Making Coca-Cola pay

By Savvy Soumya Misra

Kerala passes law to secure compensation for victims of bottling plant

Kerala’s Left Front government has passed a law this year in February to secure compensation for people affected by Coca-Cola’s bottling operations at Plachimada in Palakkad district. The law provides for a three-member tribunal which will adjudicate on claims for compensating losses resulting from the company’s operations, which include groundwater pollution and depletion, loss of agricultural land, loss of jobs and health problems. The tribunal will have powers equal to that of a civil court and can issue summons and examine witnesses.

The Coca-Cola plant had been closed down in March 2004 following a High Court order and protests by Plachimada residents whose wells and ponds went dry. Over-extraction of groundwater by the company, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverage Pvt Ltd, had caused severe environmental and soil degradation. The bottling plant’s effluents had contaminated water in Perumatty and Pattancherry gram panchayats of Plachimada, leading to skin ailments, breathing problems and debility.

The Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Act is a historic legislation that “sets a precedence for companies that think depletion of natural resources is alright,” says S Faizi, environmentalist and member of the Plachimada high-powered committee. The Act is based on the recommendations of the committee, which submitted its report in March 2010.

The committee, formed by the state government on the recommendation of the state groundwater board in 2009, had assessed the damage caused in and around the bottling plant at over Rs 216 crore. The committee, headed by additional chief secretary K Jayakumar, has based its recommendations on the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

The Act now legally binds Coca-Cola to follow the directives of the tribunal. The high-powered committee had said that in its four years of operation in Plachimada, Coca-Cola had violated eight laws, including the Water Act of 1974, the Environment Protection Act of 1986 and the Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules of 1989. Violation of these laws is sufficient ground to initiate prosecution.

Coca-Cola, understandably, is miffed. It has called the bill a populist measure cleared in haste on the last day of the Assembly to garner votes in the forthcoming elections. Said a company spokesperson: “We are disappointed with the bill and the flawed process on which it is based.”