Coca-Cola plant gets a thumbs down In Uttarakhand village

Rakesh Agarwal, Dehradun

The village of Chharba in Uttarakhand has refused to allow the setting up of a Coca-Cola bottling plant on 60 acres of its land, saying that the plant will damage the local ecology.

Chharba, which is 30 km from Dehradun, is proud of a forest of sheesham and khair trees which it has nurtured over the years.

“Reforestation brought about a green revolution in our village. Our water sources got recharged. This plant will destroy the labour of our ancestors,” says Monika Rana, a ward member of the Chharba gram panchayat and a member of the Jal Jangal Zameen Bachao Grameen Samiti (JJZBGS), a collective of villagers formed to fend off Coca-Cola. 

The bottling plant has the clearance of the Congress state government with Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna announcing it with much fanfare. Bahuguna has said that he expects the plant to bring in Rs 600 crores of investment and with it will come jobs and other smaller industries.

But Coca-Cola has an image problem. The villagers don’t trust Coca-Cola and talk of its record elsewhere. At Plachimada in Kerala, for instance, a Coca-Cola bottling plant was shut down after villagers won their case in court.

Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd (HCCBPL), the Indian subsidiary of Coca-Cola, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation of Uttarakhand Ltd (SIDCUL) to buy 60 acres for Rs 95 lakhs an acre. It has handed over Rs 1.60 crores as earnest money to SIDCUL.

The plant will produce non-alcoholic carbonated beverages, juices, fruit-based drinks and packages of drinking water. This would be Coca-Cola’s 25th plant in India. The state government is believed to have assured the company it would get clean water from the Yamuna river and the nearby Daakpathar barrage for its operations.

“Coca-Cola setting up a plant here will give tremendous boost to investment in Uttarakhand. It will attract more business houses and mega companies,” said the Chief Minister.

But the people don’t share his enthusiasm. They say this is precisely the kind of development they detest. It will ruin their natural resources, livelihoods and their lives.

Rattled by the voluble opposition to its plans the state government is trying to lamely placate the people. Over 1,000 people are likely to be employed in the new plant, said Rakesh Sharma, State Principal Secretary and Managing Director, SIDCUL. 

He said Coca-Cola also refused to take any incentives being offered by the state government. “We are surprised that Coke did not take any incentives from us. They could have easily got a 25 per cent discount on the land price but the company refused to take it,” said Sharma.

But the villagers of Chharba are not impressed by the company’s rejection of incentives. “They will get our land, our water and our trees for nothing. They will exploit this area to reap huge profits. Why do they need any incentive?” asks Rumiram Jaswal, the gram pradhan (village head) of Chharba village, who is heading the agitation.

The government’s claim that the company will create 750 to 1,000 local jobs is treated  with disdain.  “We know this is all a big sham. They don’t employ locals as officers. At best we will get work as daily-wage labourers. Look at what we lose – our land, greenery and water,” says Anurag Singh, 24, a farmer. “This whole region will suffer from pollution. Our water sources will dry up. The employment offer is just a charade,” says Raju Ram, a ward member.

The villagers say in 2005 this same stretch of land was allotted to Doon University to set up its campus and they didn’t oppose it at all because they thought it would improve educational prospects for the youth in their village.

“The proposal to set up a Doon University campus was sent to us for approval during the time of Rajendra Singh, who was our pradhan then. The approval was given on condition that construction will be over in two years but not a single brick has been laid since then,” says Jaswal.

“This land belongs to our gram sabha and we will not let Coca-Cola enter,” declared Munna Khan, ex-pradhan of Chharba gram panchayat at a protest meeting organised by the village on 6 May.

The agitation is snowballing with NGOs and activists throwing their weight behind Chharba. Others who have joined the battle include forest rights activists, those in the anti-dam struggle, supporters of organic farming and political parties.    

The villagers point out that they have grown a forest on the land being handed over to Coca-Cola.  About 30 years ago, under the Rajiv Gandhi Plantation Programme, the Central Government had given Rs 10 lakhs to the Chharba gram panchayat. With that money they had planted the 25,000 sheesham and khair trees that exist today.

