Adding a new dimension to the ongoing tussle between the people of Plachimada and the soft drink giant Coca Cola, the company has expressed its willingness to shift its plant from the region governed by the Perumatty Panchayat in Kerala. The Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd made this proposal in a letter addressed to the Minister for Industries, Kerala, in late November 2005. The proposed site, about 40 kms away from Plachimada and is in the Kanjikode Industrial Estate, also in the same Palghat district. The company has demanded at the new site, "a confirmed resolution for meeting the infrastructure needs such as water and electricity along with an amicable environment devoid of the problems as have been faced in Plachimada."

Subsequently, a meeting was convened by the Industries Department on the 3rd of January. It was attended by the representatives of Perumatty Panchayat, the District Industries Centre, Palakkad, Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) and Coca Cola. Perumatty Panchayat, it is reported, did not have any objection to the company being shifted. No decisions were reached in the meeting and there will be further discussions in the coming months.

Meanwhile, following dictates of the Kerala High Court, [see box on Plachimada Saga] on 4 January 2006, the panchayat renewed Coke's license for three months and laid out thirteen conditions. The first of these is that the company shall not use groundwater from Perumatty Panchayat for industrial purposes, or for producing soft drinks, aerated carbonate beverages or fruit juice. The local body quoted two documents in support of its stance.

File illustration: Sameer Mahoolkar.

One was the Supreme Court judgment in M C Mehta v/s Union of India 2004(12) SCC118. According to this judgment, groundwater is a social asset, and the right of the citizen to the use of air, water and earth are protected under Article 21 of the Constitution. It further states that the environmental balance is to be maintained and wherever groundwater is required for domestic and agricultural needs, priority is to be given to these. (Incidentally, M C Mehta vs Union of India was cited in the Division Bench High Court hearings that went in favour of Coke in 2005, but according to Perumatty Panchayat counsel K Ramkumar, the judges did not mention it while narrating the proceedings.)

The second document the panchayat cited was the notification by the Kerala State Groundwater Department which declared Perumatty Panchayat along with four other panchayats in Kerala as 'over exploited' with regard to groundwater. The Panchayat also quoted its own resolution of a fortnight ago, which stipulated that in view of the acute shortage of water neither surface water or groundwater can be used for any purposes other than domestic and agricultural.

There is one other commercial consumer of water in Chittoor Block, Kerala Alcoholic Products Ltd. This brewery is at Meenakshipuram, about 6 kms from Plachimada, and it draws 5 lakh litres of water/day. The source is groundwater and a nearby canal. (Source: District Industries Centre, Palghat.)

According to activists, the area has not experienced any water scarcity and the company does not cause any pollution as such.