Cabinet to decide on constitution of tribunal

The Cabinet is all set to take a decision this week on the K. Jayakumar Committee report on the ecological damage caused by the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Company at Plachimada in Palakkad district.

Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan's declaration in Aluva on Sunday that the government was going ahead with steps to constitute a tribunal to pursue the ecological damage suffered by Plachimada village and surrounding areas suggests that the government has perhaps zeroed in on a specific course of action on the issue after leaving the issue to hang fire for several weeks now.

The 14-member Jayakumar committee has suggested constitution of a tribunal by the State government under Article 323 B of the Constitution or formation of an authority by the Centre under the Environment (Protection) Act as has been done in the case of tanneries in Tamil Nadu. A formal decision in the matter has to be taken by the Cabinet.

The Cabinet could not take a decision on the matter when the report was first presented before it on account of reservations expressed by the Industries Department. The Cabinet has allowed the department to go through the report in detail and come up with its observations. The department did so only after the last Cabinet meeting. According to highly placed sources in government, T. Balakrishnan, Principal Secretary, Industries, has responded to the Jayakumar committee report with a 22-page note that questions some of the basic assumptions on which the committee has based its recommendations.

According to sources, the Industries Department's stand is that there was no unusually high exploitation of groundwater in the Perumatty panchayat area where the cola factory is located. The area experienced water shortage mainly on account of a dry spell during 2001-02 and increased use of water by coconut growers in the locality which has a flourishing toddy tapping industry. If the cola company had indeed exploited a higher quantity of water than was permitted, it should have come to the notice of the Perumatty panchayat and action would have been taken then and there.

The fact that no action was taken pointed to the possibility of the company having used water only within the permitted levels. The committee's finding that the company had breached the Kerala Groundwater (Control and Regulation) Act is also untenable because the rules under the Act came into effect only in 2004 whereas the factory itself was closed down in March, 2004, the Principal Secretary has contended.

Industries Minister Elamaram Karim is understood to have forwarded the relevant file with a note that leaves the whole issue open for discussion by the Cabinet. Water Resources Minister N.K. Premachandran had last week itself given in writing his views on the subject. The Water Resources Department, it may be recalled, had taken the position that the State government would do well to constitute a tribunal as suggested by the Jayakumar committee so that all related actions and decisions would be within the ambit of the State's powers.