Kerala panel wants Coca-Cola to pay Rs216 cr in damages

Kerala panel wants Coca-Cola to pay Rs216 cr in damages

Kochi: The Indian arm of the world’s largest soft drinks maker, Coca-Cola Co., may have to pay Rs216.26 crore in compensation to residents of Plachimada in Kerala’s Palakkad district if recommendations by a state-appointed panel are adopted.

A 14-member committee constituted by the Kerala government said in its report on Monday that the company’s bottling unit in Plachimada was responsible for problems caused by excessive extraction of groundwater and solid waste disposal.

The panel was set up in September to assess socio-economic damage caused by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd’s bottling plant in the village. The Plachimada plant, which had been in operation since 2000, was shut in 2004 after widespread protests.

“It is obligatory that it pay the compensation to the affected people for the agricultural losses, health problems, loss of wages, loss of educational opportunities and the pollution caused to the water resources," the panel said in its report.

Coca-Cola rejected the panel’s contentions.

“Based on scientific evaluation, our Palakkad plant operations have not been shown to be the cause of local watershed issues," Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages said in an emailed statement. “It is unfortunate that the committee in Kerala was appointed on the unproven assumption that damage was caused, and that it was caused by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages. In these circumstances, there is little for us to comment upon given the deliberations of a committee appointed with such a mandate."

K. Jayakumar, additional chief secretary and who headed the panel, said the committee had suggested that the government either set up a claims tribunal or approach the Centre to constitute an authority under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, vesting it with powers necessary for the adjudication of disputes.

The panel has recommended Rs84 crore as compensation for agricultural loss, Rs20 crore for livelihood loss, Rs30 crore for health loss and Rs62 crore towards expenditure for eco-restoration due to pollution of water resources. The balance should go towards compensating the people for alternative water supply they had to pay for over the years, it said.

N.K. Premachandran, Kerala water resources minister to whom the report was submitted, said the state government would have to study it before taking any action.

Some 800 households that have been protesting against the bottling plant for nearly eight years are likely to benefit if the panel’s recommendations are implemented.

S. Faizi, an environmental scientist and a panel member, said it would take another 20 years for the region’s ecosystem to be restored.

Vilayodi Venugopal, head of the action committee that’s been spearheading the agitation, said the recommendations are a victory for tribals in the area.

“We may have to force the government to accept the report, look at what all needs to be done to implement the report, how it should be done and form a tribunal," he said. “We know that it’s going to be (a) long battle."

The action committee will meet this week to plan future agitations, Venugopal added.