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What's wrong with the water in Mayilamma's well?

T Mayilamma is worried. The water in her well, in Vijayanagar Colony, Plachimada, Kerala, is a dark brown and smells sickeningly of a mixture of toddy and kerosene. Mayilamma and hundreds of other dalit families live near the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd (HCCB) plant, the company that makes and bottles Coke in India . Mayilamma, a 50-year-old widow, has been at the forefront of the people's agitation against this giant multinational corporation.

HCCB set up a plant in Plachimada, in Kerala's Palakkad district, on June 3, 2000 . This 34-acre plant used to roll out 85 truckloads of soft drinks every day . That was until people began agitating against the company for using up too much groundwater, leaving little for them to use for agriculture, even for their basic household needs. Locals also claimed the water was becoming polluted. Villagers, politicians, environmentalists and scientists all accused Coca-Cola of robbing the local community of their most precious resource -- water -- and of damaging their health and livelihoods.

When John Waite, programme presenter at BBC's Radio 4 heard of the villagers' complaints he visited the Coca-Cola plant to see for himself what was going on. In a programme, aired in August 2003, called Face the Facts , he showed how sludge from the factory contained "dangerous levels of the known carcinogen (cancer-causing) cadmium" and lead. Intake of cadmium can cause kidney failure, while exposure even to low levels of lead (especially among children) can result in mental retardation and severe anaemia. (The sludge samples were tested at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom .) The sludge, a waste product of the plant's production process, was being given away to farmers to be used as fertiliser in their fields. At first the farmers were quite pleased to receive the sludge as it cut down on the amount of money they spent on buying fertiliser. That's until they realised just how dangerous the sludge was.

Senior scientist at the Exeter lab, David Santillo, said: "What is particularly disturbing is that the contamination has spread to the water supply -- with levels of lead in a nearby well significantly above those set by the World Health Organisation."

On April 23, 2005 , the magazine Outlook decided to do its own tests taking a sample of water from Mayilamma's well. The tests were carried out at the Sargam Metals laboratory in Chennai where the water was found to have a pH value (the value used to measure how alkaline or acidic a liquid is) of 3.53 (the permissible level is 6.5-8.5, at 25 degrees C). "If consumed, it (the water) will burn up your insides," said Lalitha Raman, Sargam Metals' technical manager.

While the permissible level for total dissolved solids (TDS) in potable water is 2,000, the water from Mayilamma's well recorded a high TDS count of 9,624. The permissible manganese level is 0.3; the water from the well had a level of 6.18. Iron levels were 1.58 where they should have been 1 or less.

Water that is polluted to such an extent cannot be used for cooking, washing or agriculture. "Clothes could tear if washed in such water, food will rot, crops will wither," Raman explains.

Mayilamma, it would seem, has every reason to be worried.

In December 2003, the courts ordered Coca-Cola's Plachimada plant to stop using too much groundwater and to arrange to get the water it needed from elsewhere. This was taken to be a major victory for the Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (Anti-Coca-Cola People's Struggle Committee) that had been picketing the plant since 2001. Coca-Cola appealed against the verdict. In March 2004, the local Perumatty panchayat cancelled HCCB's licence and the company stopped work.

But then on April 7 this year the village panchayat lost its legal battle. A division bench of the Kerala High Court ruled that a "water-based industry, with a huge investment, has [a right] to receive water to quench its thirst without inconveniencing others". It said the panchayat was wrong in rejecting the company's application for a renewal of its operational licence before it had made "a scientific assessment" of the reasons for water scarcity in the region. The court allowed the company to extract up to 5 lakh litres of groundwater every day from the premises of its bottling plant.

Tell that to Mayilamma. The results from tests done on water from her well show that she is being more than a little inconvenienced.

Coke officials have always argued that their Plachimada plant conforms to the highest environment management standards. "The plant at Palakkad is certified to ISO 14001 and is open to inspection by all regulatory and accredited monitoring agencies," said an official company spokesperson. ISO 14001 spells out the actual requirements for an environmental management system.

In the June 6, 2005 , issue of Outlook , Dr MVRL Murthy, head, hydrogeology, Coca-Cola India , challenges the magazine's findings, calling them inaccurate. According to him, in tests conducted by various government agencies, including the Kerala State Groundwater Department (KSGD) and the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), the pH value of groundwater in the area was found to be within the 6.5-8.5 range. This cannot be called "acidic", as claimed by Outlook, says Murthy. He claims that even the TDS levels are within permissible limits. Murthy goes on to say that the reason behind the poor water availability in Plachimada is insufficient rainfall over the years, and is in no way linked to Coca-Cola's operations.

Incidentally, Coca-Cola was earlier instructed by a Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes to install a water purification system to ensure that water used for effluent treatment was returned to its original condition so that it could be re-used. The plant was also supposed to ensure water supply was available to everyone in the vicinity of the plant. Neither has been done yet.

And so the battle goes on: Mayilamma vs Coca-Cola, David and Goliath. It has now gone up to the Supreme Court.

Source: Outlook , May 16, 2005 and June 6, 2005
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