President Pratibha Patil, currently in the State on a three-day visit, might be unaware of it, but a crucial legislation passed unanimously by the Kerala Assembly is lying somewhere in the cabinets of the Union Home Ministry awaiting her assent.
The bill in question is the Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill 2011 adopted by the State Assembly on February 24. Kerala Governor R. S. Gavai had forwarded the bill for Presidential assent on March 30 and it had reached the Home Ministry on April 4. The Ministry had, in turn, referred it to the Ministries of Law, Agriculture, Environment and Forests and Water for comments on April 18 and that is the last that has been heard about it from Delhi.
In between, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had made enquiries with the President’s office about the fate of the bill, but was told that it was yet to reach the President. M.B. Rajesh, MP from Palakkad, had written to Home Minister P. Chidambaram in the last week of July urging him to take steps to get Presidential assent without further delay, but to no avail. A delegation of MPs belonging to the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF), has been trying over the last one month to meet the President on the issue, but have not been successful. “We hope we will be able to meet the President before the Parliament session ends,” Mr. Karunakaran told The Hindu from Delhi on Tuesday.
The bill, a trail-blazing legislation that seeks to constitute a tribunal that would adjudicate disputes relating to compensation for the damage Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Company had caused in Plachimada and neighbouring areas of Palakkad district, has been enacted on the basis of the finding of a 14-member High Power Committee that the company had caused ecological damages that could be quantified in monetary terms at Rs. 216.25 crores. The Cola major has, however, disputed both the conclusions of the committee and termed the bill seeking to set up the tribunal ‘unconstitutional’.
The question whether the bill deserved to be sent for Presidential assent itself is disputed. S. Faizi, environment member of the 15-member High Power Committee chaired by State Additional Chief Secretary K. Jayakumar and comprising experts from diverse related fields, had from the outset taken the view that there was no need for Presidential assent as it contained no repugnancy provision under any Central law. However, the State Law Department had taken the view that it would be advisable to send it for assent to give it full judicial validity.
Mr. Faizi still holds firm to his position. “There is no issue of repugnance here because, in its operative part, the bill deals only with State subjects such as crop loss, groundwater contamination, health hazards and breach of labour laws,” he says and adds that even if Presidential assent were necessary, it could have been granted months ago. The question why the Home Ministry is detaining the bill needs to be looked into closely, he says.