Coca cola in the Dock; Liable to Pay Damages

PN Venugopal


In what could be the scene one of the last act of the environmental tragedy of Plachimada, a High Power committee set up by the Kerala government has indicted the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCBPL) for causing incalculable harm to the ecology and to the people of Plachimada. The overall money value of the damage has been assessed by the committee at Rs 216.26 crores. The committee has recommended the setting up of a tribunal with judicial powers for making Coca Cola pay individual claims.

Plachimada, a predominantly adivasi village in Perumatty Gram Panchayat in Kerala’s Palakkad district had over the last one decade become synonymous with the fight of the common people against mindless corporate exploitation and corruption of natural resources. The coke bottling plant which commenced functioning in March 2000 with much fanfare, began to draw the wrath of the local people and environmental activists soon after, with the water level in the wells in the village going down drastically as the company was drawing more than five lakh litres of water from its ground water wells and open wells. It took some more time for all concerned, including the Panchayat to comprehend the graver issues involved; the environmental pollution caused by the effluents of the factory. The company was producing one liter cola from four litres of water, leaving behind 2.7 litres of wastewater and solid wastes. The water of the village was polluted and the solid waste contained hazardous substances like chromium, cadmium and lead. Very soon the water sources in the Panchayat were polluted and this in turn caused severe health problems. However, the company continued to hoodwink the gullible people and went even to the extent of distributing the solid waste to the farmers as fertilizers, thus harming the farmlands too.

The agitation that followed was quite spontaneous and attracted worldwide attention. It also threw up unlikely leaders like Mayilamma, an illiterate adivasi woman, who rubbed shoulders with Vandana Shiva, Medha Patkar and others during the long agitation and collapsed and died three years ago, at once a victim and symbol of resistance against corporate marauding.

The struggle against coca cola in Plachimada posed several cardinal questions to the civil society and the political-judicial system of the country. Who is the owner of groundwater and to what extent? Who has the right to decide on the use of the local natural resources, the local body, state government, or the central government? In a predominantly agrarian society, the priority for using water should go to agriculture or to industry? How to make the polluter pay?

It is not as if the 13 member High Power Committee, comprising of directors of various departments like agriculture, animal husbandry, groundwater, deans of kerala agricultural university, state pollution control board, an environmental expert, a retired judge and headed by K.Jayakumar, Additional Chief Secretary to the state government, has come out with the answers to these questions. The mandate given to them was only to investigate whether the functioning of coca cola has resulted in the alleged violations and if so the money value of the damage caused.

The High Power Committee held eight meetings and conducted a public hearing at Perumatty Panchayat Office. The public hearing was attended by affected people of the locality, voluntary workers, concerned citizens and Panchayat representatives. The Committee reportedly evaluated all the available reports on Plachimada and two Panel discussions with experts were also organized. The Committee also visited Plachimada.

Findings of the committee

The Coca Cola Company caused environmental degradation by over extraction of ground water and irresponsible disposal of sludge. The water sources of the area have been affected and the water scarcity has become more acute.

The Company misguided the farmers by passing off the sludge as manure, and is responsible for the soil degradation, water contamination and the consequent loss of agriculture.

There has been a steady decline in the agriculture production in the area and the production of milk, meat and eggs declined

Metals like cadmium, lead and chromium have been detected in the sludge and this has affected the health of the people with skin ailments, breathing problems and other debilities increasing.

Low birth weight of children has also been noticed.

Women have to fetch drinking water from far off places and this has deprived them of their wages.

Children have dropped out of the school on account of the social, health and economic factors caused by the pollution.

The Grama Panchayat has been providing drinking water in tankers ever since the wells and water bodies have been rendered useless by the Company.

The Coca Cola Company is guilty under several laws in force.


Even though there are sufficient provisions under the existing laws to claim compensation from the Company under the ‘polluter pays principle’, it is desirable to set up a dedicated institution to adjudicate the individual claims. This could either be a Tribunal under Art. 323 B of the Constitution of India to be legislated by the state legislature, or an Authority under section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to be created by the Central Government. The tribunal / authority can then assess the individual claims and the polluter company made to pay it.

Coca cola has, predictably so, debunked the report as based on gross ‘assumptions’. In fact they had questioned the very validity and justification of the High Power Committee. However, the report has been welcomed by the Kerala society and there have not been any audible criticism of the report from any quarters. On the other hand, a squabble has commenced among the various organizations and political parties that were involved in the struggle, as to whom the credit goes. A rush for the spoils seems to have pushed the necessary analysis of the report and its implications to the backburner.

The first and foremost question the report provokes is whether it has enough material evidences to put the Coke on the dock in a court of law or a judicially empowered tribunal. Most of the findings of the High Power committee was there already in the public domain and there is nothing new. Yes, the committee has quantified the damages in rupee terms. But on what basis? “Using objective as well as well grounded yardsticks, the Committee has calculated the overall money value of the damages.” The committee does not claim that the amount of compensation is final or absolute. “It is only indicative in nature. Actual compensation will have to be calculated by an Authority duly set up for this purpose.”

Where does it leave the individual claimants? “Though the Committee received a large number of petitions, individual claims have not been evaluated for arriving at the compensation, which is beyond the mandate of the Committee.” Does it not mean that the onus of proving the responsibility and liability of the mighty corporate is on the frail individual claimant?

The constitution of the High Power Committee also is not beyond criticism. 11 of the 13 members are connected to the government, in one way or another. Surely not a formula for ensuring the credibility of a report that will certainly be put under the scanner? Especially when at least a few of them are heads of departments, which from the very inception of the Coke company in Plachimada, gave from time to time, all the required approvals and clearances at the appropriate junctures for the smooth functioning of the bottling plant or did not intervene at the appropriate time?

A peripheral review of the role of just one agency, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) will suffice. In the year 2000, KSPCB gives consent to the Coke company to discharge trade effluent not exceeding eight lakhs litres “into land for irrigation.” The tolerance limits of the effluent is also given and it is stipulated that the company report the tolerance limits every two months. The consent was till 31.12 2001, but in 2002 the KSPCB renews it till 31.12.2004 quite oblivious of the all the grave damages being committed to Plachimada and its people. Seven months after the factory ceased to operate, the PCB asks the company to install Reverse Osmosis Systems, that too compelled by the directions of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee. In between, in August 2003, the PCB had written to the company to stop supply of solid waste to the farmers, well after the exposure by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that there are hazardous wastes in the sludge, including a concentration of cadmium. It takes one more year (August 2004) for the PCB to ask the company to remove the so called ‘fertilisers’ from the farm lands and store it in a secured land fill. And finally, in January 2010, almost six years after the bottling plant ceased to function, the KSPCB nudged itself to wake up to the fact that the Effluent Treatment Plant is not working and that the solid waste stored there is a hazard and hence should be moved to the Common Treatment Disposal Facility at Ambalamedu, Ernakulam.

What moral/ethical, legal voice does the KSPCB has, to sit on judgment on the damage wrought by the Coca cola company? Are they not also liable to bear the damages and to be tried as accomplice?

So, all in all, the scramble for spoils is certainly premature. Many more scenes of intrigues, treachery too perhaps, stories of woes certainly, remain to be enacted before the curtains are down for the Plachimada saga.

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Cost of Damage

Agriculture loss:Rs. 84. 16 crores
Health damages:Rs. 30. 00 crores
Cost of providing water: Rs. 20.00 crores
Wage loss and opportunity cost: Rs. 20.00 crores
Cost of pollution of the water resources: Rs. 62.10 crores
Total: Rs. 216.26 crores

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