RTI response reveals why bill meant to secure compensation from Coca-Cola has not received president’s assent till now
The victims of groundwater depletion and environmental pollution in Plachimada village in Kerala’s Palakkad district will have to wait longer for compensation from the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverage Company. This is because the Ministry of Home Affairs first sat on the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill of 2011for nearly four months and then sent it back to the Kerala government. The bill should have been sent to the president, instead, for her assent.
The Bill, once enacted, would legitimise the constitution of a special tribunal for securing compensation of 216.25 crore from the soft drink giant.
A Right To Information (RTI) response received by Delhi-based non profit, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), reveals that the Bill was stuck earlier between ministries and later with the state. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which was coordinating the bill at the Centre, was supposed to send the bill for feedback to concerned ministries and later forward it to the president.
The Bill was passed by the Kerala Assembly in February and was sent to the Union home ministry on April 1, which later forwarded it to other ministries—Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Rural Development and Ministry of Water Resources in mid-April for comments. Subsequently, comments were also invited from the Central Ground Water Board under the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Food Processing Industries.
Plachimada bill’s journey
February 23, 2011: The Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill 2011 is passed
April 1, 2011: The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) receives the bill
April 13, 2011: MHA sends the bill to other ministries concerned for comments, specifying a deadline of six weeks
May 4 to May 18, 2011: Ministry of Rural development, Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Law and Justice (legislative department) reply, saying they have no objections
May 25, 2011: Deadline to receive comments on the Bill expires
July 8, 2011: Overlooking Cabinet guidelines, MHA chooses not to go ahead with the processing of the bill and waits for comments from remaining ministries
July 12, 2011: Ministry of Water Resources replies, saying it has no objection and gave a few suggestions
July 12, 2011: MHA sends the bill with the legal opinion of Coca Cola India Private Limited, received during July, to the state for explanations
July 29, 2011: Ministry of Food Processing Industries replies and says it has no objections
The ministries were supposed to revert to the home ministry on the constitutional validity of the bill, whether it was in conflict with any existing Central law or deviated from any existing national policy.
The documents received under RTI from the home ministry reveal that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), despite receiving several reminders from the former, had not submitted its comments as late as October 20. While MoEF is still mulling over the bill, the home ministry, too, failed to follow Cabinet guidelines.
Home ministry defied Cabinet guidelines
An official memorandum the home ministry, issued to all the ministries, mentioned that the Cabinet guidelines for disposal of state Legislative Assembly matters say that the ministries should submit their observations with six weeks. It added that if the feedback was not received within the six week deadline, the bill would be processed without waiting for further comments and if there were any inconsistencies at a later stage, the concerned ministry or department would be held responsible.
Within the six weeks, the home ministry received comments only from the Ministry of Rural development, Ministry of Law and Justice (department of justice) and Ministry of Agriculture. None of them objected to the bill.
The home ministry, instead of proceeding with the bill at the end of six weeks, kept sending reminders to ministries and in some cases waited for almost one –and-a-half months, after the end of the six week period, before sending a reminder to MoEF and Ministry of Law and Justice (legislative department), Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of Food Processing.
The Ministry of Water Resources suggested grounds on which relief and compensation claims could be made by the Plachimada victims. It added that expenditure incurred on deepening of wells, tube wells, replacement of existing pumps by high capacity pumps for lifting the water from deeper levels and deteriorating socio-economic condition owing to the loss of revenue should be recovered from the cola company.
Home ministry heeded Coca-Cola’s legal opinion
On the one hand the home ministry sat on the Bill instead of processing it, on the other it acted promptly on a legal opinion sent by Coca Cola India Pvt Ltd and sent the bill back to Kerala seeking explanation. The Ministry of Home Affairs received a legal opinion on the constitutional validity of the Bill from senior advocate Fali S Nariman on behalf of the company. This was followed by another opinion by another senior advocate, K K Venugopal.
“In the presidential assent issuing process, there is no provision for the Central government to entertain the legal opinion of a private sector company on a bill passed by a state assembly,” wrote S Faizi, member of the Plachimada High Powered Committee, which suggested that a tribunal be formed. He has raised his objections in an open letter to Union home minister P Chidambaram, challenging Coca-Cola’s legal opinion in the matter.
He stated in his letter that the legal opinion filed by Coca-Cola claimed that there was no evidence of excessive extraction and pollution caused by the operation of its plant in Plachimada. The damage, however, has already been proven by several studies.
It is interesting to note here that though the ministry sent the bill back to Kerala, based on the legal opinion from the company, it refused to disclose the same in the RTI filed by CSE. Officials also refused to give information on the communication from the company. The ministry explained it couldn't part with the information since it was not the originator of the documents. The ministry had been secretive about other information as well. The information that was disclosed, that too after filing an appeal, related only to the communications between the ministries.
‘Green tribunal not the right forum’
C P Ramaraja Prema Prasad, law secretary of Kerala informed that the objections in the legal opinion were primarily on legislative competence of the state to set up a tribunal when National Green Tribunal was present. Coca-Cola has objected to the Bill, earlier as well, saying that the compensation should be paid through the National Green Tribunal.
"The issue cannot be debated in National Green Tribunal because the National Green Tribunal Act requires the petitions for compensations to be filed within a period of five years, with a grace period of six months. But the most critical damage to groundwater and toxic contamination caused by Coca-Cola company at Plachimada occurred between 2000 and 2004. It is more than five years and so the National Green Tribunal cannot be used to redress the problem," explains Faizi. Coca-Cola India Pvt Ltd could not be contacted for comments.
At present the bill is with Kerala. “We are working on the comments and are expected to send it to Union home ministry in a week. We believe we have legislative competence,” says Prasad.
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