Water-starved Tamil Nadu farmers seek to take the fizz out of cola giants
M Tamil Mani, a paddy farmer, recalls grinning widely as he read the newspapers on November 22. A day earlier, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court had issued an interim stay on the supply of water to the tune of 15 lakh litres per day to PepsiCo’s Aquafina water purification plant and 9 lakh litres per day to Coca-Cola’s bottling plant at Gangaikondan in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district.
Mani said this water was being sucked out of the perennial Thamirabarani river, the lifeline for farmers in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) districts of Tamil Nadu, who depend on its water for irrigation - largely for paddy.
“Tube wells have been sunk into the river at Seevalaperi and these take water directly to the industrial area,” said the 50-year-old, who hails from Kurumbur in Tuticorin district. “The Thamirabarani is the mother for Tirunelveli and Tuticorin’s farmers. It feeds 53 tanks here in Tuticorin district alone and all of us are dependent on this water for our livelihood. How can the government give our water to Coca-Cola and Pepsi?” he fumed.
Monsoon failure and drought
Mani is angry because the northeast monsoon has failed, with an approximately 90% deficit as of end-November, according to the regional met department. The Kadamba tank that irrigates Kurumbur’s fields is dry. Mani insists on walking up to the middle of the parched, cracking bed of the water body, pointing in desperation to 1,800 acres of the lunar-like terrain where water should have been.
Mani, like other paddy farmers in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin, said at the end of November that he had not planted paddy saplings yet. “We can wait for a few more at the most,” he said. “By mid-December, if there is no rain we will have to forget paddy cultivation altogether.” As of the third week of December, they had still not commenced planting.
This is the main reason for fresh protests by the farmer community in the southernmost parts of the country, in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts. In late October and early November this year, farmers intensified their protests against the proposed Pepsi plant inside the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) industrial park in Gangaikondan. This plant was to take water from the Thamirabarani, purify, bottle and sell it under its brand name, Aquafina. Protesting farmers became targets of police lathi-charge in October last year. The plant became operational in November.
In that month, advocate DA Prabhakar, a Tirunelveli native and the secretary of the Tirunelveli District Consumer Protection Forum, moved the Madurai bench of the Madras high court demanding a stay on the supply of water to Pepsi and Coca-Cola’s plants.
His argument was that 2016 has been a year of drought with available water barely enough even to meet the drinking needs of the people. He argued that farmers should get preference for access to water rather than industry.
“It is all about the Doctrine of Public Trust,” explained Prabhakar. “Government has to use natural resources for public benefit and not sell it for gains.”
Prabhakar points out that Thamirabarani water is being provided at throwaway prices to PepsiCo’s plant (set up in 2015) – 15 lakh litres of water a day at the rate of ₹56.25 per 1,000 litres. Coca-Cola, being an earlier entrant here (set up in 2005), has access to even cheaper rates – ₹37.50 per 1,000 litres of the precious river water to the tune of 9 lakh litres every day.
He adds that the storage levels in the dams being fed by the Thamirabarani are at record lows.
“Due to lack of rain, the district administration has shut off the water supply for irrigation,” a senior official from Tirunelveli, who did not wish to be named, said in November. “We have enough water now to meet the drinking water needs of the district until February 2017,” he added.
The Papanasam (built in 1942) and Manimuthar (built in 1958) are the two largest dams of a total of 10 in the region. All of these are fed by the Thamirabarani that originates in the Podhigai Hills of the Western Ghats and travels 120 km from there to drain into the sea. On December 19, as per data available with the Tamil Nadu public works department, the Papanasam dam had only 24.45 mcft of water against a capacity of 5,500 mcft. Similarly, the Manimuthar dam also had a mere 36.27 mcft of water – a trickle of its 5,511mcft storage capacity.
In October, the district administration sent a report to the state government asking for ₹3.38 crore towards relief for paddy farmers whose lands are parched. “Some 2,500 hectares of paddy crop are affected due to non-release of water,” a senior official in the Tirunelveli district administration said. “Since the first week of October itself, we have stopped water supply for irrigation. Normally we would release water until the end of October, which is when paddy is sown,” he said.
This strong argument pushed the Madurai bench of the Madras high court into ordering an interim stay on the supply of water to Pepsi and Coca-Cola’s Gangaikondan plants. The next hearing in the case is set for January 18, 2017, when the Tamil Nadu government is expected to submit its response.
