A high-power committee set up by the Government of Kerala indicted the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited on March 22 for causing incalculable harm to the ecology and the people of Plachimada -- the scene of many high-pitched protests that garnered international attention. The panel has assessed the overall cost of the damage at Rs. 216.26 crores and recommended setting up of a tribunal with judicial powers to make Coca Cola pay individual claims.
However, a lasting solution to the Plachimada tragedy may not be in sight yet.
People vs beverage giant
Plachimada, a predominantly adivasi village in Perumatty Gram Panchayat in Keralas Palakkad district, had over the last one decade become synonymous with the fight of the common people against corporate over-exploitation of natural resources. The Coke bottling plant set up in March 2000 with much fanfare began drawing over five lakh litres of water from the wells on its premises each day. This resulted in the drastic depletion of water levels inviting the wrath of the locals and environmental activists alike.
However, it took some more time for all the concerned including the gram panchayat to comprehend the gravity of the situation and the extent of environmental pollution caused by the effluents. The plant was producing one litre of Cola from four litres of water leaving behind 2.7 litres of wastewater and solid wastes. The groundwater of the village got heavily polluted as solid wastes containing hazardous chromium, cadmium, lead, etc., caused severe health problems to the villagers. Despite the destruction, the company continued went to the extent of distributing the solid wastes to the farmers as fertilizers, thus harming the farmland too.
This struggle posed several cardinal questions to the civil society and the political-judicial system of the country. Who is the owner of groundwater and what is the extent of this ownership? Who has the right to decide on the use of the local natural resources -- the local body, the state government, or the central government? In a predominantly agrarian society, should the priority of water consumption go to agriculture or industry? How to make the polluter pay?
The panel and its constitution
It is not as if the 13-member high-power committee -- headed by Additional Chief Secretary to the state government K Jayakumar and comprising directors of various departments like agriculture, animal husbandry and groundwater, deans of Kerala Agricultural University, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, an environmental expert, and a retired judge -- has come out with answers to these questions. In fact, the mandate given to them was only to investigate whether the functioning of Coca Cola has resulted in the alleged violations, and if so, the cost of the damage.
The panel held eight meetings and conducted a public hearing at Perumatty Panchayat office which was attended by the affected people, voluntary workers, concerned citizens, and the panchayat representatives. It reportedly evaluated all the available reports on Plachimada besides visiting the village and also organizing two panel discussions with experts.
The Coca Cola company caused environmental degradation through over-extraction of groundwater and irresponsible disposal of sludge. The water sources of the area have been affected and the water scarcity has become more acute.
The company misguided the farmers by passing off the sludge as manure and is responsible for soil degradation, water contamination, and the consequent agricultural losses.
There has been a steady decline in the agriculture production in the area and the production of milk, meat, and eggs has declined.
Metals like cadmium, lead, and chromium have been detected in the sludge. Skin ailments, breathing problems, and other debilities among the locals have been on the rise.
Low birth-weight in newborns has also been noticed.
Women have to fetch drinking water from far-off places and this has deprived them of their wages.
Children have dropped out of schools on account of the social, health, and economic factors caused by the pollution.
The gram panchayat has been providing drinking water through tankers ever since the wells and water bodies were rendered useless by the pollution.
The Coca Cola company is guilty under several laws in force.
Agricultural losses: Rs. 84. 16 crores
Health damages: Rs. 30. 00 crores
The cost of providing water: Rs. 20.00 crores
Wage losses and opportunity cost: Rs. 20.00 crores
The cost of polluting resources: Rs. 62.10 crores
Total: Rs. 216.26 crores
Even though there are sufficient provisions under the existing laws to claim compensation from the company under the polluter pays principle, the panel felt it desirable to set up a dedicated institution to adjudicate the individual claims. It said that this body could either be a tribunal under Article 323 B of the Constitution of India to be legislated by the state legislature, or an authority under section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, to be created by the central government. The tribunal/authority can then assess the individual claims and the polluter company made to pay it.
Coca Cola debunks reports
Predictably, Coca Cola has debunked the report saying it was based on gross assumptions. In fact, it has questioned the very validity and justification of the high-power committee.
However, the report has been welcomed by the Kerala society and there has not been any criticism of the report from any quarters. On the other hand, a squabble has commenced among the various organisations and political parties that were involved in the struggle on the the question of who must get the credit. Ironically, this rush for the spoils seems to have put the necessary analysis of the report and its implications on the backburner.
The first and foremost question the report provokes is whether it has enough material evidence to corner the firm in a court of law or a judicially empowered tribunal. Most of the findings of the committee were already present in the public domain and there is nothing new.
The committee has quantified the damages in monetary terms, but on what basis? According to the report, the panel has used objective as well as well-grounded yardsticks and calculated the overall money value of the damages. The committee does not claim that the amount of compensation is final or absolute. It is only indicative in nature. Actual compensation will have to be calculated by an authority duly set up for this purpose, it adds.
Where does this leave the individual claimants? Though the Committee received a large number of petitions, individual claims have not been evaluated for arriving at the compensation, which is beyond the mandate of the Committee.
Does it not mean the onus of proving the responsibility and liability of the mighty corporate is on the frail individual claimant?
The constitution of the high-power committee is not beyond criticism either. Eleven of its 13 members are connected to the government in one way or the other. Let alone intervening to contain the environmental degradation; at least a few of them, as heads of the departments concerned, gave all the required approvals and clearances to the bottling plant to ensure smooth functioning since its inception. Surely not a formula for ensuring the credibility of a report that will certainly be put under the scanner?
The role of Kerala'a anti-pollution watchdog
A peripheral review of the role of just one agency, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), raises many questions. In 2000, KSPCB gave consent to the company to discharge trade effluents not exceeding eight lakhs litres into land for irrigation. Besides setting tolerance limits of the effluent, the Board ordered the company to report the same every two months. This consent was eligible only till December 31, 2001. But in 2002, KSPCB renewed it till December 31, 2004, despite the grave damage suffered by Plachimada and its people.
It asked the company to install reverse osmosis system seven months after the factory ceased to operate. But this directive came about only after it was compelled by the directions of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee. Similarly, in August 2003, the Board wrote to the company to stop supplying solid wastes to the farmers as fertilizers well after the BBC exposed that the sludge contained hazardous elements like lead and cadmium. It took one more year (August 2004) for the Board to ask the company to remove the so-called fertilisers from the farmland and store it in a secured landfill.
In January 2010, almost six years after the bottling plant was shut down, KSPCB woke up to the fact that the effluent treatment plant was defunct and the solid waste stored was hazardous and hence should be moved to the Common Treatment Disposal Facility at Ambalamedu, Ernakulam.
Despite this, the KSPCB is part of the panel that has issued the damning judgment on the damage wreaked by the Coca Cola company. The question of whether the Board itself is also liable to bear the damages and be tried as an accomplice has gone unasked.
Meanwhile, the scramble for spoils is certainly premature. Many more intriguing scenes, tormented episodes, and treachery too, perhaps, will likely be enacted before the curtains come down on the long-drawn battle of Plachimada. (Quest Features & Footage)