By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
Whizzing along the road in the little Tata Indica, driven prestissimo by Sudhi, we crossed the state line from Tamil Nadu into Kerala, branched off the main road and ended up in the settlement of Plachimada, mostly inhabited by extremely poor people. There on one side of the street was the Coca-Cola plant, among the largest in Asia, and on the other a shack filled with locals eager to impart the news that they were now, as of April 2, in Day 1076 of their struggle against the plant.
Coca-Cola came to India in 1993, looking for water and markets in a country where one third of all villages are without anything approaching adequate water and shortages are growing every day. Indeed India is facing a gigantic water crisis, even as Coca Cola and other companies haul free water to the cities from the countryside and water parks and golf courses metastasize around cities like Mumbai.
The bloom was on neoliberalism back then when Coca-Cola came in, with central and state authorities falling over themselves to lease, sell or simply hand over India's national assets in the name of economic "reform". They still are, but the popular mood has changed.
The apex posterboy of neo-liberalism, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, feted by Bill Clinton, John Wolfenson and Bill Gates and such nabobs of nonsense as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, was tossed out in elections a year ago. Naidu's fans in the west and indeed in India's elites, were thunderstruck. The reason was simple. Below the top tier, hundreds of millions of Indians went to the polls last year to register a furious No. There are hundreds of parables to explain this. Here's one, courtesy of Coca-Cola.
Across India's give-away decade Coca-Cola took over some 22 Indian bottling companies, capturing their marketing and distribution systems and easily beating back various legal assaults for predatory practices to eliminate competition. Senior civil servants and politicians, some of them pocketing covert subventions, made tremulous speeches about the New India. Meanwhile out in the real world of the Indian countryside, Coca-Cola's bottling plants were getting less enthusiastic reviews.
Coca-Cola had sound reasons in zoning in on Plachimada. A rain-shadow region in the heart of Kerala's water belt, it has large underground water deposits. The site Coca-Cola picked was set between two large reservoirs and ten meters south of an irrigation canal. The ground water reserves had apparently showed up on satellite surveys done by the company's prospectors. The Coke site is surrounded by colonies where several hundred poor people live in crowded conditions, with an average holding of four-tenths of an acre. Virtually the sole source of employment is wage labor, usually for no more than 100 to 120 days in the year.
Ushered in by Kerala's present "reform"-minded government, the plant duly got a license from the local council, known as the Perumatty Grama panchayat. Under India's constitution the panchayats have total discretion in such matters. Coca-Cola bought a property of some 40 acres held by a couple of large landowners, built a plant, sank six bore wells, and commenced operations.
Within six months the villagers saw the level of their water drop sharply, even run dry. The water they did draw was awful. It gave some people diarrhea and bouts of dizziness. To wash in it was to get skin rashes,a burning feel on the skin. It left their hair greasy and sticky. The women found that rice and dal did not get cooked but became hard. A thousand families have been directly affected, and well water affected up to a three or four kilometers from the plant.
The locals, mostly indigenous adivasis and dalits had never had much, after allocation of a bit of land from the true, earth-shaking reforms of Kerala's Communist government, democratically elected in 1956. And they had had plenty of good water. On April 22, 2002 the locals commenced peaceful agitation and shut the plant down. Responding to popular pressure, the panchayat rescinded its license to Coca-Cola on August 7,2003. Four days later the local Medical Officer ruled that water in wells near the plant was unfit for human use, a judgement reached by various testing labs months earlier.
All of this was amiably conveyed to us in brisk and vivid detail by the villagers. Then Mylamma, an impressively eloquent woman, led us down a path to one of the local village wells nearby. It was a soundly built square well, some 10 feet from side to side. About five feet from the top we could see the old water line, but no water. Peering twenty feet further down in the semi-darkness we could see a stagnant glint.
Today, in a region known as the rice bowl of Kerala, women in Plachimada have to walk a 4-kilometer round trip to get drinkable water, toting the big vessels on hip or their head. Even better-off folk face ruin. One man said he'd been farming eight acres of rice paddy, hiring 20 workers, but now, with no water for the paddy, he survives on the charity of his son-in-law.
The old village wells had formerly gone down to 150 to 200 feet. The company's bore wells go down to 750 to 1000 feet. As the water table dropped, all manner of toxic matter began to rise too, leaching up to higher levels as the soil dried out.
The whole process would play well on The Simpsons. It has a ghastly comicality to it. When the plant was running at full tilt 85 truck loads rolled out of the plant gates, each load consisting of 550 to 600 cases, 24 bottles to the case, all containing Plachimada's prime asset, water, now enhanced in cash value by Cola's infusions of its syrups.
