Cola and the paddy farmer

Whose water is it, anyway?

By K P Prabhakaran Nair
Published: Sunday 31 July 2005

Cola and the paddy farmer

-- On 7th April 2005, the Kerala High Court permitted Hindustan Coca-Cola Limited (Coke) to draw 5 lakh litres of water a day at its humungous bottling plant at Plachimada in Kerala's Palakkad district. This reversal to status quo means that the cola multinational (mnc) can now continue the activities that have harmed the livelihoods of hundreds of paddy farmers, mostly dalits and adivasis, of the region.

Palakkad district is the rice bowl of Kerala and paddy is a water-intensive crop. A single kilogramme (kg) of unhusked paddy needs 1,500-5,000 litres of irrigation water. So 5 lakh litres of water would produce 333 kg of unhusked paddy, worth just Rs 2,333. Meanwhile, with the same water (each litre of cola is produced with almost 5 litres of raw water), Coke makes a profit of Rs 30 lakh a day. Not to forget, the farmer waits for around 125 days before being able to harvest the crop. By that yardstick, Coke's profit jumps to Rs 37.5 crore. Even if the company, that markets Kinley mineral water, were to sell two and a half lakh litres of water a day, it would still sell a minimum of 2.5 lakh litres of mineral water in 125 days, at a profit of Rs 37.5 crore.

Very high stakes These mind-boggling figures make it easier to understand why retaining access to water in Plachimada is so important for Coke and why the company would rather take on a people's movement than give it up.

Excessive groundwater extraction also needs to be seen in the context of rice cultivation in Kerala. The state's rice farmers are now abandoning their crop, mostly because of scarce water and expensive labour. The so-called green revolution, with high input costs for technology, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, hasn't helped. The situation means Kerala is able to grow only a quarter of its paddy requirement and has to import the rest from Andhra Pradesh and other states.

And the government is doing nothing to buck the trend. This is amply clear in the present context. The Kerala high court's judgment was based on the recommendations of an "expert" committee that took the position that wells in the district dry up anyway in summer, even without groundwater being drawn. This was despite a recent investigation in Kerala that showed the water table clearly receding at the rate of one metre each year.

We're all in it together Moreover, extraction at a far off point would suck out water from another area endowed with it. Hydrology cannot be reduced to simplistic conclusions as resorted to by the judiciary. Rather, the high court judgment has to be seen against a wider picture. As the Rs 1,000 crore mineral water industry in India grows, it's just not Coke in the race to grab India's water resources. For the older generation, raised on boiled water, or on fresh well water, the mineral water bottle is just a status symbol. Nobody questions if we really need to drink mineral water when millions of our poor have no access to clean drinking water. As for soft drinks, toxic pesticide residues in cola are now common knowledge. And even in a scarcity-hit zone like Nagpur district, the Snow Dome water park operates while the women of nearby Bazargaon village trek 15 kilometres for daily water.

This 'landmark' judgment is, in fact, an endorsement of Coke's activities and a green signal to an alien mnc to remorselessly tap India's most vital resource after soil -- its water. Yet, the Kerala government stands by what it calls "previous commitments". But what of its commitment to the people and the state's resources? Can any agency exploit them, merely on the grounds that the 13. 7 hectares of the Plachimada plant are Coke's property?

Finally, to whom does water belong -- the state or the people? There are no definite answers to these unsettling questions and the country, on its part, seems content with the status quo.

K P Prabhakaran Nair, agricultural scientist , was Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany

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