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Coca-Cola in a quagmire as CPI(M), Janata Dal lock horns news
Jays Jacob
26 April 2003

Kochi: The multinational Coca-Cola is caught in a political crossfire between the Communist Party of Indian (Marxist) and the Janata Dal in Chittur near Palakkad.

In this political one-upmanship, the real victims are the more than 5,000 people directly and indirectly employed by the firm and those running 33,000 outlets of the soft drink giant in the Kerala.

The grama panchayat, ruled by the Janata Dal, a constituent of the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF), has been forced to cancel the licence given to the factory at Plachimada in 1999 on the plea that the extraction of excess groundwater by the firm has resulted in water shortage in the area, affecting the local people. But the company has challenged the action of the local body and obtained a status quo order from the Kerala High Court.

Janata Dal leaders say the main reason for their taking such an extreme step is the campaign being run against the party secretary-general, K Krishnankutty, who holds the Dal fort in Chittur. The CPI(M) and the Janata Dal have been engaged in a fight for political space in Chittur for the last many years. Recent clashes have resulted in the death of a Janata Dal worker and the relations between the two coalition partners are so bad that they do not see eye to eye.

But the real fight started after the last assembly elections when Krishnankutty lost the election to K Achuthan of the Congress. The Janata Dal felt that the CPI(M) did not help it in the election campaign and that some of its votes were cast on the other side.

The Perumatty grama panchayat president, A Krishnan of the Janata Dal, says the panchayat gave the licence to the soft drink major when the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Company was brought to the state by the then LDF government. The panchayat is getting Rs 9.5 lakh a year as professional and building tax from the company. More than 500 people of this most backward panchayat are employed in the company.

According to Krishnankutty, the panchayat has decided to cancel the licence when a campaign had been launched against the party for more than a year that the factory had been given the nod despite people facing water shortage because of the "consideration" the party got from Coke. The agitation in front of the factory is not run by any political parties but by a couple of former Naxalite activists.

The Janata Dal pointed out that the CPI(M), which is demanding the closure of the multinational company in the name of exploitation of groundwater and the boycott of goods produced by American companies, has not asked the Pudussery panchayat ruled by it to cancel the licence given to Pepsi and five other beverage units at Kanjikkode.

The plant manager, N Janardhan, says the company has not violated any provisions of the Panchayati Raj Act. "We had applied for the renewal of licence on 26 February 2003. If there is no action within 30 days it is deemed as renewed. We had also paid the renewal fee and if there were any objections the panchayat should have replied before 26 March. But it had chose to issue a show-cause notice on 9 April 2003. The company had, in fact, applied for power and water connections to the state government. We have come to set up the unit on the assurance that all infrastructure facilities would be given to us. The government should have given us water from the Mulathara dam, which is just 4 km away. An IMFL [Indian-made foreign liquor ]plant is given water from there."

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Ground Water Department is learnt to have found that there is depletion of groundwater in the area. But it cannot be said that this is due to the water extraction by the Cola firm alone. It is found that there are 200 borewells in a radius of 6 kms near the factory at Plachimada. This could also be a reason for the depletion of groundwater, particularly during summer.

The area is a drought-prone one and Chittur taluk depends on the inter-state Parambikulam-Aliyar Project (PAP) for its water. But the state's failure to get its due share from the PAP and the absence of any water storage facility compound the problem. The company authorities say it is now successfully implementing rainwater harvesting. At least 71,760 kilolitres of water is generated from 35 acres of the company premises every year.

The chairman of the National Farmers Protection Committee, K Ravikumar, says having given the company a red-carpet welcome once, it is political opportunism to oppose it now. "Trans-national corporations have to be opposed with an equally competent local system which could challenge the philosophy of economic colonialism itself. Let us not approach the problems with a tunnel vision, for ultimately we have to coexist with the necessary evil."


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Coca-Cola in a quagmire as CPI(M), Janata Dal lock horns