Building Water Democracy : People’s victory against Coca-Cola in Plachimada

Two years ago, adivasi women in a small hamlet, Plachimada, in Palghat, Kerala started a movement against Coca-Cola. Today, the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada has been shut down. The victory of the Plachimada movement is major step in reversing corporate hijack of our precious water resources. It provides both inspiration and lessons for building water democracy in other parts of India and in the rest of the world.

The Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada was commissioned in March 2000 to produce 1,224,000 bottles of Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Limca, Thums up, Kinley Soda, Maaza. The Panchayat was issued a conditional license for installing a motor for drawing water. However the company started to illegally extract millions of liters of clean water from more than 6 bore wells installed by it using electric pumps in order to manufacture millions of bottles of soft drink.

According to the local people, Coca-Cola was extracting 1.5 million litres per day. The water level started to fall, going from 150 feet to 500 feet. Not only did Coca-Cola “Steal” the water of the local community, it also polluted what was left. The company is also pumping wastewater into dry bore wells within the company premises for disposing solid waste.

Earlier it was depositing the waste material outside the company premises which during the rainy season spread into paddy fields, canals, and wells, causing serious health hazards.

As a result of this, 260 bore wells which were provided by public authorities for drinking water and agriculture facilities have become dry. Complaints were also being received from tribals and farmers that storage of water and sources of water were being adversely affected by indiscriminate installation of bore wells for tapping ground water leading to serious consequences for crop cultivation in the area on which residents of the panchayat depend on their living – e.g. maintenance of traditional drinking water sources, preservation of ponds and water tanks, maintenance of waterways and canals and shortage of drinking water. When the Panchayat asked for details, the company failed to comply.

The Panchayat therefore served a show cause notice and cancelled the license. Coca-Cola tried to bribe the Panchayat President A Krishnan with Rs. 300 million, but he refused to be corrupted and coopted. In 2003, the district medical officer informed the people of Plachimada their water was unfit for drinking.

The women already know their water was toxic. Instead of drawing water from the wells in their homes they had to walk miles. Coca-Cola had created a water scarcity in a water abundant region. And the women of Plachimada were not going to allow this “hydropiracy”. They started a “dharna” (sit-up) at the gates of Coca-Cola. On Earth Day 2003, they invited me to celebrate one year of their agitation.

On 21st September, 2003 a huge rally was organized to give an ultimatum to Coca-Cola. On 21st and 22nd of January, 2004 a World Water Conference brought global activists like Jose Bove and Maude Barlow to Plachimada to support the local activists.

A movement started by local adivasi women had unleashed a national and global wave of people’s energy in their support. On 17th February, 2004 the Kerala Chief Minister, under pressure of the growing movement and the aggravation of the water crisis because of a drought ordered closure of the Coke plant. The victory of the movement in Plachimada was the result of creating broad alliances and using multiple strategies.

The rainbow alliances beginning with the local women and activists like Veloor Swaminthan, Convenor of the anti Coca-Cola task force, Plachimada grew to include the local Gram Panchayat and its members Girija Devi, Geetha Mohandas, Sheeba Radhakrishnan, Aruchamy K, Sivakam, Subbayyan, MK Arumugham, K Varathara, A Krishnan, President, K Parthan, Presitha Mohandas, M Shanmugham, G Ponnukkuttam, N Chellankutty, C Murughan.

The local panchayat used its constitutional rights to serve notice to Coca-Cola. The Perumatty Panchayat also filed a public interest litigation in the Kerala High Court against Coca-Cola.

The courts support the women’s demands. In an order given on 16th December 2003, Justice Balakrishnana Nair ordered Coca-Cola to stop pirating Plachimada’s water. As the Honorable Justice stated:

“The Public Trust Doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources like air, sea waters and the forests have such a great importance to the people as a whole that it would be wholly unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. The said resources being a gift of nature, they should be made freely available to everyone irrespective of the status in life. The doctrine enjoins upon the government to protect the resources for the enjoyment of the general public rather than to permit their use for private ownership or commercial purpose………..

