Not just Pepsi and Coke, here are the other companies sucking the Thamirabarani dry

RTI documents obtained by an activist show that more water is being drawn out by other companies.
Not just Pepsi and Coke, here are the other companies sucking the Thamirabarani dry
Not just Pepsi and Coke, here are the other companies sucking the Thamirabarani dry
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On November 21, 2016, a Madras High Court bench headed by Justices S Nagamuthu and MV Muralidaran ordered the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT), which operates a special economic zone in Gangaikondan in Tirunelveli, to not supply water to two companies linked to Pepsi and Coca Cola, which draw out several lakh litres of water from the Thamirabarani river.

The order, albeit a temporary stay, was cautiously welcomed by activists and farmers of the region, who have been fighting a long battle with the companies and the government. Their contention is that when the farmers of the state are bearing the brunt of water shortage and poor monsoons year after year, these companies have a steady supply of water for cheap, and further deplete water from the ecosystem in the process. With this order, a perception has been created that this was a small victory for the farmers.

Not just the media narrative on the issue (of whatever little coverage there has been), but the legal scramble over it has also been centred around just two companies, Prathista Business Solutions, the front company for PepsiCo, and South India Bottling, which is under Coca Cola.

Strangely, the order is ex-parte. Neither the government, nor the companies got to present their case.

Documents obtained under RTI Act by activist Ramiah Ariya, who works with Arappor Iyakkam but approached The News Minute in his independent capacity, however show that the water is being used by several other companies.

Media reports, like the ones in Frontline, have framed it as a battle against “privatisation of water resources” – when the actual entity drawing out the water, SIPCOT, belongs to the government. Further, activists, media reports and lawyers have not mentioned or taken to task the several other companies which continue to draw water to the detriment of the ecosystem, some far higher than Pepsi or Coca Cola.

Speaking to TNM, Ariya says that Pepsi and Coca Cola have simply been used as punching bags, when the issue is much larger, and that of the government being irresponsible itself.

“The entire argument is based on drought conditions in Thamirabarani, and simply pins responsibility on Pepsi and Cola. In fact, if the arguments are followed logically, SIPCOT should be shut down. They have the water agreement. If indeed a drought is going on, then water usage by all companies should have been considered, and a ration instituted,” says Ariya, “This order will not stop any drought from affecting the farmers.”

Who is drawing the water?

Contrary to popular belief, the Public Works Department of the government only allows SIPCOT to draw water from the Thamirabarani river, and no other entity. So, it is not Coca Cola or Pepsi drawing water out, but the government of Tamil Nadu.

SIPCOT, apart from using a small amount for its own use, then distributes this water to several other companies – 27 in total.

SIPCOT is allowed to extract 3 million gallons per day (which is about 136 lakh litres per day) according to the government order. The 27 companies are allotted a maximum quantity they can withdraw per day, which does not mean they draw all of it out.

For instance, according to SIPCOT, in 2015-16, Pepsi was allowed to draw out 15 lakh litres per day, but it drew out only 1.135 lakh litres per day. Coca Cola’s allotted limit was 18 lakh litres per day, but it withdrew only 3.05 lakh litres a day.

In 2015-16, the total water allotted to the 27 companies was about 49 lakh litres, of which only 17.4 lakh litres were used.

But you start looking at the water-usage of individual companies, then some interesting facts emerge.

Some companies are drawing out far more water than Pepsi or Coca Cola, and many of them more than their allotted limits.

ATC Tires uses a little more than 9.3 lakh litres per day, more than Coca Cola and Pepsi put together.

Companies like Ramco, Wolkem, Cal Mic, Globe Radio, Nova Carbons. VLS Enterprises, Bhuvi Care and Pabros Spices use more than their allotted limits.

Why Coca Cola and Pepsi matter more

While it is not clear as to what is the nature of the contracts between the companies and SIPCOT, and if drawing more water than the allotted limits is necessarily a violation of the contracts, the data begs the question, why has the activism and legal action focused only on Coca Cola and Pepsi?

And is the court aware of the fact that there are several other companies which suck out far more water than either Coca Cola or Pepsi? Based on the November 21 order, perhaps not.

Speaking to The News Minute, Dr DA Prabakar, Secretary of the Tirunelveli District Consumer Protection Association, who filed the petition against the two companies, said it was a conscious decision to go against only these two companies, although he did not have the broken-up data on which consumes how much water.

“Coca Cola and Pepsi are water-based companies. That is why we are going against them. They use water as a raw material. We are not against industrialization entirely, but when we do not even have drinking water, what is the necessity for these companies to bottle water and sell?” he asks.

Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist who has been involved with several campaigns in Tamil Nadu over the past decades, echoes the thoughts. “Other companies may be using water for their processes. For Coca Cola and Pepsi, water is the commodity. Commodifying water, the very basis of life, is what activists are against and I feel they are bang on. We can't afford to lose this battle, else, air and sunlight will be the next to be commodified,” he says.

Ramiah Arya however says, “My intention is not to support or oppose the companies. There might be ethical concerns, but legally this seems dangerous. Any business can be targeted in such a manner then.”

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