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Jun 19, 2005
The Plachimada promise

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?

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