Tamil Nadu High Court gives Pepsi franchisee police protection, but where are its licences?

Photo Credit: Alienor Le Gouvello/AFP
The plant has been operating without a clearance from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board since March 2014.
Months after protests from villagers forced a franchise bottler of PepsiCo India in Tamil Nadu to shut down, the Tamil Nadu High Court has now granted it police protection from villagers.

In an order dated March 31, but which reached the village only on May 7, the court allowed LA Bottlers Pvt Ltd, a franchisee of PepsiCo India’s, to continue its operations. This order came after the plant filed a criminal case against residents in February.

As per the court’s order, LA Bottlers will not be allowed to use two borewells in its plant in Suriyur, Tiruchirappalli, that are at the centre of the conflict between them and the villagers. The court’s protection extends only to the transport of water to the plant from outside sources, to vehicles carrying finished products and to ensure that the premises remains open without any hindrance.

Locals are not pleased.

“The company will use more water in the summer,” said Vinothraj Seshan, an activist with Thanneer Iyakkam, an organisation working for water rights in Tamil Nadu. “This is the main issue we are raising. The government should first provide sufficient water to the public and only after that for economic aims.”

The court’s order was delivered to the president of the Suriyur Panchayat on May 7 and the collector has informed local activists that he will comply with the order. Yet even if the plant does open on Monday, it will still not have all the government permissions it needs to operate. These regulations are at the heart of an entanglement of cases going back and forth between them and the villagers.

Unopposed opening

The plant in Suriyur is only five years old. It opened with Panchayat consent on ayan punjai (semi-agricultural) land in 2010. It was even welcomed by villagers glad for a new source of income, Seshan said.

“Initially, the company said they will only manufacture glass bottles,” Seshan said. “That was why the public was also interested in it and didn’t oppose it. But in 2011-2012, they saw groundwater levels had gone down a lot. That’s when they realised company was doing something else. So from that date till present, they have been protesting.”

Trouble began towards the end of 2012, when farmers realised that the plant had depleted groundwater to such an extent that they were no longer able to plant three crops of paddy each year. Those who were unable to invest in borewells had to forego one or two crops.

Thanneer Iyakkam, a young activist group, began to investigate the plant’s permissions that year and realised it had not received two critical certificates. One is a certificate converting the area’s status from semi-agricultural to industrial use. The other is an approval from the Town and Country Planning Department for the floor plan of its factory. The factory covers 85,000 square feet, well above the 2,000 square feet the Panchayat is allowed to clear independently.

The movement gathered steam over the last year and came to a head on January 26, when villagers threatened to return their ration cards to authorities if the plant’s two borewells were not closed. After that protest intensified into a hunger strike, local officials finally closed two borewells on January 29. The plant has been shut since.

Licences a mess

It might have shut down only recently, but LA Bottlers has been operating without an operational clearance from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board since March 2014. While it had an initial clearance from its opening in 2010 to March 31 2014, its application for renewal is still pending with the board’s chairman in Chennai.

To further muddy matters, a letter written by a divisional engineer of the board recommends that its licence should not be renewed as the company does not have other requisite permits.

R Lakshmi, a divisional engineer at Tiruchirappalli, confirmed that the company still does not have a licence.

“They have provided reports of all pollution control measures, but have not yet attained the land use reclassification certificate,” she said. “That is why their renewal application is pending.”

She said she was aware that if the plant reopened on Monday, it would be functioning without a certificate. “They will get permission to operate only after getting approvals from us,” Lakshmi said. “That is subject to them fulfilling these conditions. If they open on Monday, they will be running the factory without our permission.”

Filings and counter-filings

This is the third case involving the plant that has reached the High Court. The first was a civil case filed by villagers after the Panchayat withdrew its permission for the plant. LA Bottlers filed the second case in June 2014 against the Housing Board and Town Development Department, the Town and Country Planning Department. The third is the criminal one, filed after protests from Suriyur residents intensified.

Representatives of LA Bottlers did not reply to several calls for comment. Some of their position might be seen in their case against the government.

“The new Panchayat President was also of the view that the Petitioner Company had made a complaint against her husband with regard to her husband’s drawing water illegally from his well and selling the same to some Private Mineral Water Company,” the court records them as saying. They go on to claim that the Panchayat’s order has no jurisdiction.

For her part, Saradadevi, president of the Panchayat, impleaded herself into the case. “… there is serious unrest in the locality due to the establishment of Petitioner’s Company,” the court notes her as contending. Her argument goes on to cite loss of water resources, environmental damage and also their lack of licences.

PepsiCo India declined to comment on the details of this plant.

“We follow all laws and regulations of the countries in which we operate,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an emailed statement. “We also expect our partners/co-packers to do the same. We do not comment on matters that are currently under judicial review.”