Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited has sent a proposal to the Kerala govrnment to set up a CSR initiative within the jurisdiction of the Perumatty gram panchayat, in the state’s Palakkad district. In October, the panchayat shared the proposal in response to a right-to-information application by S Sarath, the editor of the monthly Malayalam magazine Keraleeyam. HCCB is an Indian bottling entity of the United States-based Coca-Cola Company. According to the proposal, among other activities, the initiative would comprise a “state-of-art high quality” nursery and a demonstration farm to train farmers on using “Ultra High Density Plantation,” an agricultural technique supported by drip irrigation. The initiative would be located on a 34-acre plot owned by the company, in Plachimada, a predominantly tribal settlement in the Palakkad district.
HCCB is known for previous alleged transgressions on the 34-acre land in Plachimada. In 2000, the Perumatty panchayat gave HCCB a license to set up a bottling plant on the plot. Soon after HCCB began its operations, locals of Plachimada led vociferous protests against the plant, accusing the company of causing severe water shortage and contamination. According to a January 2006 report in the Economic and Political Weekly, six borewells and two open wells in the factory compound used some 0.8 to 1.5 million litres of water daily.
Due to the agitation, HCCB has not operated the plant since 2005. A high-power committee set up by the state government submitted an extensive report on the plant in 2010. The committee, led by K Jayakumar, who was the state’s additional chief secretary at the time, concluded that Rs 216.26 crore “could be claimed as reasonable compensation” from HCCB. In February 2011, the state government passed the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, which called for the establishment of a tribunal to realise the due compensation amount.
But the bill was never enacted. The state governor reserved the bill for the consideration of the president of India. In March that year, it was forwarded to the central government and then remained with the ministry of home affairs for four months. It was only in November 2015 that the governor of Kerala was informed that Pranab Mukherjee, the former president of India, “has been pleased to withhold his assent” from the bill.
No relief has been given to the residents of Plachimada yet. “Even as a bill on Coca-Cola remains pending, they are starting something new,” Sarath said. Local political leaders and panchayat officials have expressed their opposition to HCCB’s proposal to start a new initiative without compensating the aggrieved residents of Plachimada. But K Shanthakumari, the president of the Palakkad zilla panchayat, told me that the state government had itself referred the proposal to the local government body for its consideration. She did not, however, remember when the proposal was sent to the zilla panchayat.