Amid compensation woes, Coca-Cola proposes reopening controversial Plachimada facility to farm fruits

Courtsey Madhuraj / Mathrubhumi

Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited has sent a proposal to the Kerala govrnment to set up a CSR initiative within the jurisdiction of the Perumatty gram panchayat, in the state’s Palakkad district. In October, the panchayat shared the proposal in response to a right-to-information application by S Sarath, the editor of the monthly Malayalam magazine Keraleeyam. HCCB is an Indian bottling entity of the United States-based Coca-Cola Company. According to the proposal, among other activities, the initiative would comprise a “state-of-art high quality” nursery and a demonstration farm to train farmers on using “Ultra High Density Plantation,” an agricultural technique supported by drip irrigation. The initiative would be located on a 34-acre plot owned by the company, in Plachimada, a predominantly tribal settlement in the Palakkad district.

HCCB is known for previous alleged transgressions on the 34-acre land in Plachimada. In 2000, the Perumatty panchayat gave HCCB a license to set up a bottling plant on the plot. Soon after HCCB began its operations, locals of Plachimada led vociferous protests against the plant, accusing the company of causing severe water shortage and contamination. According to a January 2006 report in the Economic and Political Weekly, six borewells and two open wells in the factory compound used some 0.8 to 1.5 million litres of water daily.

Due to the agitation, HCCB has not operated the plant since 2005. A high-power committee set up by the state government submitted an extensive report on the plant in 2010. The committee, led by K Jayakumar, who was the state’s additional chief secretary at the time, concluded that Rs 216.26 crore “could be claimed as reasonable compensation” from HCCB. In February 2011, the state government passed the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, which called for the establishment of a tribunal to realise the due compensation amount.

But the bill was never enacted. The state governor reserved the bill for the consideration of the president of India. In March that year, it was forwarded to the central government and then remained with the ministry of home affairs for four months. It was only in November 2015 that the governor of Kerala was informed that Pranab Mukherjee, the former president of India, “has been pleased to withhold his assent” from the bill.

No relief has been given to the residents of Plachimada yet. “Even as a bill on Coca-Cola remains pending, they are starting something new,” Sarath said. Local political leaders and panchayat officials have expressed their opposition to HCCB’s proposal to start a new initiative without compensating the aggrieved residents of Plachimada. But K Shanthakumari, the president of the Palakkad zilla panchayat, told me that the state government had itself referred the proposal to the local government body for its consideration. She did not, however, remember when the proposal was sent to the zilla panchayat.

HCCB’s proposal detailed three phases of the CSR initiative. In the first phase, HCCB proposed a healthcare centre, a career-development centre, a vocational-training centre for women and a coaching centre for school students. The company also stated that it would collaborate with non-profit entities to operating the career-development centre and the centre for women.

For the second phase of the initiative, HCCB proposed a partnership Jain Farm Fresh Foods Limited, a subsidiary of Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd, a multinational organisation. JFFF was the world’s largest mango processor, according to an August 2018 report in the Livemint. HCCB has partnered with JFFF previously as well. Through the CSR initiative, HCCB would extend “Project Unnati,” an existing venture by JFFF, to Plachimada. Project Unnati promotes the use of JFFF’s “Ultra High Density Plantation” technique for growing mangoes and encourages farmers to adopt it. According to HCCB’s website, the UHDP technique “conserves water and land resources by using drip irrigation and high tree densities in combination with a specialized pruning process.”

In its Plachimada chapter, Project Unnati would entail “growing Totapuri Mango, Banana and Coconut” using the UHDP technique, according to the proposal. The cost of the project “shall be established by conducting a detailed study to establish the potential intervention for Mango, Banana and Coconut.” It would be implemented over a period of 15 years. Sarath said that if there is extraction of water from the borewell at HCCB’s plot for the initiative, “there will be a huge opposition.”

The third and final phase of the initiative would “expand the scope of Unnati to other crops including but not limited to coffee, pineapple, spices etc” based on the “success and learnings” of the first two phases. HCCB’s proposal noted that it may require more space than what is available at the Plachimada facility, in which case, JFFF would create additional infrastructure at their facility in Tamil Nadu’s Udumalpet area to implement the proposal. Sarath told me it was “unclear” whether the proposed initiative is for an industrial or agricultural purpose. I emailed HCCB and JFFF requesting more details about the proposal but did not receive any response. The story will be updated if and when they respond.

