Tamil Nadu

Cola controversies

Print edition : May 29, 2015

The Coco-Cola factory at Padamathur village in Sivaganga district before the project was shelved. Photo: K. Ganesan

The site that was allotted to Coco-Cola at Perundurai, Erode district. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Members of the youth wing of the Tirunelveli district Tamil Maanila Congress protesting at the Collectorate on March 9 against the permission granted to PepsiCo to set up a unit at Gangaikondan Industrial Estate. Photo: A. Shaikmohideen

IN 2003, the people of Padamathur village in Tirupuvanam block in the water-stressed Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu launched a massive, sustained resistance against Sakthi Sugar Mills after it entered into a contract to be a packaging franchisee for the United States-based soft drink major Coca-Cola Company. The Sivaganga unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led the agitation against the project, which was to supply Coca-Cola 75,000 litres of water a day from borewells sunk on the Vaigai riverbed and the unutilised part of the quantum of water permitted for the mill for industrial use. “People feared the plant would stress local water resources,” said J. Ramachandran, a CPI(M) activist of the district. This fear of losing the scarcely available commodity made people come out in large numbers against the project. They took out a rally on April 28, 2003, despite a ban by the district administration. The year-long struggle paid dividends and the bottling plant project was shelved.

The successful “Sivaganga model” of agitation the CPI(M) executed with the support of various environmental and farmers’ groups was re-enacted in December 2014 in Erode district against Coca-Cola’s plan to erect a mega bottling plant at the complex of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) at Perundurai. On June 21, 2013, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, the promoter behind the Perundurai bottling plant, was allotted 71.34 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land and given permission to withdraw nearly 35 lakh litres of water a day.

After stiff opposition to the project through protest rallies, fasts and bandhs for nearly five months, the State government withdrew its order permitting the plant. In a two-line order, dated April 20, 2015, addressed to the promoter, SIPCOT’s Managing Director said the allotment of land to it stood cancelled. It provided no further information. A senior State government official claimed that the permission was withdrawn for the company’s “non-compliance of terms and conditions”. But the Coca-Cola management reacted sharply, saying that it had already written a letter pointing out its inability to invest in Perundurai owing “to unforeseen pressures and delays”.

Mugilan, an environmental activist, said the spontaneous involvement of the people was responsible for the agitation in Perundurai. “Though we, a group of environmentalists and activists, acting as ‘peer pressure groups’ under the banner of the Perundurai Environmental Protection Trust, could mobilise stakeholders against the plant through a sustained door-to-door campaign, the credit for its success goes to the common people and traders who had unflappable faith and confidence in us,” he said.

It was tough at the beginning. The State government and the company were determined to see the venture through. “Many battles were fought in court too. The apprehension of local communities and different social groups that the plant, if allowed, would deplete the scarcely available groundwater and cause pollution in the Bhavani river were the primary movers behind the sustained struggle,” Mugilan said. The Perundurai Environmental Protection Trust organised a total bandh in Perundurai and the nearby temple town of Chennimalai on March 5. “We knew that it was just a matter of time before the State government obliged the community. This shows that if local people are unified, they can successfully take on any powerful and big business that intends to promote anti-people projects for its gains,” he said.

But not all campaigns against Coca-Cola’s operations have been as successful as the ones in Sivaganga and Erode. In 2005, South India Bottling Company Private Limited, a contract-packaging franchisee of Coca-Cola, was setting up a bottling plant in the SIPCOT complex at Gangaikondan village near Tirunelveli at a cost of Rs.28 crore. The plant was reportedly going to draw 900,000 litres of water a day from the Tamiraparani river for its purposes, which disturbed the stakeholders, mainly farmers from the neighbourhood, who feared that such heavy withdrawals in an already water-stressed area would have a bad impact on their livelihoods.

Taking their cue from the 2002 struggle against the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada in a drought-prone area in Kerala, which was closed in 2004, some 1,900 people from Gangaikondan and surrounding villages demonstrated in front of the plant when it was still under construction. In response to the people’s apprehensions, Coca-Cola issued this clarification on August 22, 2005: “Water scarcity is a serious issue in India where some areas have been experiencing drought conditions for several years. The Coca-Cola Company shares the concerns of local communities about groundwater reserves.” The State government assured the people that it would look into the issue seriously and promised to address their grievances and concerns. But what happened thereafter, according to Mugilan, was a sheer betrayal of faith. “The government turned a Nelson’s eye and the franchisee, despite the stiff opposition, went on to complete the project,” he said. And today the plant at Gangaikondan is going full steam ahead and is on expansion mode.

An informed source in Tirunelveli said that the cola major was also planning to bottle soft drinks in PET bottles. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has reportedly given its nod for this though SIPCOT has raised an objection on the grounds of pollution and has asked Coca-Cola to explore the possibility of using plasticised cardboard packaging and glass bottles instead. But what transpired thereafter is a mystery. SIPCOT, for inexplicable reasons, has allowed the company to undertake its expansion operations. Environmentalists say the haste with which the TNPCB acted on the proposal is perplexing. The water usage for the expanded plant would be doubled. The Tirunelveli district administration maintains a stoic silence over its mandated commitment to conduct a public hearing on the proposed expansion. Ironically, the State government has also declared the Gangaikondan neighbourhood a sanctuary for spotted deer.

And as if to rub salt into the wound, PepsiCo, another major soft drink manufacturer, has also been permitted to set up a plant in Gangaikondan in addition to its existing plants in Paravai village near Madurai and in Suriyur in Tiruchi district, which remained non-operational following the government’s refusal to draw water owing to a public outcry. (Now, the Madras High Court has allowed it to operate if it buys water from outside.) The agitation that fizzled out in Gangaikondan did not, however, dispirit activists, who continue to wage wars against these soft drink giants wherever they try to pitch their tent in communities in Tamil Nadu. “We never see the Gangaikondan struggle as an exercise in futility. We have learnt valuable lessons from it,” said Mugilan.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran