In January 2000, the Perumatty panchayat in Kerala’s Palakkad district gave the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, or HCCB, a license to set up a bottling plant in Plachimada, a tribal settlement under the panchayat’s jurisdiction. The HCCB is an Indian bottling entity of The Coca-Cola Company, a United States-based manufacturer of aerated drinks. Spread over a land measuring 34 acres, residents of the area claimed that the bottling plant soon caused severe water shortage and contamination. A massive movement ensued against the HCCB, calling upon the company to shut the plant and compensate those affected. Though compensation remains an issue, after extensive media coverage of the matter and widespread protests, the residents of Plachimada found a silver lining when the plant stopped all operations in 2005. But in January this year they noticed some activity on the plant, which seemed like it was being renovated.
The HCCB’s activities allegedly affected nearly a thousand families in Plachimada, who were predominantly from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. According to an October 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. In 2010, a high-power committee set up by state government submitted an extensive report on the impact of the HCCB’s plant. K Jayakumar, who led the committee and was the additional chief secretary of the Kerala government at the time, told me that among other things, they found that the HCCB gave the sludge that they produced in the plant to the farmers by misrepresenting it as high-value organic manure. “The poor people planted it and the entire farmland became arid and uncultivable,” he said. The report concluded Rs 216.26 crore “could be claimed as reasonable compensation” from the HCCB.
The HCCB’s alleged transgressions and the pending compensation again came into sharp focus after the residents of Plachimada noticed some activity on the plant this year. In addition to the Jayakumar committee’s report, the Perumatty panchayat also made several attempts over the past two decades to hold the HCCB accountable, but the company repeatedly questioned their authority to do so, and evaded liability. According to the activists associated with the movement against the HCCB, political parties in the state only support them according to their own convenience. KV Biju, an environmental activist, told me, “The interesting thing is that be it BJP, Congress or CPI(M), they are always with corporates.”
Since the plant was established, tribal communities have been at the forefront of the resistance against the plant. Mayilamma, a woman who lived near the factory, was the first to raise her voice against the HCCB, in 2001. She was a prominent leader of the Adivasi Samrakshana Sangham, or ASS—a group formed to address the concerns of tribals in the locality, which also took on the HCCB’s plant in Plachimada. In April 2002, CK Janu, the president of the Adivasi Gotra Maha Sabha—a group seeking land rights for tribals—inaugurated the first official protest by the ASS. Apart from insisting the plant be shut, it also demanded a criminal investigation against the HCCB. In order to solicit support from non-tribal civil-society organisations as well, the ASS was renamed the Coca Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithi, or the Anti-Coca Cola People’s Struggle Committee, but it is now commonly known as the Plachimada Action Committee. The committee is fighting for compensation from the HCCB even now.
In 2003, the movement received global attention when the British Broadcasting Corporation released a documentary titled Face the Facts, which reported that water in Plachimada contained high levels of carcinogens such as lead and cadmium. In April that year, the Perumatty panchayat gave into pressure from the protesting groups, and refused to renew HCCB’s license citing “excessive exploitation of groundwater” and a resulting water shortage in the area. The company then took the panchayat to court, challenging the local body’s jurisdiction to stop the plant’s operations. The panchayat and the company were embroiled in a tussle over the renewal of the license for years after that.