On 14 May, the villagers of Chharba waited patiently for over three hours for Anna Hazare to turn up.  The famed anti-corruption crusader was touring the state as part of his Uttarakhand Jantantra Yatra. About 500 people including about 100 schoolchildren had gathered to hear Anna Hazare speak. He urged people to vote for candidates, “who are responsible to you and are not corrupt.” He said he didn’t know much about Coca-Cola. “But it should not destroy natural resources,” he said.

What deeply disappointed people was that Anna Hazare refused to tie raksha sutra (protection thread) on the khair and sheeshum trees that the villagers had grown.  Uttarakhand has a history of ardently protecting its trees. This is the land of the famed Chipko movement.

NGOs in Dehradun too warn of pollution and depletion of groundwater if Coca-Cola decides to set up its plant here. “Our study of areas adjacent to Coca-Cola plants in Mehdiganj near Varanasi, at Kaladera near Jaipur and at Plachimada in Palghat district of Kerala confirmed the presence of highly dangerous and toxic heavy metals like lead, zinc, cadmium and chromium. This has adversely affected people’s health as it seeps into groundwater. In Plachimada, farmers used this water for irrigation. That made their land barren. Also the excessive amount of water extracted by the company has dried up groundwater,” says Dr. Anil Gautam of the People’s Science Institute (PSI) in Dehradun.

Scientists are still trying to figure out the exact origins of these effluents. The Coke formula is a secret. “Obviously, they don’t observe the same stringent norms here as they do in industrialised countries although their catch-line is ‘Coke is the same everywhere’,” remarks Ravi Chopra, Director, PSI.

Activists working on water issues are incensed. “First of all the state has no water policy. Then it gives leverage to Coke to exploit our water sources,” says Sachchidananda Bharati, Secretary of the Dudhatoli Lok Vikas Sansthan, an NGO based in Chamoli district. Bharati has passionately promoted water harvesting and is famous for having revived a dead river. 

Anil Joshi, well-known for his cycle marches to promote water-harvesting and traditional water mills, responded cautiously.  “There should be an in-depth study of the profit and loss that accrues to people living near Coca-Cola’s plants. If the government still thinks the company’s plant is profitable, it can be set up but with local villagers owning a 50 per cent share.”

The legendary Chandi Prasad Bhat of Dasholi Gram Swaraj Mandal in Gopeshwar, Chamoli district, said: “Kerala is throwing out Coca-Cola for polluting their environment. Now, we are welcoming them. This is pathetic.”

The other issue that has cropped up is the impact the company’s use of water will have on the state’s hydro-electricity plants. Uttarakhand is known for its potential to generate power through its state-run hydropower projects. The proposed bottling plant is likely to divert some of that water and affect power generation in the state.

The 100 MW Kulhal, Dhalipur and Dhakrani hydropower projects at Vikasnagar block use water from the Yamuna  to generate electricity. Groundwater sources in Vikas Nagar and Sahaspur have already been depleted by industrial and construction activities. The setting up of a water guzzling plant will intensify the water crisis.

“This bottling plant may affect power generation especially those hydro power projects that generate electricity by using Yamuna river water. If water is taken by Coca-Cola from Yamuna at Vikasnagar it will surely affect power production by our five major hydel projects,” says G.P. Patel, managing director of the state-run Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited which produces 475 MW. Clearly, the state-run department is also opposing the plant.

“If we explore different options, there should be no problem in supplying water to the Coca-Cola plant. We’ll not clear the plant till all environmental standards have been met. If need be, we will bring water from nearby canals instead of the Yamuna barrage.” said Rakesh Sharma. “The Yamuna water at the moment goes ‘waste’ for us as it flows down to Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.”

The defeat of the Congress in the recently held municipal elections has further encouraged political parties in the opposition to pounce on the Vijay Bahuguna government.  The Communist Party of India (CPI) called the Congress anti-people and demanded it  reconsider the green signal given to Coca-Cola.

The Uttarakhand Parivartan, a regional political party, demanded the government take back its MoU.  “Since the establishment of Uttarakhand, the natural resources of the state are being usurped in a planned way. People’s rights are being transferred to private companies,”  says P.C. Tiwari, the party’s president.   

Uttarakhand’s first major investment after the withdrawal of the hill-based tax incentives in 2010 has indeed run into rough weather. 

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