Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Goodbye Coke; Kerala Will Remain Clean, Green and Industrially Backward

I call myself a Malayalee though except for brief vacations I have never lived in Kerala. Every time I take a vacation in Kerala, travelling there from Tamil Nadu or Bangalore or Mumbai and for the last seven years, the UK, I’ve been struck by how clean and green Kerala is, relatively speaking. Fishes still swim in its rivers and so can human beings. The cleanliness and greenery come at a price. Kerala is industrially backward in a manner which is inexplicable. Here you have the most literate state in India, with social indices not much different from a developed country - low child mortality, a gender ratio in favour of women and decent healthcare. Yet, most Keralites are forced to migrate to places outside Kerala (as my parents did) in search of employment and livelihood. The reason for this is very simple. As the first region in the world to democratically elect a communist government to power and with a highly organised labour force, Kerala has scared big businesses away. Even Keralite-owned businesses like MRF would rather have their HQ in neighbouring Tamil Nadu than in Kerala. The unions keep the industries away and the absence of factories keeps Kerala clean and green. A wonderful place for a vacation, but a horrible place to run a business. Also, Kerala has one of the highest suicide rates in India.

The recent ruling against Coca Cola by a government panel is a case in point. In 1999, Coke was allowed to set up a bottling plant in Kerala at a place called Plachimada. According to this report, “within six months the villagers saw the level of their water drop sharply, and the water they did draw was awful. It gave some people diarrhea and bouts of dizziness. To wash in it was to get skin rashes, a burning feel on the skin. It left their hair greasy and sticky. The women found that rice and dal did not get cooked but became hard. A thousand families were directly affected, and well water was tainted a considerable distance from the plant.

To top it all, Coke gave away the sludge from the plant free of cost to the villagers, to be used as fertiliser. BBC Radio 4 had the sludge analysed at Exeter University. It was found that the sludge contained very high levels of lead and cadmium.

In 2003, Coke was ordered to pack up and leave. Coke strenuously denied the charges though it was pretty obvious that they were well-founded. In August 2005, the plant was finally closed by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. And now, a fine of Rs 216 crore (about US$ 47 million) has been levied by a nine member panel composed of civil servants. Coke is bound to appeal to the courts against the fine. Will India’s courts uphold the order passed against Coke? India’s judiciary is not known for awarding large compensation packages. A fine of US$ 47 million is very high by Indian standards. To give an example, in the Bhopal Gas Leak case, the final settlement (made in 1999) came to US$ 470 million or 2,317 crores. And that was a case where thousands of people died and thousands were maimed for life.

India has some of the most highly polluted towns, cities and villages in the world. If Coke had set up its bottling plant anywhere else in India, it would in all probability have gotten away with the pollution. I am proud of Kerala and the people of Plachimada for having stood up for their rights. I also realise that because of this ruling, businesses will think twice before setting up factories in Kerala. Why set up camp in a state with not just lethal unions, but also a propensity to enforce anti-pollution laws? Kerala will remain clean, green and beautiful. I guess I ought to be happy!

I am a contributor to ‘Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary’ an anthology of short stories and articles about Kerala published by Rupa Publications. Do read it and let me know what you think.


Ayyappadas Puthenmarath said...

I always feel good when I see things like this written about Kerala. The first thing I do when I buy a new book by Amartya Sen or other Social Scientist is to go the index and check how many times Kerala is mentioned in the book. But off late certain questions have propped up in my mind.

Why Kerala, regarded as the most literate state does not have a single nationally renowned university?

Why non polluting, labor intensive software companies are hesitating to come?

Does this perpetual migration of human capital has a psychological impact on families here? Most of the families suffer when the father or the eldest son migrates alone to Gulf, leaving his children, wife and mother behind

What about the latest phenomenon of sky rocketing alcohol consumption.


Julia Dutta said...

You know you have wriiten a very good and informative article. It reads very nicely. I was shocked by the suicide rates though. Is it because, Kerala has also the highest number of alcoholics in the country and of course unemployment.Hats off to the two Red states in India - all their people have to go out to work, because they can't find jobs in their own State, reason being, the people don't allow business to go on in peace. And the Government does not care!

Winnowed said...

Ayyappadas, sarcasm doesn’t become you, but you raise very valid points.

Julia, thanks. It is not just Kerala, but the whole of south India which has very high suicide rates. South India is called the suicide capital of the world.

Anonymous said...

At last I read something positive about my land, something which i have been longing to hear.. thanks..



Suresh said...

Surely, a search with keywords "Kerala pollution" will uncover more cases than Coke itself. Here is one from the very leftist PUCL about pollution near Eloor from chemical industries:


Yes, the link is 6 years old but I don't think the situation has changed all that much. To claim therefore that Kerala is "clean and green" is surely an exaggeration.

Kerala can remain industrially backward but surely the whole of India, not to speak of the rest of the world cannot remain so. We simply cannot turn back the clock to the pre-industrial revolution era. If we did so, then we cannot support the current population levels in India and the rest of the world. And so long as we are bound by physical laws (the law of conservation of mass and so on), there is no way of producing the industrial goods that sustain our current lifestyle without *some* pollution. The issue is therefore not "get rid of all pollution" but rather "how much pollution?"

The industrial revolution initiated in Europe more than 200 years back has brought increasing prosperity to a large fraction of the world including India. It would be nice if we could have all the benefits without any of the drawbacks. Unfortunately, there is no way of doing that *globally.*

It is possible to get rid of pollution *locally.* Britain in the 1950s had huge problems of pollution. London, for instance, had the infamous problem of smog. Britain solved the problem by essentially shifting its economy from being an "industrial" one to a "services" one. Many of the heavy industries which made Britain famous have shut down. (See for instance, the opening shots of the movie "The full Monty" which provides a contrast between Sheffield in 1969 and about 30 years later.)

Of course, what has happened is that the industrial goods needed by Britain are imported while Britain exports "services" (like financial services). Pollution has not ended globally; it has only shifted to a new location.

Madhavan said...

Hi.. Does this book ‘Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary’ contain short stories which you have already published in your blog?

Winnowed said...

Suresh, Kerala has pollution, but it is still one of the cleanest and greenest states in India. If you exclude Kashmir, Himachal, the North East and the Andamans, it is the cleanest and greenest. I agree with everything else you have to say.

Madhavan, I wrote a short story titled ‘A Matter of Faith’ exclusively for ‘Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary’. ‘A Matter of Faith’ has not been published anywhere else – not even on my blog.

ivet johnson said...

Things mentioned here is very informative and helpfull to know about kerala in a positive way ..even though i'm a malayalee,m still confused of the useage ''clean kerala''..