THE struggle of the people of Plachimada against corporate greed and the denial of their right to water and other basic needs and livelihood has once again reached a dead end, with the President of India denying sanction for a Bill passed unanimously by the Kerala Assembly in 2011 with a view to helping those affected by Coca-Cola’s controversial bottling unit there.
The Bill was meant for establishment of a special tribunal for speedy adjudication of disputes and recovery of compensation for the predominantly poor, landless victims of Coca- Cola’s activities at Plachimada, a village in Perumatty panchayat in Kerala’s Palakkad district.
The district lies in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats. A majority of the people there have been traditionally engaged in agriculture, relying heavily on irrigation and groundwater for irrigation needs. This is especially true of Plachimada, which has a sizeable number of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families depending on agriculture. Coca-Cola built its controversial plant here in 2000.
The Home Ministry’s communication to the State Governor’s office in mid-January did not explain why the Bill was being returned. It merely said that “the President is pleased to withhold assent to ‘the Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Compensation Claims Tribunal Bill 2011’ on 20-11-2015”.
For over four years after the Bill was passed by the State Assembly and sent for presidential assent, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and then the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre kept it in abeyance. Five Union Ministries reportedly approved the proposed law. Still, in December 2014, the Union Home Ministry asked the State government to approach the National Green Tribunal (NGT) instead of continuing to seek the President’s assent for the Bill.
The Ministry’s position was that the Bill violated the powers of the NGT, which was established under an Act of Parliament in 2010 with the necessary expertise to handle disputes relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources and for giving relief and compensation for damages in such cases. The argument was that the State did not have the legislative competence to constitute a separate tribunal to deal with issues that came under the NGT’s jurisdiction. This is now widely alleged to be a pretext for serving the interests of the Coca-Cola company and is reportedly based on the legal opinion provided by the company.
The Bill could have set a precedent in paying compensation to victims for the damage caused by corporate over-exploitation of natural resources. It was proposed by the Left Democratic Front (LDF)government in Kerala towards the fag end of its term. It was, however, passed without any discussion on the last day of the 12th session of the Assembly, a day when LDF MLAs and members of the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front coalition were otherwise busy levelling allegations of corruption against one another.
Significantly, there were concerns even within the LDF government at the time about the impact of such a tribunal on the industrial climate in the State, especially on future industrial investments, employment opportunities and pollution-related concerns surrounding public sector industrial units. However, the strong public opinion in the State forced the government to act on the recommendations of a high-power committee set up in May 2009, mainly to assess the extent of damage caused by the Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada.
The committee, headed by an Additional Chief Secretary and comprising experts from various fields, said in a detailed report that “the body of irrefutable evidence available” made the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Ltd “liable for ecological degradation, groundwater pollution, drinking-water contamination, soil despoliation, consequential health damages, decline in agricultural income and loss of livelihood”. It also said that the company was liable to pay compensation for the heavy damage it had caused to the natural resources in the area, which had created a host of social, economic, health and ecological problems cutting across sectors. It said the overall money value of the damage would be around Rs.216.26 crore, though the actual compensation would have to be calculated by a legally constituted dedicated authority (“Plachimada’s claims”, Frontline , July 30, 2010).
N.K. Premachandran, who was then the State Minister for Water Resources, piloted the Bill in the Assembly. He told Frontline then that the Bill was being sent for the President’s assent because it involved the issue of pollution, a Central subject. However, he added, the State was well within its rights to formulate laws on issues such as public health, sanitation, agriculture, animal husbandry, water and land—issues for which, according to the committee, the Coca-Cola unit’s activities had implications.
He also pointed out that the NGT allowed victims to file petitions for compensation within a period of just five years from the causative event. The Coca-Cola unit was established in 2000, and the villagers had been suffering for over a decade when the Bill was moved. This was why a special tribunal was required to make the polluter pay. The victims, said the Minister, had no scope for seeking compensation under the NGT Act (See interview, Frontline , March 25, 2011).
The local people who experienced the ill effects of the plant had in fact launched an agitation within a year of the unit being established. As the agitation grew in strength and drew international attention, the Perumatty panchayat passed a resolution in April 2003 refusing to renew the licence given to the company. It was the beginning of a legal battle (“Plachimada’s loss”, Frontline , May 4, 2005) which is still pending before the Supreme Court.
In February 2004, the unit was shut down on the basis of an order of the State Pollution Control Board. So the growing water depletion, pollution, toxic contamination and other damage caused by the plant occurred between the years 2000 and 2004 (“Kerala’s plight”, March 26, 2004). That left the claims of the victims beyond the scope of the NGT Act.
The initial political reactions to the President’s denial of assent amount to a whimper. It is also unclear what the State government intends to do, if at all it intends to do something about it. Several organisations have said that the victims have been betrayed by both the Central and State governments. They have announced plans for agitations. Vilayodi Venugopal, chairman of the Plachimada Anti-Coca-Cola Agitation Committee, told Frontline that the decision, which came five years after the Bill was sent for assent, was disappointing.
“The Coca-Cola company has been consistently trying to influence the authorities and scuttle the legal process. Five Union Ministries had approved the proposed Bill and the State government and several organisations have answered all the questions that were repeatedly raised on the need for a tribunal. But the Union Home Ministry had been adamantly supporting the cause of the multinational company throughout. We are organising protests in the coming days against the Home Ministry’s role in the President returning the Bill without an explanation,” he said.
M.N. Giri, chairman of the Mayilamma Foundation (named after Mayilamma, the best-known face of the anti-Coca-Cola struggle’s early phase), said that the Central and State governments were equally responsible for effects of the Coca-Cola plant on the people of Plachimada. “If the two governments are letting the company off the hook now, they are duty-bound to pay compensation to the victims. The victims include a large number of tribal families who need to be rehabilitated elsewhere. The foundation is organising a protest before Parliament on March 10 raising these demands,” he said.
However, despite these voices of protest, the struggle that had caught international attention not long ago (“Resistance in Kerala”, Frontline , February 13, 2004) and became part of a global movement against transnational corporations trying to usurp scarce natural resources seemed to get very little support from mainstream political parties when it came to the crucial issue of making the polluter pay. What is evident, instead, is a dubious attempt to serve the interests of a global corporation and bury the legitimate claims for compensation of the victims in a pit of technicalities.