Since the president withheld his assent, in 2015, a local group known as the Anti-Coca Cola People’s Struggle Committee has been demanding the reintroduction of the compensation bill in the Kerala legislative assembly. Referring to the Left Democratic Front coalition government in the state, which came to power in 2016, Vilayodi Venugopal, the committee’s president, said, “The manifesto of the LDF had stated that despite the centre’s rejection of the compensation claims tribunal bill, they will reintroduce it with necessary changes.” He added that in April 2017, the committee had launched a strike against the LDF’s inaction, which continued “for some 65 days.”

On 5 December that year, HCCB met the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to share the company’s initiatives around Plachimada towards “water replenishment, agriculture, health” among other activities, according to a letter shared by the zilla panchayat. The zilla panchayat shared the letter with Sarath in response to another RTI he had filed in October this year requesting details of the CSR proposal. The letter, which seemed to be missing some pages, was from HCCB and addressed to the chief minister. It mentioned a proposal with many of the same elements as the one that Sarath accessed through his other RTI. KV Biju, an environmental activist and the convener of the Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee, which is fighting to secure compensation from HCCB, told me that he thought that “the chief minister has personally taken initiative in this proposal.” Venugopal and Sarath made similar remarks. The chief minister did not respond to my queries about the new proposal.

D Balamurali, the district collector of Palakkad, said he had no knowledge of the proposal. But on 19 March 2019, the zilla panchayat convened a meeting at an auditorium in the Perumatty panchayat’s jurisdiction. I obtained a copy of the minutes of the meeting, which noted that it was convened to invite opinions of various stakeholders on the CSR proposal. Political leaders from several parties and panchayat officials, present and former, attended the meeting. Representatives of HCCB were also in attendance and reiterated the proposals mentioned in the first phase of the project. But they faced unanimous opposition from the attendees.

Krishnakumar, the local committee secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said, “The CPI(M) stance is that no new activities will be allowed unless a decision is taken on the issue of compensation. The company will not be allowed to resume operations.” Marimuthu, the president of the Perumatty panchayat, told me that the attendees decided at the meeting that any project could be started only after compensation was paid.

In September 2019, the Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee organised a protest march to the residence of Krishnankutty K, the state’s minister for water resources, demanding action on the compensation bill before any such proposal is considered. The minister is a four-time MLA from Chittur who had agricultural interests in Plachimada. He has publicly opposed HCCB’s activities in Plachimada. But reports in the Malayalam television channel Media One and Keraleeyam refer to an allegation that Krishnankutty had a contract with HCCB.

The Keraleeyam report, from the magazine’s June 2013 issue, elaborated on the allegation. In August 2010, MP Veerendra Kumar, a former union minister who owns part of the state’s leading daily Mathrubhumi, launched the Socialist Janata (Democratic) party. Krishankutty was a member of the party, till he was ousted for “anti-party” activities in June 2013. According to the Keraleeyam report, following his ouster, Krishnankutty publicly alleged that Kumar had attempted to persuade him to reopen HCCB’s bottling plant in Plachimada. The report noted that Krishnankutty said that Kumar and a liaison officer of the company attempted to strike a compromise with Krishnankutty by offering to open a fruit-juice factory instead of the bottling plant at HCCB’s plot in Plachimada. However, Krishnankutty claimed to have refused the offer.

The Keraleeyam report further stated that Kumar refuted these allegations at a press conference the next day and questioned Krishnankutty’s credibility as a leader of the movement against HCCB. Kumar accused Krishnankutty of supplying water from his farmhouse in Chittur to the Adivasi colonies in the region at the behest of HCCB. Kumar claimed that a report published in the New Indian Express on 2 August 2003 stated that Krishnankutty had admitted to such a transaction with HCCB wherein he was paid Rs 15 per tanker of water supplied to the residents of Plachimada.

When I called Kumar about Krishnankutty’s allegation against him and the counter-allegations, he said he did not know about them, but media reports showed otherwise. Krishnankutty did not answer multiple calls and an email. Meanwhile, during the panchayat meeting A Krishnan, a former president of the Perumatty panchayat, said, “It is impossible to support any activity by the company before they have provided monetary compensation to the victims.”