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.