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Kerala Confirms Support Against Coca-Cola

Kerala State Government Confirms Support Against Coca-Cola

In a significant government move against the Coca-Cola company, the chief minister of Kerala, Mr. V. S. Achutanandan, has promised full legal support to the community campaigning for the permanent closure of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada in the south Indian state of Kerala.

In a meeting with the community activists and allies on Saturday, the chief minister stated that the state government of Kerala would offer full support for the case against Coca-Cola which will be heard by the Supreme Court of India.

Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Plachimada, one of its largest in India, has been shut down since March 2004 because of the strong community opposition as a result of severe water shortages in the area and pollution of the groundwater and soil.

The panchayat (village council) canceled Coca-Cola's license to operate in May 2003, holding the company responsible for the water crisis and pollution. The legal basis of the action of the panchayat is now slated to be heard in the Supreme Court of India.

Specifically, Chief Minister Achutanandan announced that the state of Kerala will:

* Provide the services of eminent lawyers to argue the case before the Supreme Court

* Provide financial support to the village council in its fight against Coca-Cola

* Explore the possibility of filing criminal charges against the company for pollution

* Explore action against the company because the area was notified as an "over-exploited" area with regard to groundwater resources

At the heart of the case is whether a village council (an elected body at the most local level in India) has the right and jurisdiction to decide whether industrial projects can be located in the community or not.

The community in Plachimada and their allies maintain that the panchayat's jurisdiction over such projects are constitutionally guaranteed, and invoke the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi who envisioned a democratic India based on panchayati raj- where the elected village councils at the local level are the building blocks of democracy.

The Coca-Cola company, on the other hand, dismisses the rights of panchayats, insisting that the state and central governments have jurisdiction over its operations.

The state government of Kerala's support for the community-led campaign against Coca-Cola in not new. In September 2005, the state government had stated that "poor villages are deprived of drinking water due to overuse of ground water by Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada to produce bottled drinks for sale to people who have purchasing capacity in different cities of the country." 

The state government also argued that the Perumatty panchayat was within its rights to cancel the license of the Coca-Cola plant because it was protecting the interest of the community.

The Kerala State Pollution Control Board, the primary state regulatory agency, has also confirmed the presence of extremely high levels of heavy metals in and around Coca-Cola's bottling plant. However, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board is yet to initiate penal action against Coca Cola for pollution, as mandated by the law.

The alignment of the state of Kerala with the community of Plachimada and against the Coca-Cola company's bottling plant has significantly dented Coca-Cola's hopes of ever being able to re-open its bottling plant in Plachimada. The state's decision to support the campaign against Coca-Cola is also damaging to Coca-Cola's credibility because the company continues to deny any wrongdoing on its part in Plachimada, in spite of overwhelming evidence against it.

"It is time for the Coca-Cola company to finally accept the mandate of the community and now the state.  They should pack up their bags and leave from Plachimada," said R. Ajayan of the Plachimada Solidarity Committee, who also was part of the meeting.

The campaign and the case is also being watched closely internationally because the Supreme Court's decision can set a precedence for communities being able to assert their rights over large industrial projects.

Many of Coca-Cola's bottling plants in India are the target of community campaigns, accusing the company of exacerbating water shortages through water depletion and pollution.

On the defensive, Coca-Cola has embarked on an ambitious public relations exercise in India, and has also hired a group that it funds to "independently" assess its operations in India.

ENDS

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