Community succeeds in shutting Indian Coke bottling plant

Posted: 1 September 2005

Due to water contamination and supply issues, the Coca-Cola company in India has been ordered to "stop production of all kinds of products with immediate effect" at its bottling plant in Plachimada, in the southern state of Kerala.

The Kerala State Pollution Control Board Friday ordered the company to halt operations because it could not answer the board's questions about the presence of the heavy metal cadmium in sludge from the bottling plant that was offered as fertilizer to local farmers.

Women demonstrating in front of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada. January 2004(Photo courtesy Kairos)
Women demonstrating in front of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada. January 2004(Photo courtesy Kairos)
Women demonstrating for their right to clean water in front of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada. January 2004(Photo courtesy Kairos)
In its order, the Pollution Control Board said the company's reply to its July 1 notice seeking a clarification on the source of cadmium in the sludge discharged by the plant was not satisfactory.

"Although the company admits that cadmium is present in the sludge, no explanation has been offered about its source. It was detected by the board that due to cadmium in the effluent as well as the sludge, the groundwater in the vicinity was found contaminated," the order said.

The board also said that despite specific instructions to provide drinking water facility to people in the affected areas as per the directive of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, the company had not done it.

The board further faulted Coca-Cola for not abiding by two previous orders. The company was supposed to install a reverse osmosis system to treat its wastewater effluent and it was supposed to provide piped drinking water to community members affected by the company's extraction of water.

The Plachimada plant had resumed on a trial basis August 8 after being shut down since March 2004 because of community opposition.

"We welcome the order of the Pollution Control Board which shuts the factory down," said R. Ajayan of the Plachimada Solidarity Committee which approached the health minister and the chairman of the Kerala Pollution Control Board to get the order.

"Now we have to continue to work to with the state government to ensure that Coca-Cola abides by the order and there are no more violations from the company," Ajayan said.

Contaminated water

The Plachimada community has complained for years of severe water shortages and polluted groundwater and soil, which is says is a direct result of Coca-Cola's operations.

Some protests have been violent, including a march held on India's 58th anniversary of independence from British rule. On August 15, some 100 activists from Yuvajana Vedi, youth wing of the Communist Party of India - Marxist Leninist, and their allies marched to Coca-Cola's factory gates in Plachimada, demanding that the bottling plant shut down permanently.

The protesters were stopped about 100 meters (400 feet) from the factory gates, and beaten by police with batons. Four activists were hospitalized with head injuries. Another 43 activists were held in custody, including a 16 year old girl who has been transferred to juvenile home.

"We condemn the violence used by the police," Vilayodi Venugopal of the Anti-Coca-Cola Struggle Committee told the rally in front of the Plachimada plant. "We are committed to ensuring that this plant never opens again."

Protests are coming from more official quarters as well. The state government of Kerala has announced that it will also challenge Coca-Cola's right to extract water from the common groundwater resource.

"We welcome the actions by the state agencies in Kerala to stop the arrogance and criminal activities of the Coca-Cola company," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization. "These actions are major victories for the community of Plachimada, which has all along been demanding that the state do what it is supposed to do - safeguard the interests of the community."

Water shortages

The company is also the target of local campaigns in three other communities, with tens of thousands of people mobilizing to challenge the company for creating severe water shortages and pollution.

In a related development, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau in Kerala raided the residences of former Pollution Control Board member-secretary K.V. Indulal in three cities in Kerala on August 11. The bureau is investigating Indulal for accepting bribes while he was a member of the Pollution Control Board.

Coca-Cola campaign activists have maintained that Indulal was influenced by the Coca-Cola company when, in 2003, he visited Plachimada to investigate groundwater pollution by the company. At that time, Indulal issued statement that the pollution was not "beyond tolerable limits."

A sign in Plachimada protests Coca-Cola's extraction of water. January 2005. Photo: India Resource Center
A sign in Plachimada protests Coca-Cola's extraction of water. January 2005. Photo: India Resource Center
A sign in Plachimada protests Coca-Cola's extraction of water. January 2005. (Photo courtesy India Resource Center)
But more recent investigations by both the Kerala Pollution Control Board as well as the British Broadcasting Corporation had found high levels of pollution in the area, and a subsequent Kerala Pollution Control Board study confirmed high levels of cadmium.

Coca-Cola campaign activists had accused Indulal of "suppressing evidence and taking bribes in order to favor the Coca-Cola company." Their accusations resulted in the investigation and action by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau.

The Coca-Cola system in India comprises 25 wholly owned bottling operations and another 24 franchisee owned bottling operations

But Coca-Cola's sales have dropped 14 percent in the last quarter (April-June) in India, and the company is undergoing major reorganization in the country, including a change in the top leadership, in an effort to contain the growing opposition.

Coca-Cola could not be reached for comment on the Kerala Pollution Control Board's shut down order, but in general the company says all 25 of the India Division's company owned bottling plants have gained the international standard ISO 14001 Environment Management System certificate.

The company says on its website that Coca-Cola India has made "significant investments to build and continually improve its business in India, including new production facilities, wastewater treatment plants, distribution systems and marketing equipment."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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