Saturday, April 16, 2011

Special tribunal to compensate Coca Cola victims

The legislature of the South Indian state of Kerala, has passed the Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill, 2011 to establish a special tribunal to deal with claims arising out of ground water depletion and other environmental degradation caused by the Coca Cola bottling plant in Plachimada, Perumatty Panchayat, Palakkad District, Kerala. This is probably the first of its kind, special claims tribunal for environmental problems in India. 

The background:

Plachimada is a village in Perumatty Panchayat, Palakkad District of Kerala. It was an agrarian village that seldom attracted the attention of the media or the outside world. M/s Hindustan Coca-Cola beverages Private Ltd. applied for consent of the Board in June 1999 to establish a factory on a 31 acre plot at Plachimada in Palakkad district for manufacturing 5,61,000 litres of soft drinks (Coca Cola, Limca, Fanta, Thums Up, Sprite, Kinley soda and Maaza) per day. The raw materials include 15,00,000 litres of water, soft drink concentrate, carbon dioxide, sugar, mango pulp, preservatives, water treatment chemicals, etc. The factory was discharging more than 8,00,000 litres of water per day and provided the sludge to the villagers to use as fertilizers.

The village suddenly became a popular symbol of resistance when the villagers launched protests against the bottling plant on the ground that the over-depletion of groundwater by the plant had resulted in dropping of water levels in the wells and ponds in the village depriving the villagers of drinking water. It was also alleged that the sludge provided as fertilizer had a negative impact of the fertility of the soil, heavily impacting livelihood of the agrarian community. Additionally, it was also alleged that the plant had led to contamination of the water and land of the area resulting in skin diseases and other health problems to the villagers. The issye attracted global attention and a series of protests and litigation ensued. The plant was closed in March 2004 following a High Court order and intense protests by the villagers. Though the company is said to have made attempts to sell the plant, nothing materialised in that regard.

More details about the effects of the plant and a brief history of the struggle of the local population can be found here.

The Bill

The Bill establishes a Special Tribunal that will adjudicate all cases relating to environmental and health impacts of the plant. The tribunal is to consist of a Chairperson who is a sitting or retired district judge, an administrative member and an executive member. All the Plachimada-related cases pending against Coca Cola before various courts and tribunals, except the High Court and Supreme Court stand transferred to the Special Tribunal. The Kerala High Court is vested with the power to transfer any case pending before it to the Tribunal. Additionally all future claims are to be brought directly before the Tribunal. Civil Courts are barred from trying before themselves any matter that falls within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal.

The Tribunal is to apply the principles of sustainable developments, precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle. Enforcement mechanism under the Act is notable. The Company, in case of an award against it, is to deposit the entire amount with the Tribunal. If such deposit is not made, the Tribunal is to issue a certificate for the amount directed to the District Collector and the Collector is to proceed to recover the amount as though it were revenue recoverable from land.

Appeals from the awards of the Tribunal will lie to the High Court on substantive questions of law. No award passed by the Tribunal and no proceedings before the Tribunal are to be invalid merely by the invalidity of the constitution of the Tribunal.

With the Kerala Assembly elections round the corner, notification of this Act and appointments to the Tribunal are likely to take some time. However, the Tribunal appears to be a progressive step towards compensating Plachimada victims in a time bound manner. However, delays may be introduced into the system if Coca Cola decides to challenge the vires of the Act.

The complete text of the Bill is available here.

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