New Kerala line: Coke bad, pepsi good

The CPM-led Left Front government in Kerala shut the Coca-Cola plant in Palakkad as it was damaging the environment. Why is it not applying the same rules to Pepsico?

KA Shaji/Palakkad

Two years ago, the CPM, CPI and other Left parties in Kerala were clear about who was responsible for the ground water depletion and contamination, and the rising temperatures in Palakkad district. They blamed Coca-Cola, the multinational carbonated drinks major and a perennial target of “anti-imperialism” protesters.
The Coca-Cola bottling plant, situated in the Plachimada locality of the Perumatty village panchayat in Palakkad, gained international attention after the Left launched an agitation accusing it of large-scale extraction and pollution of ground water. Coca-Cola caved in and shut the plant in 2004.
Which raises the question: if the Coca-Cola plant was the main culprit behind the water scarcity there, why is Palakkad district still facing acute water shortage? Many blame the double standards of the CPM, which heads the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala.
For some reason, the CPM seems to be much more accommodative towards Coca-Cola’s arch rival Pepsico. In addition to its cola plant, Pepsico bottles its mineral water at Wise Park, an industrial area situated in Kanjikode in the district.
“For the first time, animals are looking for new sources of water as existing sources are drying out,” says R. Bimal, a Range Officer at the Silent Valley National Park. It is almost April, but the mercury has already shot up to an unprecedented 44 degree Celsius. Ground water levels have plunged and paddy cultivation is in disarray. Most water bodies have dried up.
The region was known as the rice bowl of Kerala, but things began to change with the onset of liberalisation in the early 1990s. A number of industries, all with high requirement of fresh water, set up units here — Pepsico, Coca-Cola, beer companies and scrap iron smelters (there are now 48 of these in the district).
“When it was operational, the Coca-Cola factory consumed seven to 15 lakh litres of ground water each day. Now, Pepsico is consuming about 15 to 25 lakh litres of ground water per day in an area very close to Plachimada. In addition, the Pepsi plant has the right to take about 1.75 lakh litres of water from the Malampuzha irrigation dam on river Bharathapuzha every day,” says Tony Kulavayalil, a Palakkad-based environmental activist. The Pepsico office at Kanjikode near Palakkad refused to comment, but Kerala Water Authority officials corroborated the figures.
The previous ldf government, headed by then Chief Minister EK Nayanar, gave a “single window” clearance to both Coca-Cola and Pepsico to set up their plants without a preliminary environmental impact assessment. No one knows how many borewells are operational inside the Pepsico plant. “Not even journalists are permitted to enter the Pepsico factory. Security people roughed up photographers when they tried to take pictures of the factory. They say they have only seven bore wells. However, we have no checking mechanism in place. It’s a real wonder why the CPM is mum on the dictatorial attitude of the factory,” said NP Jayan, a photojournalist.
“Coca-Cola ruined Plachimada and its surroundings. But Pepsi is more guilty and its unit at Kanjikode still functions under the patronage of the ldf government. There may be other reasons also for the water woes of Palakkad. But the soft drink giants, the half-a-dozen beer factories and the scrap-iron smelting factories are responsible too,” says K. Sethumadhavan, an activist.
Pepsico also has the backing of other constituents in the ruling Left coalition, like the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). In February, Kerala’s Water Resources Minister NK Premachandran of the RSP ordered a study to find out the groundwater level in all the development blocks in Kerala. The Malampuzha development block, where Pepsico and the smelting units are situated, is the only development block exempted from the study.
The state revenue department, headed by a CPI member, sealed the Pepsi factory in mid-March for arrears amounting to Rs 2 crore. But the factory reopened within 24 hours, even though the company paid only half the amount.
E. Suresh is the president of Pudussery village panchayat, the site of the Pepsi plant. He belongs to the CPM and says that accommodation with Pepsico is out of question. “The panchayat is still fighting a number of cases against Pepsi in various courts,” he says. He admits that the panchayat stands no chance against Pepsico, which has hired top lawyers. But he has no answer when asked why the state’s local administration department, headed by CPM’s Paloli Mohammed Kutty, was not helping them. He also can’t explain why there were no popular protests in Kanjikode against Pepsico as had been the case in Plachimada against Coca-Cola.
“The Coca-Cola factory was inside a thickly populated village. But Pepsi is located in an industrial belt and it has arrived through the green channel. So the government has a limited role in enforcing regulations on it. But when it comes to the water exploitation, it is number one,” says Sreevatsan, local secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, which is affiliated with the CPM.
“It is sad to say that Pepsi is reaping profits in the same area while Coke has almost left the scene. The progressive movements must introspect deeply,” says M. Krishnan, leader of the Janata Dal Secular (Surendra Mohan faction) and past president of Perumatti panchayat.

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