Our legal system – based on English common law – includes the public trust doctrine as part of its jurisprudence. The State is the trustee of all natural resources, which are by nature meant for public use and enjoyment. Public at large is the beneficiary of the seashore, running waters, airs, forests and ecologically fragile lands. The State as a trustee is under a legal duty to protect the natural resources. These resources meant for public use cannot be converted into private ownership…….

In view of the above authoritative statement of the Honourable Supreme court, it can be safely concluded that underground water belongs to the public. The State and its instrumentalities should act as trustees of this great wealth. The State has got a duty to protect ground water against excessive exploitation and the inaction of the State in this regard will tantamount to infringement of the right to life of the people guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The Apex Court has repeatedly held that the right to clean air and unpolluted water forms part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. So, even in the absence of any law governing ground water, I am of the view that the Panchayat and the State are bound to protect ground water from excessive exploitation. In other words, I am of the view that the Panchayat and the State are bound to protect ground water from excessive exploitation. In other words, the ground water, under the land of the 2nd respondent, does not belong to it.

Even assuming the experts opine that the present level of consumption by the 2nd respondent is harmless, the same should not be permitted for the following reasons:

The underground water belongs to the general public and the 2nd respondent has no right to claim a huge share of it and the Government have no power to allow a private party to extract such a huge quantity of ground water, which is a property, held by it in trust.

If the 2nd respondent is permitted to draw such a huge quantity of ground water, then similar claims of the other landowners will also have to be allowed. The same will result in drying up of the underground aqua-reservoirs.

Accordingly, the following directions are issued:

The 2nd respondent shall stop ground water for its use after one month from today.

The Panchayat and the State shall ensure that the 2nd respondent does not extract any ground water after the said time limit. This time is granted to enable the 2nd respondent to find out alternative sources of water.”

The alliance grew to include people like Veerandra Kumar of Mathrubhumi and me. And we mobilized our networks to offer our full support to the local movement. The January conference was co-organised with the local Panchayat. It brought on one platform every political party, and the leader of the opposition V.S. Achuthanandan who kept up the pressure in the Kerala Assembly to translate the Court decision into Executive action.

The literary movement provided leadership through Dr. Sukumar Azhikode. And global support came in the presence of Jose Bove, Maude Barlow, European Parliamentarians and activists from across the world. The women’s protest, the heart and soul, of the movement, got support through legal action, parliamentary action and scientific research. This pluralism and diversity in support of local action was the secret of the victory of people against coke in Plachimada.

This is the strength of our multiplicities and complementarities we have to mobilize in other parts of India where Coke and Pepsi are mining and stealing peoples water resources. The Plachimada Declaration issued at the World Water conference of 21st – 23rd January, 2004 states :

Plachimada Declaration

Water is the basis of life; it is the gift of nature; it belongs to all living beings on earth.

Water is not a private property. It is a common resource for the sustenance of all.

Water is the fundamental right of man. It has to be conserved. Protected and managed. It is our fundamental obligation to prevent water scarcity and pollution and to preserve it for generations.

Water is not a commodity. We should resist all criminal attempts to marketwise, privatize and corporatise water. Only through these means we can ensure the fundamental and inalienable right to water for the people all over the world.

The Water Policy should be formulated on the basis of this outlook.

The right to conserve, use and manage water is fully vested with the local community. This is the very basis of water democracy. Any attempt to reduce or deny this right is a crime.

The production and marketing of the poisonous products of the Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola corporates lead to total destruction and pollution and it also endangers the very existence of local communities.

The resistance that has come up in Planchimada, Pududdery and in various parts of the world is the symbol of our valiant struggle against the devilish corporate gangs who pirate of our water.

We, who are in the battlefield in full solidarity with the Adivasis who have put up resistance against the tortures of the horrid commercial forces in Plachimada, exhort the people all over the world to boycott the products of Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola.

Coca-Cola – Pepsi Cola “Quit India”.

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