Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Kerala Plachimada Movement

Plachimada, a small village in Palakkadu district of Kerala, South India is predominantly an agricultural area. The people of the locality are waging a battle against the soft drink behemoth, Coke. With the plant, largest of its genre in India, sucking out six lakh litre of water a day, the region once with vast green multi-cropped paddy fields has lost all its bounty and is reeling under drought. A recent study show that the water in the region are unfit for drinking and even the soil is contaminated with perniciously high quantities of elements like Cadmium and Lead.

In 2000, when the Coca Cola Company started its bottling plant in this obscure village of rural Kerala, there were no protests. Because every body thought it is good for the development of the region. All political parties joined chorus in singing paean about the immense opportunities it would provide in a state with exceptionally high rate of unemployment. But these hopes were to be shattered within the next six months. The immense opportunity that it created was providing job for some 300 odd people (most of them outsiders). The local people started to recognize the demon behind the mask. The low monsoon rains added to the misery of the people.
The local people (mostly tribals), seeing the shrinking water levels in their wells and drying up paddy fields started an agitation. They were alone in their battle against the MNC. In the initial stages of the struggle neither was there any political parties nor any NGOs in their espousal. Even the media turned a wry face towards them succumbing to commercial pressures.

Despite the attempts by the company to suppress the agitation with the aid of the state machinery the determined local populace continued with their battle for water. The apathy of the authorities helped only in raising their spirit and the struggle intensified in such a rapid pace that now the political parties and the media found it hard to ignore them. The voice of the poor residents of this remote Indian village began to reach out to the world. The left, Janatha Dal (S), youth organizations like the DYFI, SUCI, AIYF and many NGOs joined the struggle.
The agitation was formally launched on 22nd April, 2002 by Adivasi Samrakshana Sangam (Organisation for the Protection of Adivasis). The campaign was inaugurated by C.K. Janu, a tribal leader whose has been in the frontline of Adivasi struggles in Kerala for a decade. More than 2000 demonstrators gathered outside the factory gate forming a blockade. The protesters were met with barbaric act of violence from the police.

Meanwhile a test conducted on samples collected by a BBC Radio-4 correspondent, James Smith proved that the sludge that the plant distributed among the local farmer as manure contained toxic materials like Cadmium in well above the allowed levels. The concentration of Cadmium was 201.02 mg/kg, over four times the maximum allowed value (as per Indian standards).

On August 4th, 2002 The Coca Cola Virudha Samarasamithi (Anti Coca Cola Struggle Committee.) and The Pachimada Ikyadartya Samiti (The Plachimada Solidarity Council) organized a mass rally and a public meeting at Plachimada to mark the 105th day of the protest. Over 1000 people, including women and children participated.
To mark the 1000th day of Plachimada struggle, The World Water Forum was organized in which eminent personalities and activists like Tony Clark, Vandana Siva, Medha Patkar, Sukumar Azheekode and M.P. Veerendrakumar. The Plachimada struggle was the main theme in The World Social Forum (WSF) held in Mumbai in 2005.

Do our Government machinery has the chutzpah to act against the interests of MNCs? The obvious answer is ‘No’. But in a rare show of audacity The Kerala State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) has ordered the stoppage of production at Plachimada Coca- Cola Company. The order was issued on 19th August 2005. The PCB sited the failure of the company to comply with its directions regarding the disposal of the sludge as the reason for its action. Besides that The Board found that the concentration of heavy metals like Cadmium in the sludge was 400 to 600 times above the permissible level of which the company had no explanations. The Company seeks to review the order and is yet to close down.

Will this be an ultimate victory for the poor local populace? Considering seemingly notorious past of the MNC nothing can be taken for granted. But let’s forget not, as the Bolivian struggle demonstrated, that nothing can triumph over the collective determination of the people. Let's hope that they would succeed in their battle for existence.

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