Fifteen years after a people’s agitation shut down a Coca Cola bottling plant, the water table is yet to recover.

Women in Plachimada walk kilometres every day to get drinking water.

PLACHIMADA, Kerala —Kanniammal, now in her 70s, becomes nostalgic when asked what life was like in her village Plachimada three decades ago. There were no bore wells then and every family had more than enough water for its needs. Even during the peak of summer, the village used its water resources with care.

Things changed in 1999 when Coca-Cola zeroed in on the quiet village as the location for its massive bottling unit. From the following year, as it began extracting groundwater from the area, Plachimada’s water table fell drastically and toxic waste discharged from the plant smothered the soil.  

As residents took to the streets to get the MNC off their land, their struggles soon received global attention. The factory was finally closed in 2004, a victory chalked up to the power of an organic, people-led protest.

The first week of February will mark 15 years since the Coca-Cola bottling plant was permanently closed. But Plachimada and its surrounding areas are yet to recover from its excesses.

Now, Kanniammal treks about nine km a day through difficult terrains to fetch a pot of drinking water for her family of five.

“With every passing year, water scarcity has become acute and our livelihoods are in peril,’’ says Kanniammal, who hails from the Ervala tribal community.

Many of the protesters are losing hope, but some still fight on to make the company pay for the damage it caused and to force the government to keep a poll promise it made.

Kanniyammal (red saree) and other women agitators of Plachimada.

The Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd, an Indian subsidiary of the Atlanta-based manufacturer of aerated drinks, set up its factory in a 38-acre plot in Plachimada in 1999. The plant was built on agricultural land which historically belonged to the Eravala tribals.

The company would draw up to 1.5 million litres of water daily from 6 bore-wells situated inside the factory compound, as permitted by the Kerala State Pollution Control BoardReports say, however, that the plant was drawing up to 2 million litres per day in 2000.

The local agitation caught global attention in 2003, when a BBC show Face The Facts quoted research from University of Exeter that showed slurry from the plant contained dangerous levels of toxic metals such as cadmium and lead. The waste byproduct was being sold to farmers as fertiliser.

“The area’s farming industry has been devastated and jobs, as well as the health of the local people, have been put at risk,” said John Waite, the show’s presenter, as he read out findings by the university’s scientists.

A protest march heading to the company plant in 2004.

Lost battle?

A little away from the closed entrance of the imposing bottling unit stands a dilapidated thatched structure. This was the office from where the Plachimada struggle committee operated for many years. Rights activists Maude Barlow, José Bové and Finland’s former minister Satu Hassi were among those who addressed protestors at the venue during the World Water Conference hosted by the village in 2004.

“It was, in fact, a lost battle. The world noticed us when the mighty Coca-Cola decided to close down the unit in the face of our stringent agitation. But successive governments at the state and the centre have created a situation in which none of us would get any compensation from those who plundered our water resources. The governments and political parties seem lethargic about our grievances,’’ says Vilayodi Venugopal, an agricultural worker who became the public face of the agitation.  

The village, he says, has been fighting against the company’s water exploitation and its effects for 19 years now, but the living standards of people have not changed.

“Despite the earlier promise to reintroduce the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill in the Kerala state Assembly, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is maintaining a studied silence on our survival-related issues. Those who were once eloquent about our miseries are now doing nothing,” says Venugopal, who is also chairman of the Plachimada Anti Coca-Cola Struggle Committee.

A protest held in front of the plant as part of the World Water Conference in January 2004.

The bill, which was passed unanimously by the Kerala Assembly in 2011, was returned by the President five years later. The Union Home Ministry had objected to the bill, claiming it was in conflict with centre-state relations. It cited some provisions of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Act to back its case.

During its poll campaign in 2016, the LDF had promised it would reintroduce the Bill after removing these conflicts so it wouldn’t need the President’s nod.

The bill had accused the company of alarmingly depleting groundwater, apart from exploiting and wilfully polluting other natural resources of the village.

It also promised to establish a special tribunal for speedy adjudication of disputes and recovery of compensation for the predominantly poor, landless people of Plachimada.

While an expert committee set up by the state government has fixed the compensation amount at Rs 216 crore, the company has not paid anything so far.

Coca-Cola India executives did not respond to phone calls and an email seeking comment. In 2017, the Supreme Court recorded a submission by the company that it did not intend to reopen the factory. It also told the court that it had not ruined Plachimada’s water resources and that the Kerala government’s actions were “misleading@’