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.