A history of protests
The latest round of protests by farmers against supply of Thamirabarani water to industrial parks is not new. In 2005, farmers objected when the Coca-Cola plant was set up inside the SIPCOT Industrial Complex.
Leading the protests at the time was octogenarian S Nainar Kulasekaran, a widely respected expert on the water resources in the region. The 98-year-old is now too frail to speak, but his knowledge of the field echoes in the words of other protesting farmers. “Industries are taking water directly from the river, depriving farmers of water,” Kulasekaran, who lives in his native Nattathi village in Tuticorin, said. “The government needs to stop this immediately. These industries can be supplied water from a desalination plant instead.”
His 2010 book, Tamirabarani Nadhiyum, Vivasaayigalin Urimaiyum (The Thamirabarani River and the Rights of the Farmer) detailing data of dam storage, lakes, ponds and tanks as well as the intricate web of the Thamirabarani’s route from the hills to the sea, serves as the Bible for farmers in these two districts. And the situation is certainly grim. “In a land where three crops were cultivated in a year, now only one crop is being cultivated,” V Ramasubbu, a lawyer based in Tirunelveli who deals with environment-related cases, said.
Prior to 2005, Kulasekaran also led farmer agitations against what is popularly known as the “20 MGD Scheme”. This water supply scheme, drawn up in 1970, is an agreement by the state government to provide water from the Thamirabarani river to the tune of 20 million gallons a day (MGD) to industries in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin. Since the protests against Coca-Cola in 2005, farmers have come together every year to renew their demands for stopping the supply of river water to industry.
At least three cases were filed in various courts on the same issue prior to the one that was heard most recently. Of these, one petition was dismissed by a district court and another withdrawn by petitioner SP Muthuraman, who moved the Madras high court in 2015. The third, a case filed by Left leader Appavu, is still pending before the Madurai bench, along with Prabhakar’s PIL. “Around 7,500 families are affected by this supply of water to industry,” Muthuraman said.
“Most places outside of the main city areas of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin get drinking water supply only once in two or three days. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, as per their agreement, are supposed to make arrangements for water during drought years. They were supposed to employ a large number of locals. None of these conditions has been fulfilled by either,” Muthuraman alleged.
The state government has remained silent to their demands so far. But farmers and activists still see a ray of hope. In April 2015, the Tamil Nadu government cancelled permission for a ₹500 crore Coca-Cola bottling plant in Perundurai in Erode district, in the wake of intense farmer protests against drawing of river water and fears over effluent discharge polluting farmlands nearby.
“I believe the government will support us,” a hopeful Prabhakar, petitioner in the current case against Pepsi and Coca-Cola, said. “People are agitating and we have also seen how the government reacted in the Perundurai Coca-Cola case.”
Perundurai may be the latest example of a foreign soft drink giant being forced to shut shop due to local protests. The first case, though, was in Plachimada in Palakkad district of Kerala, where Coca-Cola was forced to close down in 2004 after functioning there for five years. Locals had protested against the depletion and pollution of their ground water by the plant established in the verdant area.
Incidentally, the multinational was bottling cola in the land of tender coconuts and dumping toxic effluent to local farmers in the guise of free fertiliser. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board report later confirmed the dangerous levels of cadmium in the sludge. In 2006, the Kerala high court allowed the company to function in Plachimada but the state government has moved the Supreme Court against this order.
The difference between Plachimada and Tirunelveli is the source of the water – in Plachimada, Coca-Cola was using ground water for its operations. In Tirunelveli, both soft drink giants are tapping river water. Advocate Prabhakar is aware of the Plachimada precedent, but prefers to cite the Perundurai example, as there too, Coca-Cola was using river water.
When Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages was contacted for a response on the various issues surrounding the interim stay by the Madurai bench of the Madras high court as well as farmers’ allegations, its email response was as follows: “The Madurai Bench of Madras high court has passed an interim order directing SIPCOT not to supply water to two Beverage producing Co-pack facilities. One of them, South Indian Bottling Company is our Co-packer. We are studying the order and decide our course of action (sic).”
PepsiCo did not respond to a similar email questionnaire on the issue and neither did Prathishta Business Solutions, the firm engaged in purifying and packaging water for Aquafina in Tirunelveli.
As farmers of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin look to the unrelenting skies praying for rain, they also await, a tad nervously, for the next round of hearings early next year in the Madurai bench of the Madras high court. “This is only one part of our problem,” Tamil Mani of Kurumbur village said. “If the court and government can stop the drawing of water by these industries at least during drought years like now, it would be of great relief for us.”
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)