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Jun 19, 2005
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.

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