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27 February, 2012

Cola giant’s shadow over Kerala law

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The poor villagers of Kerala were able to pack off a cola giant who made their lives hell but getting it to compensate them for the losses they suffered is proving to be a difficult task.

The Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, a subsidiary of the US soft drinks major, set up a bottling plant in the Palakkad district in 2000 when the state was ruled by the Left Democratic Front headed by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the most vocal critics of globalisation. It made life so miserable for the residents of Plachimada, a predominantly tribal area, and nearby areas that within two years they began a campaign against it under the leadership of Mayilamma, an elderly woman. Civil society groups rallied behind them. Some political parties also backed their struggle. The attention of the foreign media and human rights groups gave a fillip to their movement.

The two main charges against the company were overexploitation of groundwater resulting in drying up of the villagers’ water sources and dumping of hazardous solid waste leading to pollution of soil and water.

Realising the gravity of the situation, the Perumatty panchayat and the state pollution control board moved against the mighty corporation, forcing it to suspend operations. The state government appointed a high-powered committee to study the effect of the working of the company and estimate the damage it had caused.

The committee found that the company had caused environmental degradation through over-extraction of groundwater and irresponsible disposal of sludge which contained metals like cadmium, lead and chromium. Its activities had resulted in acute scarcity of water, decline in agriculture and fall in output of milk, meat and eggs.

It held the company responsible for health problems like skin diseases and breathing difficulties and low birth-weight of newborns. Social, economic and health problems had led to children dropping out of school.

The committee assessed the damage caused by the company at more than Rs 2 billion and suggested that it must be asked to compensate the villagers in keeping with the polluter-must-pay principle. 

Following this, the state government got the legislature to adopt a Bill to set up a tribunal with judicial powers to adjudicate on the villagers’ claims against the company. A year later, the Bill is yet to become law. Thereby hangs a tale of corporate power stymieing popular will through backdoor manoeuvres.

Since the measure contains some provisions which require the Centre’s approval, the Governor referred the Bill to the President for assent. The Union Home Ministry, which has to advise the President in the matter, sent it to the various other ministries to ascertain if they have any objection to its provisions. 

Under the rules the Home Ministry does not have to wait for more than six weeks for the responses. Information gathered by activists invoking the Right to Information Act shows that instead of proceeding with the Bill after the stipulated period, the ministry kept sending reminders.

There is more to the Centre’s dilatory tactics than meets the eye. While the Home Ministry was going through the bureaucratic exercise of sending reminders, the company sent to it the opinion of two senior lawyers raising questions about the state legislature’s competence to pass the measure. The government has its own legal advisers and it is not customary to entertain the opinion of lawyers engaged by an aggrieved company, which, of course, has the right to challenge the Bill in court once it becomes the law.

With great solicitude for the company, the Home Ministry sought the Kerala government’s response to the objections raised by lawyers on its behalf. Three months ago the state government replied to its communication. Most of the central departments consulted have already made it known that they have no objections to the proposed law. Yet the Home Ministry is sitting tight on the Bill. 

An unseen force at work is the United States government. When the Kerala government was considering the bill, US diplomats made several visits to the state capital to dissuade it from going ahead, arguing such legislation would adversely impact India’s efforts to attract foreign investment.

The Indian government, which is yet to live down the ignominy of its failure to bring to justice the company responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, will be sending a wrong message to the world about its interest in the wellbeing of its citizens if it lets Coca-Cola off the hook succumbing to pressure. The gas leak at Bhopal had caused more than 3,000 deaths immediately and about 20,000 later on. According to relief workers, only nine per cent of the acknowledged victims of the tragedy, one of the worst in industrial history, have received any compensation so far.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 27, 2012

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