Whose water is it, anyway?
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.
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.
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
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.