Rights issue resurfaces

Another panchayat's stand endorsed by Kerala HC

By Suchitra M
Published: Saturday 31 January 2004

-- (Credit: Photograph: Joshua Newton)One more legal battle has seen local self-governance emerge stronger in Kerala. On December 5, the Kerala High Court (hc) disposed of a drinking water production unit's petition challenging the decision of a panchayat to cancel its licence over the issue of groundwater extraction. A single bench of the hc, comprising Justice K Balakrishnan Nair, ruled that water cannot be drawn for a commercial venture without the permission of the village body.

While the petitioner in the case was Sunitha Kurien Thomas, who started the Pure Packaged Drinking Water unit two years ago, the respondent was Chottanikkara Gram Panchayat of Ernakulam district. The plant was set up in Ward No 1 of the panchayat under the Rural Employment Generation Programme of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission.

Thomas claimed that before digging two open wells she had obtained the village body's clearance to extract groundwater under section 233 of the Kerala Panchayati Raj Act. But even as the trial run of the plant was about to get underway, the Kudivella Samrakshana Samithy (kss) -- a committee formed by residents to conserve the area's drinking water --raised objections.

"It is true that the panchayat had initially given the licence for the plant. But we have to protect the people's interests too," points out Chottanikkara panchayat president Krishnan Kutty. "In the light of drinking water scarcity in the area and public opinion against the proposed plant, the panchayat was forced to cancel the licence," he adds.

But Thomas, who has sunk Rs 30 lakh in the unit so far, argues that just 1000 litres of water per day is needed for the proposed project. She also asserts that she had inked a pact with the panchayat promising not to extract water during summer. "It's only after submitting a detailed project report that I got the nod from the panchayat. If it had objected at the outset itself, I would never have ventured into such a business," she laments.

Significantly, the Kerala ground water department's feasibility report states: "There is no geological or hydrological reason to fear that withdrawal of water at a rate lower than 5000 litres per day from the unit's well will adversely affect the groundwater table of the area...." kss, however, maintains that the report has been manipulated.

Meanwhile, the court has directed the panchayat to take a final decision within a month. Earlier, too, in a similar dispute in Palakkad district between the Perumatty Grama Panchayat and Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, the hc had upheld the decision of the village body (see: 'Big boost', Down To Earth, January 15, 2004).

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