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Message in a Bottle | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

Message in a Bottle

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Plachimada, Kerala

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you.

Whizzing along the road in the little Tata Indica, driven prestissimo by the imperturbable Sudhi, we crossed the state line from Tamil Nadu into Kerala, branched off the main road and ended up in the settlement of Plachimada, mostly inhabited by extremely poor people. There on one side of the street was the Coca-Cola plant, among the company's largest in Asia, and on the other a shack filled with locals eager to impart the news that they were now, as of April 2, in Day 1,076 of their struggle against the plant.

Coca-Cola came to India in 1993, looking for water and markets in a country where 170 million people have no access to drinking water, with shortages growing daily. The bloom was on neoliberalism back then, with central and state authorities falling over themselves to lease, sell or simply hand over India's assets to multinationals in the name of economic "reform."

Coca-Cola had sound reasons for coming to Plachimada, which has large underground water deposits. The site Coca-Cola picked is between two large reservoirs and ten yards south of an irrigation canal. Coke's plot is surrounded by colonies inhabited by several hundred poor people with an average holding of four-tenths of an acre. Virtually the sole source of employment is wage labor, usually for no more than 100 to 120 days in the year.

Ushered in by Kerala's present "reform"-minded government, the plant duly got a license from the local council, known as the Perumatty Grama Panchayat. Under India's constitution panchayats have total discretion in such matters. Coca-Cola bought a property of some forty acres held by a couple of large landowners, built a plant, sank six bore wells and commenced operations in March 2000.

Within six months the villagers saw the level of their water drop sharply, and the water they did draw was awful. It gave some people diarrhea and bouts of dizziness. To wash in it was to get skin rashes, a burning feel on the skin. It left their hair greasy and sticky. The women found that rice and dal did not get cooked but became hard. A thousand families were directly affected, and well water was tainted a considerable distance from the plant.

The locals, mostly very low in caste status, had never had much beyond good water and a bit of land from the true earth-shaking reforms of Kerala's Communist government, democratically elected in 1957 and evicted two years later with US assistance by a central government terrified by the threat of a good example. On April 22, 2002, the locals commenced peaceful agitation that shut the plant down. Responding to popular pressure, the panchayat rescinded its license to Coca-Cola on August 7, 2003.

All of this was amiably conveyed to us in brisk and vivid detail by the villagers. Then Mylamma, an impressive woman, led us down a path to one of the local wells. It was a soundly built square well, some ten feet from side to side. About five feet from the top we could see the old water line, but no water. Peering twenty feet farther down in the semidarkness, we could see a stagnant glint. Today, in a region known as the rice bowl of Kerala, women have to walk a two-and-a-half-mile round trip to get drinkable water, toting big plastic vessels on their hip or head. Even better-off folk face ruin.

The whole process would play well on The Simpsons. It has a ghastly symmetry to it. When the plant was running at full tilt, eighty-five truckloads rolled out of the plant gates, each load consisting of 550 to 600 cases, twenty-four bottles to the case, all containing Plachimada's prime asset, water, now enhanced in cash value by Coca-Cola's infusions of its syrups.

Coca-Cola certainly "gave back" to Plachimada, in the form of profuse daily donations of foul wastewater and stinking toxic sludge from the plant's filtering and bottle-cleaning processes. The company told the locals the sludge was good for them, dumping loads of it in the surrounding fields and on the banks of the irrigation canal and heralding it as free fertilizer. Aside from stinking so badly it made old folk and children sick, people coming into contact with it got rashes and kindred infections, and the crops that it was supposed to nourish died. Several lab analyses done in India and Britain have found the sludge toxic with cadmium and lead and useless as fertilizer, a finding that did not faze Coca-Cola's Indian vice president, Sunil Gupta, who swore the sludge was "absolutely safe" and "good for crops."

Plachimada's member of Parliament in Delhi is Veerendra Kumar, who is also chairman and managing director of Mathrubhumi, a newspaper that sells over a million copies a day in Malayalam, Kerala's language. Kumar, a forceful man in his late 60s (and formerly a federal minister), tells me that for the past two years Mathrubhumi has refused, with serious loss of revenue, to run ads for Coca-Cola's products. Kumar includes in his ban ads for Pepsi, which he says has a plant six miles from Plachimada that has produced the same problems.

The locals won't let the plant reopen, to the consternation of Kerala's present pro-Coke government, which has tried, unconstitutionally, to overrule the local council and hopes the courts will grease Coca-Cola's wheels. Kerala's High Court did just that in early April, and the panchayat is now taking its case to the Supreme Court of India.

Drive along almost any road here and you'll see coconut palms. What Keralites term tender coconut water really is good for you. Ask any local rat. A trio of biochemists at the University of Kerala recently put rats on it, and their levels of cholesterol and triglycerides sank significantly, with antioxidant enzymes putting up a fine show. For the rats dosed on Coca-Cola the test readings weren't pretty, starting with "short, swollen, ulcerated and broken villi in the intestine [and] severe nuclear damage."

Taking a leaf out of the self-realization catechism, Coca-Cola flaunts its slogan in Hindi, Jo chahe ho jahe, meaning "Whatever you want, happens," which has been translated by women cursed by another Coca-Cola plant, up in Maharashtra, as Jo Coke chahe ho jahe, "Whatever Coke wants, happens."

But not in Plachimada.

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