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Kerala sees revival of campaign against beverage makers

Kerala sees revival of campaign against beverage makers

Kochi: The rice-growing, drought-prone district of Palakkad in Kerala is starting to see a revival of protests over water against beverage makers PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd and Coca-Cola India Pvt. Ltd. The campaign is set to move in May to Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital.

Some 400 protestors, including poets and writers, marched to the Palakkad district collectorate on Monday and staged a demonstration demanding the closure of PepsiCo’s plant in Pudussery, according to the organizers.

A sit-in protest will be staged in front of the government secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram on 5 May when the campaigners will meet chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan, said Suresh Raj, convenor of the Pepsi Virudha Samara Samiti that’s spearheading the agitation.

The Kerala legislature’s subject committee, headed by state water resources minister N.K. Premachandran, recommended a month ago that the drawing of water by Pepsico Holdings Pvt Ltd in the area should be reduced to 234,000 litres daily, from 700,000 litres, amid concerns over the depletion of the groundwater table in the area.

The agitation against the Pepsi bottler, which is located over a 750-acre campus, started in 1998 but is gaining momentum only now in the wake of the committee’s report.

“The government should conduct studies not only on the water quality in the area, which has not been done so far, but also look into whether resources like wells and ponds in the vicinity were being polluted since the committee report clearly states that water pollution by the plant cannot be ruled out though there is the need for a detailed study," Raj told Mint on the eve of the demonstration.

PepsiCo denied the allegations in an emailed statement. “An independent study in 2009 conducted by a renowned research institute concluded that the impact of PepsiCo’s Palakkad plant on the depleting ground water level in the area is insignificant," it said.

PepsiCo uses only 0.7% of the total annual water consumption in the area and groundwater use by the plant is negligible relative to other users, the statement said.

In Plachimada village—which has become a rallying point for water rights activists across the country—protestors are targeting a bottling plant of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Ltd in a campaign that entered the ninth year on Thursday.

They are demanding government action on the report of an expert panel that a month ago recommended that Rs216.26 crore in compensation be extracted from the company.

“We will now have to shift our agitation platform to the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram and stage dharnas and lead marches to the government secretariat there to make the powers that be act," said Vilayodi Venugopal, head of a committee spearheading the agitation.

The Plachimada agitators want the government to put in place immediately a claims tribunal as proposed by the expert committee and initiate the implementation process for eco-restoration and compensation for health hazards caused by deterioration of water quality and contamination by toxic waste, agricultural and wage loss and lost educational opportunities.

“The Plachimada agitation and the findings of the assembly committee on Pepsi have made things turn in favour of the agitators and from Monday with the protest meeting in front of the district collectorate, it will (be) stormy days ahead," said R. Ajayan, patron of the Pepsi Virudha Samara Samiti and convenor of the Plachimada solidarity committee.

The bottling plant on an average extracted 500,000 litres of water daily during its operation between 2000 and 2004 after which the local panchayat (village council) declined to renew its licence in the wake of widespread protests, effectively shutting operations.

A month ago, after the report was submitted, the company had said in an email: “Based on scientific evaluation, our Palakkad plant operations have not been shown to be the cause of local watershed issues. 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."

Members of the expert panel that issued the recommendations say necessary legislation to form a claims tribunal will help prevent long-drawn battles in court.

“The tribunal will become the single point where these issues can be challenged by the company," says S. Faizi, environmental scientist and panel member.


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