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.”