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  The Plachimada promise

Plachimada, a village in Kerala is already a metaphor for resistance to MNC interests in countries where fine thinking has not begun in matters of opening up their economies. On the one hand, governments appear to be bullied into treating investors with kid gloves. On the other, protesters seem to assume sovereign states have no answerability at all in international fora.

In a country like China, the tilt is firmly against the locals. Deng’s cavalier statement seems to have been made worse further, to read: “You must not care about the colour of the cat as long as it catches mice - and even, if it goes on to break your rice bowl”. But India is a democracy and Plachimada is demonstrating how vibrant our democracy is. And that is the promise of Plachimada. It will test the health and soul of the entire Indian system. We will know if we can correct and renew ourselves with explicit fair-play all around.

Observe we have not mentioned Coca Cola or Coke so far. That is because the battle of Plachimada will decide more than the fate of the Coke plant there. It will determine the behaviour of all corporates —Indian and foreign— whose profits depend on resources essential to human beings: water, energy, food, habitat and clean environment. It will determine the extent of communities’ powers. And because it is occurring in this highly networked information age, Plachimada will teach new lessons that everyone must learn.

Although many corporates -Indian and foreign- skulk in the shadows with worse environmental records than Coca Cola, singling it out is ununvoidable because it displays a contemptuous arrogance that would befit a fundamentalist religious order. Its responses to serious concerns are glib and even, facetious. It has itself to blame for having become a malefic icon. It is now even fashionable to hate Coke.

Coca Cola re-entered India in 1993, after a 12 year sulk. India’s reforms had begun in 1991. In the evocative words of Alexander Cockburn, it was “India’s give away decade” or should we crown it the Dabhol Decade? Coca Cola —like others— drove a coach and four through the gates waving pieces of paper that no one had read; not even probably, those that wrote them.

Cockburn tells the full story well. Inside of six months after Coke bought 40 acres in Plachimada and bored 6 wells in it, water levels plummeted. Cockburn:"When the plant was running at full tilt 85 truck loads rolled out of the plant gates, each load consisting of 550 to 600 cases, 24 bottles to the case, all containing Plachimada’s prime asset, water, now enhanced in cash value by Cola’s infusions of its syrups.”

A sludge that the company was ‘gifting’ the villagers as good fertiliser turned out to be toxic. In Delhi the Centre for Science and Environment declared that Coke and Pepsi were found to contain unacceptable levels of pesticides. [Commentary on the issue] About the only public supporters of Coke were film stars and sports personalities willing to prance and sell anything, if the money was right. And oh yes, some cheerful farmers of Andhra Pradesh who endorsed Coke as an excellent pesticide at that price.

Given the reach of modern media, people everywhere found their voice- ordinary folk, in the streets, and the genteel, on the web. Great waves of sympathy lashed Plachimada. Perumatty Panchayat that governs Plachimada, began demanding that the Coke plant be shut down. On Dec 16,2003, a single judge of the Kerala High Court, Mr Justice K Balakrishnan Nair delivered what will be recalled for long, as a fine piece of well considered judgment. He ruled that it be determined what is the reasonable need of water for a man who owned, lived and practiced agriculture on 34 acres and that Coca Cola be permitted just that quantity. He further ordered that the company Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd’s [HCBL] bore wells be closed, that the Panchayat ensure their closure and monitor the plant’s water usage. He directed that the company seek alternate sources of water for its needs, as clearly the ground water cannot sustain its operations. Tellingly, the judge held that water belonged to the people.

HCBL was of course displeased. It sought a division bench to review the verdict. In the meantime, Perumatty canceled HCBL’s licence to operate. Was this an overkill? Under the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, a local Panchayat has authority to suspend a licence or impose conditions on an industry. Besides, hadn’t Justice Nair assigned it a pro-active role?

On April 8, 2005, a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court permitted HCBL to draw half a million litres of water a day. How was this number arrived at? It was computed by a team of experts from a quasi-government body that goes by the name, Centre for Water Resources Development and Management [CWRDM], by a method not quite revealed. Never mind. The Division Bench also directed that Perumatty Panchayat reconsider a fresh application from HCBL for renewal of licence. But wait a minute. Hadn’t the Hon’ble Justices in the same ruling just said, the Panchayat had no legal authority to cancel the licence? Why not HCBL just ignore the cancellation and resume operations? Never mind again. The Panchayat was not only to decide within two weeks, but decide only one way: approve the HCBL application.

Not surprisingly, the Panchayat, backed by its growing numbers of vociferous supporters will appeal to the Supreme Court. There the matter stands today - unresolved.

Why is Plachimada a seminal happening? The issues involved are crucial: rights of local governments, linkage of land ownership with rights to water underneath, and imperatives of India’s undoubted need to invite foreign investment. Need these be in conflict with one another or can Plachimada show way we can accommodate all three.

GoodNewsIndia believes Plachimada is an opportunity and not a crisis. It’s a battle worth fighting in the bitterest detail. Here are some new novel suggestions that could hasten a truce.

GoodNewsIndia had wondered in June,2003:, “why not mandate that all bottled-water companies and soft-drink makers must ‘produce’ their own water?” It is heartening that the battle of Plachimada has prompted a few more recent voices to air this demand as well. But let there be equal play: the rule should apply to all manufacturers whose products consists of more than say 50% water. That should apply to Indian and foreign companies, breweries and mineral water bottlers. No doubt the cost will go up but that’d be a truer price. Water is an asset unlike iron ore or coal; it affects everyday life and therefore access it has be controlled.

Alternatives to desalination are importing water or centralising manufacture in a place where water is in abundance or its excess is a problem. [Where’s that Shangri-La?]. This is not an unreasonable suggestion. Coke is particular is based on a formula, so unique and exclusive that it may not be revealed even in a patent application. It has a brand akin to that of Scotch whiskey or Cognac or Perrier water. So like them, why should it not be made under control in one place and exported all over the world. The excess cost should be more than acceptable to Coca Cola addicts.

Justice Nair’s judgment overlooks one aspect of a farmer’s life. In times of drought he draws no water at all. He gets as much water as the rainfall allows. Why not ask industries to consider in their business plans, a rainfall risk, along with currency, country, market and tens of other risks they build in? A transparent way to arrive at water drawal rights could be locally determined by the inches of rainfall, instead of by some experts from an oracular body like CWRDM. Having assessed the available quantity of water by the inches that fell, a community can divide it using a fair, equitable formula.

Luckily, Coca Cola itself has done all the diligent research to determine a formula. At its site it says that the “beverage industry requirement is 0.0002%” of total water usage.” It gives a finer break up: of 100 units of available water, irrigation needs are 81 units, industrial 6, domestic 5, energy 4, others 4 and beverage industry 0.0002.

C’mon Plachimada, surely you can part with 2 litres to HCBL for every 8,10,000 litres you use for irrigation? Coke says it wants no more. Will Plachimada be reasonable and accept these terms?

Story tracking and inputs by Sreedevi Lakshmikutty