Also trundling through the gates came 36 lorries a day, each with six 50-gallon drums of sludge from the plant's filtering and bottle cleaning processes, said sludge resembling buff-colored puke in its visual aspect, a white-to-yellow granular sauce blended with a darker garnish of blended fabric, insulating material and other fibrous matter, plus a sulphuric acid smell very unpleasing to the nostrils.
Coca Cola was "giving back" to Plachimada, the give-back taking the form of the toxic sludge, along with profuse daily donations of foul wastewater.
The company told the locals the sludge was good for the land and dumped loads of it in the surrounding fields and on the banks of the irrigation canal, heralding it as free fertilizer. Aside from stinking so badly it made old folk and children sick, people coming in contact with it got rashes and kindred infections and the crops which it was supposed to nourish died.
Lab analysis by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board has shown dangerous levels of cadmium in the sludge. Another report done at Exeter University in England at the request of the BBC Radio 4 (whose reporter John Waite visited Plachimada and broadcast his report in July of 2003) found in water in a well near the plant not only impermissible amounts of cadmium but lead at levels that "could have devastating consequences", particularly for pregnant women. The Exeter lab also found the sludge useless as fertiliser, a finding which did not faze Coca-Cola's Indian vice-president Sunil Gupta who swore the sludge was "absolutely safe" and "good for crops".
Plachimada is in a district, the Perumatti
Panchayat, ruled by the Janata Dal (Secular). M.P. Veerendrakumar is the President of the Kerala state unit of this party and represents the constituency of Kozhikode in the Indian Parliament. Veerendrakumar is also chairman and managing director of Mathrubhumi, a newspaper which sells over a million copies a day in Malayalam, Kerala's language.
Veerendrakumar, a forceful man in his late sixties and a former federal minister, tells me that for the past two years Mathrubhumi has refused to run any ads for Coca-Cola and the company's other brand names drinks such as Mirinda, 7 Up, Sprite, Fanta, Kinley Soda, Thums Up. Veerendrakumar's group includes in its ban ads for Pepsi, which he says has a plant ten kilometers from Plachimada that has produced the same problems. He says his company's net loss of advertising revenue amounts thus far to some 30 million rupees, more than $700,000, a very hefty sum in Kerala, though far, far less as he told India's parliament in Delhi, than what farmers around Plachimada have collectively lost through crop failure consequent on the loss of water.
"The cruel fact", Veerendrakumar told the Indian parliament as he handed over a well-documented report on the toxic outputs of the plant, "is that water from our underground sources is pumped out free and sold to our people to make millions every day, at the same time destroying our environment and damaging the health of our people. For us rivers, dams and water sources are the property of the nation and her people."
The locals won't let the plant reopen, to the fury of Kerala's present pro-Coke government, which has tried, unconstitutionally, to overrule the local council (it told the panchayat it could only spend $5 a day in public money on its case) and hopes the courts will do the right thing and grease Coca-Cola's wheels. Kerala's High Court did just that last week, and the panchayat, helped by private donations, is now taking its cased to India's Supreme Court. K. Krishnan, President of the Perumatti Panchayat, where the Coca-Cola plant is situated, has withstood all blandishments, which is more than can be said about many other individuals.
Drive along almost any road in Kerala and you'll see cocoanut palms. What Keralites term as tender cocoanut water really is good for you. Ask any local rat. A trio of biochemists at the University of Kerala recently put rats on it and their levels of cholesterol and triglycerides sank significantly, with anti-oxidant enzymes putting up a fine show. For the rats dosed on Coca-Cola the tests readings weren't pretty, starting with "short, swollen, ulcerated and broken villi in the intestine and severe nuclear damage".
"What is the use of the Coca-Cola Company," cried Phulwanti Mhase of Kudus village, in Maharashtra state, where women wash clothes in dirty puddles after Hindustan Coca-Cola built a plant there. "These are outsiders. They take our water, filter it and then resell it to us at a price."
Phulwanti is cited (in a very useful pamphlet put out by the All India Democratic Women's Association) as issuing this brisk précis of Marx's Capital from the vantage point of her teashop from which can be descried the outlines of the plant, which churns out sodas including a mineral water called Kinley. Phulwanti has one bottle of Kinley in her store for people passing through, remarking, "I get angry. This is our water and they sell it to us for 12 rupees, which is what a tribal woman would make for eight hours' work."
Taking a leaf out of the self-realization catechism, Coca-Cola flaunts its slogan in Hindi, "Jo chahe ho jahe", meaning "Whatever you want, happens" , translated by the local women as "Jo Coke chahe ho jahe", "Whatever Coke wants, happens."
But not in Plachimada.