It would be a lost battle for the people of Plachimada village if they do not get compensation from Coca-Cola for the losses caused by its cola bottling plant.

People of Plachimada in Kerala gather for a protest Protest held in Plachimada on August 15
news Plachimada protest Monday, August 22, 2022 - 13:34

Plachimada holds a peculiar place in Kerala’s history of agitations as a village that brought a corporate behemoth to its knees. A tribal agricultural village situated in Palakkad on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, Plachimada saw unrelenting protests against Coca-Cola, which had set up a cola bottling plant there in 2000. The local residents alleged that the plant had led to scarcity of drinking water and decline in agricultural produce.

While the plant was shut down 18 years ago, the residents have not been successful in getting compensation for the losses they incurred. An Action Council, led by activists and supported by local people, organised a satyagraha protest in the village last week on Independence Day. The group is firm that the protests will continue until Coca-Cola pays compensation.

The Plachimada plant was operated by Coca-Cola’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited. As per the agreement between the company and the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), up to 1.5 million litres of water was drawn from six borewells inside the factory compound. What followed was something the village had never witnessed before. The residents soon began experiencing water shortage, with water levels in wells and ponds seeing a sharp decline. The water also became so contaminated that it caused health issues in those who used it. Farmers observed a decline in agricultural produce caused by disposal of sludge that contained metals like cadmium, lead and chromium. The company had also distributed a fertiliser to the farmers in the panchayat. The use of this fertiliser turned the farms lands barren, reports Madhyamam Online.

The villagers soon started opposing the plant. Tribal leader CK Janu inaugurated the anti-Coca-Cola protest in April 2002, which gathered momentum with prominent activists joining in. The KSPCB and the Perumatty panchayat, under which Plachimada falls, also backed the village. The panchayat did not renew the plant’s licence citing exploitation of natural resources.

The factory was eventually closed down in 2004, thanks to the mounting protests.

The long battle for compensation

In 2009, the Kerala government appointed a High Power Committee headed by then Additional Chief Secretary K Jayakumar to study the damages caused by the Coca-Cola plant. The committee found that the plant had caused a loss of Rs 216.26 crore in Plachimada. However, the alternative governments didn’t make any honest attempts to recover the money from the company.

In 2011, the Kerala government unanimously passed the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims’ Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, 2011 to set up a special tribunal to realise the compensation from Coca-Cola. The President, however, returned the Bill, in a huge setback to the people.

The then Pinarayi Vijayan government had mulled reintroducing the Bill with changes. Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan had said that discussions were held in this direction.

In 2017, Coca-Cola made a submission before the Supreme Court that it had no intention of restarting operations at Plachimada.

After Action Council leaders had a meeting with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in June 2017, it was agreed that the issue would be addressed in three months. But five years later, there has been no action.

The Council blamed the government for not taking any effective steps to recover the compensation from the company. Vilayodi Venugopal, one of the activists who has been at the forefront of the Plachimada protests since the beginning, told TNM that the Left government still has a lackadaisical approach towards the issue despite continuing in power.

The Council also blamed the alternative governments that came to power in the state after the High Power Committee was formed. It alleged that the Union governments led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) also did not take any move to pass the Plachimada Bill all these years.

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