Environment
It is indeed a small victory, say activists, but caution against any premature celebration.
Image: Thamirabharani river/ YouTube.com

Just over a year ago, farmers’ battle for water in southern Tamil Nadu was turning bloody. The protests weren’t widespread, but intense, with several political groups and farmer unions protesting against the use of Thamirabarani river water by cola companies. Outside the SIPCOT Industrial Growth Centre at Gangaikondan village in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, the police lathicharged protesters and several were injured.

Their protests bore some fruit when on Monday, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court ordered a stay, restraining companies which produced Pepsi and Coca-Coca from using the water of the Thamirabharani river. This has come as a major relief to thousands of farmers, who are dependent on the river for their agriculture, and residents who are facing severe water shortage. The online petition seeking the same has more than 82,000 supporters now. 

It is indeed a small victory, say activists, but caution against any premature celebration. The final verdict in the ongoing PIL could very well be against the interests of the farmers and the people in the region.

The PIL seeking a ban on the use of water from the river by cola companies was filed by DA Prabhakar from Tirunelveli, stating that the river which flows through Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi provides water for drinking and irrigation purposes for the two districts, making it their lifeline. More than 5 crore litres of water is being used in Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi for drinking purposes. This year, the Tamil Nadu government allowed companies linked to PepsiCo to draw about 10 lakh litres of water every day at a cost of Rs 3.75 paise for producing soft drinks and packaged drinking water. In 2005, the Tamil Nadu government had granted companies linked to Coca-Cola permission to draw 9 lakh litres of water every day and later allowed to draw 18 lakh litres per day last year, according to the petitioner.

Activists state that the quantum of water being used and wasted, calls for a permanent solution – that the companies not be allowed to operate there. 

Speaking to The News Minute, Dr. Arunachalam, a water-resources expert and former Head at the Department of Environment at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tirunelveli, says, “It is a great move to order a stay on drawing water by cola companies, but we should not rest here. This is just a stay, and the judge can still change the situation in the final order.”

Dr. Arunachalam says that the court’s decision could have been in view of the fact that it is the dry season now, when there is no water and farmers are suffering. “When water level rises in the river, what happens then? They could say that the quantum of water is more so companies are allowed to use water,” he points out. 

“The government should set up a committee to look into their claims. Are they only sucking out as much water as they are allowed to? The committee should look into the impact of their operations in the region,” he says.

Chennai-based social activist Nityanand Jayaraman also welcomes the court order and points out to the futility of the cola industry in extracting water from a water-scarce environment. “Extracting scarce water for luxury and profit goes against residents and farmers, especially at a time when there is scarcity of water for drinking and irrigation. If there is surplus, it is a different matter but in case of scarcity I don’t think it is a good thing,” he says.

Others hope that this initiative will help the Tamil Nadu government take a holistic view of the problem. “If they enforce a complete ban on these projects, at least the government can move forward from there. We have been campaigning in groups and schools and have got an overwhelming response,” says Sunderrajan, coordinator of Poovulagin Nanbargal. 

The petitioner has also pointed out how this wasn’t just about the water, but wildlife too. Gangaikondan was declared as a national sanctuary for spotted deer, and if these two companies, which are located within a 4-km radius of the spotted deer park, continue to take water from Thamirabarani river, then it would affect the deer population.