Thiruvananthapuram: In a setback to softdrink major Coca Cola, an experts panel set up by Kerala Government on Monday suggested legal steps to realise Rs216.26 crore as compensation from it for the “multi-sectoral” loss caused by its plant at Plachimada in Palakkad district.
The 14-member Committee, headed by additional dhief secretary K Jayakumar, also recommended setting up of a tribunal to take the legal process forward since it would not be possible to the affected people to individually fight the legal battle.
The panel report, handed over to state water resources minister N K Premachandran in Thiruvananthapuram, held that besides heavy withdrawal of ground water, the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Ltd plant had inflicted harm to the farming and environment in the area by dumping solid waste.
It quantified the damage suffered by various sectors due to the functioning of the plant from 1999 to 2004 as agricultural loss (Rs84. 16 crore), pollution of water resources (Rs62 crore), cost of providing water (Rs20 crore), health damage (Rs30 crore), wage loss and opportunity cost (Rs20 crore).
Receiving the report, the minister said it would be placed before the state cabinet to take appropriate steps.
The LDF Government had set up the high-level panel to assess the “socio-economic damage” allegedly caused by “exploitation” of ground water by the plant. The report incidentally came on a day which is being observed as ‘World Water Day´.
Panel chairman Jayakumar said the ”dedicated” legal mechanism to fight for compensation could be created by the state government itself either by setting up a tribunal or asking the Centre to create such a mechanism under the Environment Act.
“Once the government decides on a suitable mechanism and it comes into being, individual claims will have to be assessed and actual compensation decreed and the polluter company made to pay it,” the report said.
It reported the precedent of Tamil Nadu setting up a tribunal to address the pollution caused by tanneries.
The chairman noted that Coca Cola declined to co-operate with the study by writing that the government had no power to do such an exercise. “We just ignored the contention of the company and went ahead with our task,” he said.
The report said the company was culpable under several laws.
By passing sludge as manure, which had contents of cadmium, led and chromium, the company had not only misguided farmers, but has become responsible for soil degradation, water contamination and consequential loss of agriculture.
Besides a steady decline in agriculture in the area dominated by weaker sections and tribals, production of milk, meat and eggs had also suffered, it said.
The general health of the people had been affected with skin ailments, breathing problems and other debilities.
The report said drinking water had become scarce through over extraction by the plant and women had to go long distances to fetch water.
A total of 900 households had been directly affected by the problems caused by the company.
Children had to drop out of schools on account of the social, health and economic factors caused by the pollution and this “opportunity cost” should be realised, it said.
Daily extraction of over five lakh litres of water by the plant had upset the natural balance and adversely affected availability of water. Toxic chemicals in the waste water contaminated groundwater and made it unsuitable for irrigation, the report said.
Coca Cola’s Plachimada plant, now dysfunctional, had been the focus of a struggle with local people, environmentalists and anti-MNCs activists agitating for its closure.
At one point, the LDF Government in the state had even imposed a ban on sale of Cola brands of various companies, which was later quashed by the Kerala High Court.
The plant had been non-operational since 2004 as it faced legal hurdles from the local Perumatty panchayat.
The 14-member experts’ committee was constituted by the state Government in April, 2009. Jayakumar was made its chairman as he was agricultural production commissioner and water resources secretary then.
The committee comprised legal experts, including a retired district judge, agricultural scientists, environmentalists and health and ground water experts.