the use of pesticides beyond a certain level by the food and beverage industry. The global transnationals had already begun to lobby for leniency in the provisions of the proposed law, Schoerling said.

"We are in a struggle to end the powers of the corporate giants since democracy can survive only if they are expelled, author and human rights activist Ward Morehouse, the man who carried the torch of the Bhopal struggle out of India, told the conference. A few transnational companies based in rich nations were increasingly controlling the world's natural resources. The need was to fight against such concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, if democracy was to survive, he said.

Some 300 persons, including tribal people, politicians and activists from India and abroad, took part in the dharna in front of the Coke plant, which was led by Vandana Shiva, Jose Bove and key organisers of the conference, litteratur Sukumar Azhikode, president of the Indian Newspaper Society M.P. Veerendrakumar and Member of Parliament N. N. Krishnadas. A march led by activists was taken out to the Hindustan Coca-Cola company in Plachimada where they shouted slogans saying `no!' to Coke and Pepsi, demanded clean drinking water and declaring support to the tribal people in their 640-day agitation in front of the factory gates. Raising slogans for the villagers' right to water, the demonstrators demanded that Coca-Cola wind up its operations in the village. "We want drinking water. No Coke, No Pepsi," a slogan read.

The three-day conference ended on January 23 in the neighbouring Puthusseri panchayat, near where the Pepsi plant is located, with a call for a struggle against the looting of water by multi-national companies in different parts of the world. An India-wide agitation against the privatisation of water is being planned, Vanadana Shiva announced at the concluding session.

The `Plachimada declaration' adopted at the end of the conference began with the assertion that water is not a private property, not a commodity, but a common resource, a fundamental right of man. "We should resist all criminal attempts to marketise, privatise and corporatise water. Only through these means can we ensure the fundamental and inalienable right to water for the people all over the world," it said, indicating that the country's water policy should be formulated on the basis of this outlook.

The declaration, read out by Sukumar Azhikode and Maude Barlow, said that "the right to conserve, use and manage water is fully vested with the local community. This is the very basis of water democracy. Any attempt to reduce or deny this right is a crime." He said that the production and marketing of the "poisonous products of the Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola corporates" would lead to total destruction and pollution endangering the very existence of local communities. It described the resistance that has come up at Plachimada and Puthusseri as "symbols of our valiant struggle against the devilish corporate gangs who pirate our water" and said: "We, who are in the battlefield in full solidarity with the Adivasis who have put up resistance against the tortures of the horrid commercial forces in Plachimada, exhort the people all over the world to boycott the products of Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. Coca-Cola-Pepsi Cola, `Quit India'."

The next hearing in Coca-Cola vs Perumatty panchayat is scheduled before the Division Bench of the High Court on February 12, when the expert committee is expected to be ready with a preliminary report, including a record of the water currently being drawn by the company from the area. Despite an earlier Single Bench ruling that `groundwater is a public property held in trust by a government', everyone at the conference was acutely aware of the snail's pace at which events were moving for a resolution of the woes of the people in the two panchayats. But, as Perumatty village panchayat president A. Krishnan, a Dalit leader, told the conference: "It is for the first time in India that a small village like Plachimada is attracting international attention because of severe water scarcity. It is for the first time that a small village is hosting a world event to underline that multinational companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are exploiting Indian villages."

In a way, the two village communities in the northern Kerala district seemed to be telling their powerful opponents, "We too have friends all over the world. We are now part of the global resistance. And, the world would be watching."

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