On October 27, hundreds of villagers assembled in front of the SIPCOT Industrial Growth Centre at Gangaikondan village in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Most of them were farmers, and many among them members of the Tamizhaga Valvurimai Katchi (TVK), a political outfit.
When the farmers returned, at least 10 among them, including a former MLA, had gaping wounds on their head and were bleeding profusely.
They were there to protest PepsiCo’s new plant which is to be set up at the SIPCOT industrial park, which has reportedly been given sanction to draw out several lakh litres of water every day from the Tamirabarani River. The Tamirabarani, which is the only perennial river in Tamil Nadu and is fast losing that status, is the lifeline for farmers in Southern TN. If there is no Tamirabarani, there is no agriculture in Tirunelveli and neighbouring districts.
While media attention towards the issue has been negligible, the movement has been gaining traction online.
A petition asking Pepsi to go back and save Tamirabarani on Change.org already has nearly 34,000 signatures, just three days after it was started. Stating that the river irrigates around 120 sqkms of agricultural land, it says,
Recently Government of Tamilnadu has given license to a multinational giant PEPSICO to setup a factory in Gangaikondan SIPCOT in Tirunelveli district. The company has entered in to an agreement with the government to use the water from Thamirabarani river for the purpose of soft drinks manufacturing. A recent RTI filed by a local resident has revealed that the soft drink multinational giant has been given a license to use 15 lakh litres of water every day from the river for the period of 99 years lease.
(Note: Already another softdrinks giant CocaCola, located in the same Gagaikondan SIPCOT is taking 10 lakh litres of water from Thamirabarani river.)
If 15 lakh litres of Thamirabarani river water is taken every day for the purposes of soft drink and mineral water manufacturing, imagine the condition of the farmers who are solely dependent on the river for irrigational purposes. Agriculture which is the backbone of Tirunelveli district will be hugely affected without water, the land will become unusable and the livelihood of all the farmers will be hugely affected. In few years there will be no farming lands in Tirunelveli which will also largely affect the economy and food availability of Tamilnadu in the coming years.
Other media reports suggest that Pepsi has been given permission by the TN government to draw out around 10 lakh litres of water everyday out of the river, at a cost of 3.75 paise per litre.
Protesters have also been putting out brilliant home-cut videos like this one, taking Pepsi head-on for planning to suck water out of the river.
Such protests are not new. Farmers vented fury 10 years ago when a subsidiary of Coca-Cola was given permission to setup a plant in the same village. Last year, the state pollution control board gave permission to Coca Cola to expand the plant, doubling its intake from 9 lakh litres of water every day to 18 lakh litres per day. The expansion plans were however rejected by SIPCOT, the industries promotion department.
The situation is indeed dire, according to activists and experts.
“There are entire Scheduled Caste communities on the banks of the Tamirabarani which do not have access to drinking water, and now they are diverting water from the river to the industries,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist, adding that farming will be affected severely by drawing water out in such large quantities, “There is tremendous stress in those areas, and there is massive migration due to water scarcity. The farmers who are there need to be protected.”
“The government’s response has been very short-sighted,” he adds.
Dr. Arunachalam, a water-resources expert and former Head at the Department of Environment at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tirunelveli agrees with him.
“If we draw out so much water, the whole system will collapse in 4-5 years,” says Dr. Arunachalam, “The ground water levels are going down already. There is increasing river sand mining also. So drawing more water out will only compound the problem. There will be no water for agriculture.”
“The government is least bothered about the farmers here,” he adds.