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Kerala government panel damns Coca-Cola's Plachimada operations news
22 March 2010

A report submitted by a high-level committee appointed by the Kerala government said the operations of the Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada in Palakkad district in the state has adversely affected the availability of water, left borewells and shallow open wells dry and severely affected water quality in the area.

The toxic chemicals dumped by the factory all around, including in the paddy fields, contaminated the soil and ground water, making land unsuitable for cultivation, the report submitted to state minister for water resources N K Premachandran said.

The damaging report, prepared by the committee headed by state chief secretary K Jayakumar, said Coca-Cola is liable to pay damages worth a minimum Rs216.26 crore.

Plachimda, in Kerala's rice bowl Palakkad, where the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCBPL) factory was set up, had been classified 'arable'. The villagers are predominantly landless agricultural labourers with almost 80 per cent of the population depending on agriculture.

A part of the district falling in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats, though, is drought prone.

"It is natural that an industrial plant with heavy consumption of water set up in a socially and economically backward and drought prone area would disrupt the ecological balance and adversely affect the life and livelihood of the people," the report said.

The Coca-Cola factory, situated in an area of around 34 acres of land, has been drawing water from 6 bore wells and 2 open wells, the report observed.

The factory was reported to be drawing ground water of around 5 lakh litres a day on an average and up to 6.35 lakh litres at peak times, the report said quoting a 2002 report by  RN Athavale, a consultant for Coca-Cola.

The interim report said the Plachimada plant of Coca-Cola was using roughly 5 lakh litres per day and that the plant released waste water to the tune of 1.5 to 3 lakh litres each day.

This, the report pointed out, has adversely affected the availability of water and increased salinity and hardness of water.

The toxic chemicals dumped by the factory all around, including the paddy fields, contaminated the soil and ground water, making land unsuitable for cultivation.

The company had obtained a licence from Perumatty grama panchayat for installing a 2,600 HP electric motor for running the Coca-Cola bottling plant, but had not obtained a licence from the Panchayat for installing motor for drawing water.

The report said the operation of the factory has caused excessive depletion of the groundwater resource. "We have also found that it has caused pollution of the ground water and it will take years to mitigate the pollution."

"Besides the problems created by drawal of huge quantity of water, the solid waste (ETP sludge) from the factory exacerbated the crisis. Part of this material was dumped in landfill sites within the factory compound. Large quantities of it were trucked out and disposed of in the farmlands all around and far off places. The factory had impressed upon the peasants that it was good manure," the report said.

"The sludge had no nitrogen content but dangerous levels of cadmium and high levels of lead makes it a hazardous waste. Too much of cadmium in the soil has lead to the leaching into the wells. The presence of excess cadmium in the farmland has lead to nutrient imbalance in the soil. The farmlands, which had apparently very good soil structure, got deteriorated in due course, the report observed.

Farm yields have declined steeply to less than half the pre-2000 levels while the number of coconut palms assigned for toddy tapping declined to nearly half during this period.

Ninety-one per cent of the farming households saw a drastic reduction in crop productivity and their agricultural incomes. This in turn has reduced employment of hired labour.

Consequently, the report said, the number of days of employment of agricultural labour dwindled. In fact, 916 workers moved to other villages in search of work of which 72 per cent experienced severe unemployment since 2000.

Coca-Cola had forced migration upon most of them, the report found.

The increase in the levels of copper, cadmium, lead and chromium to several times above the permissible level suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO), had also contaminated fodder and water in Plachimada and surrounding areas.

The Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) has found that the toxicity in the fodder, milk, meat and egg samples collected from Plachimada area was the main reason for the loss of productive capacity of animals and birds.

Production of milk, meat and egg declined, which in turn affected the household income and health of the people, it noted.

There is abundant evidence to conclude that the operation of the plant has exacerbated the drinking water crisis of the Plachimada panchayat by excessive pumping and over-extraction of ground water. Further, it polluted drinking water by its careless and irresponsible disposal of sludge and treated effluents, the report said.

Particularly hard hit are the dalits, tribals, women and children of the surrounding area. As the water supply deteriorated, the women had to travel about 5 km to fetch drinking water. This has resulted in the loss of wages for these women. Serious damage caused by the contamination of aquifers and springs had adversely affected agriculture yield and productivity, it noted.

While the dumping of waste in paddy fields had affected soil and water quality the change in the company's practice of pumping dirty water into dry bore holes that had been drilled on the site for the disposal of solid waste have only helped to pollute the aquifers.

The district medical officer of Plachimada had advised people living in the area as far back as in 2003 that their water was polluted and unfit for consumption.

The natural water resource at Plachimada has been ruined beyond immediate replenishment. It will take decades for natural replenishment.

At present water in the open wells in the area, which were the sources of drinking water, is unfit for drinking. All these point to the gross violation of pollution control laws, basic human rights and the right to life as guaranteed in Art. 21 of the Constitution of India, the report said.

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Kerala government panel damns Coca-Cola's Plachimada operations