Ground Zero Kerala

Change, but no closure, in Plachimada

An inside view of the new COVID-19 facility in Plachimada, a village in Palakkad district of Kerala. The building was the bottling plant of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages until 2005.   | Photo Credit: K.K. Mustafah

In Plachimada, a small Adivasi village in Palakkad district of Kerala, a building, once infamous, was lying derelict and abandoned until recently. Overrun by weeds and bushes, it was hard to imagine that this building was once the bottling plant of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, the Indian subsidiary of the Atlanta-based manufacturer of aerated drinks. Spread over 34 acres, the 35,000 sq ft ‘Coke building’, as it is referred to by the locals, used to look haunted. Winds would whistle through broken windowpanes and snakes would lie hidden in the thick undergrowth. People rarely loitered in the area.

Today, the sprawling single-storey edifice wears a fresh coat of paint. The ‘Coca-Cola’ logo has disappeared from the entrance of the building, which smells of disinfectants and paint. The contested site now serves an important purpose, to meet the challenges of the times. The Government of Kerala has spruced up and converted the building into a COVID-19 care facility. The company that had once caused grief to the locals closed the plant and left long ago, but the building remained a symbol of despair. While the government believes that it has now become a sign of hope for all those affected by the raging pandemic, the villagers of Plachimada are not as enthused.

Change, but no closure, in Plachimada
 

A transformed space

The miraculous transformation took barely six weeks. The local bodies, helmed by the Perumatty Grama Panchayat in Palakkad, led the efforts. The building had caught the attention of the local administrators during the peak of the second COVID-19 wave in May. Palakkad was seeing more than 3,500 infections every day on average and a test positivity rate of more than 30%. The State Minister for Power, K. Krishnankutty, who wields great influence in the eastern Chittur belt, including the Perumatty Grama Panchayat, is largely credited for converting the Coke building into a healthcare facility with a clear eye on a possible third wave of the pandemic sweeping across the district.

It was important for the administration to ensure that the building was swiftly transformed. In May, discussions on the project assumed a sense of urgency. In just a day, 200-odd volunteers under the leadership of the Perumatty Grama Panchayat president, Risha Premkumar, cleared the weeds and bushes in the compound of the plant. Eight neighbouring panchayats under the Chittur Block joined hands and offered to donate up to ₹10 lakh each when the District Disaster Management Authority and the Chittur Block Panchayat chipped in ₹30 lakh each. With ₹1.4 crore in their pocket, the authorities were excited to take up the work of the new COVID-19 care centre. Officials in Coca-Cola chipped in too, offering their corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds to renovate the building. According to sources in the government, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages has spent ₹60 lakh from its CSR funds in three phases, including to repair the building. Officials of the company refused to speak to this reporter.

 

With money flowing in, new toilets were built and water facilities arranged. Apart from electrical partitioning and plumbing work, the Nirmithi Kendra arranged cots, beds, and electrical fittings. A new spacious kitchen was set up with facilities to cater to more than 600 people. Engineers with experience in the medical field oversaw the setting up of a triage facility and sheds for biomedical waste disposal. With everyone working at a frenzied pace, the goal was accomplished in about six weeks.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan could barely conceal his excitement when he inaugurated the hospital virtually on June 17. He was all praise not only for the officials of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages but also for all those who worked to build the treatment centre. “Four weeks is record time in setting up such a huge facility. The Plachimada treatment centre will give us a fillip in the fight against COVID-19. The centre will be most suited for COVID-19 treatment as it is located quite a distance away from areas where people live,” he said.

The care facility has 550 beds. Of them, 100 are oxygen beds, 50 are ICU beds and 20 have ventilators. It also has air-conditioned ready-made cabins, a portable X-ray console, a round-the-clock pharmacy, and a COVID-19 outpatient wing. The capacity of the oxygen tank set up at the centre can be enhanced from 1 KL to 2 KL.

At the time of going to press, 40 COVID-19 patients had sought admission at the facility. “The infrastructure is right. We can accommodate 400 patients now. Very soon, we will raise it to full capacity,” said Nenmara Divisional Forest Officer R. Sivaprasad, the nodal officer of the centre. Doctors and nurses have been appointed to take care of 200 patients round the clock. The patients here are not as fearful and concerned about the virus as those in other parts of the State. For now, none of them is critically ill. At present, only B-category patients are being admitted.

A water-guzzling plant

The unusual silence in the hospital is in contrast to the pitched struggle of the people in Plachimada some two decades ago. The people don’t show the same excitement that politicians and the government authorities display about the COVID-19 care facility.

Santhi C.S., a 43-year-old Adivasi woman who was at the forefront of the agitation against Coca-Cola, said: “The people of this village are still suffering. We haven’t been given a single paisa of compensation. So, how can we smile?”

 

Many who were part of the agitation echoed her sentiments. They said that applauding the transformation of a plant that had destroyed their water resources would amount to “making fun of the cause for which they stood”. Santhi, an ASHA worker, had been jailed several times along with other leaders of the agitation. She had also undergone a week-long hunger strike. “They are cheating us. These political leaders have their vested interests,” she said.

Wariness about official promises and initiatives stems from the events in Plachimada that grabbed global attention in the early 2000s. A few months after Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages began operation in Plachimada in 2000, the villagers in the neighbouring areas began to face problems. According to one study by Dr. Sathish Chandran, the water in some open wells and shallow bore wells which the villagers depended on began to taste strong and bitter; according to another study by Jananeethi, an NGO, it started tasting salty and hard after the company began manufacturing.

The plant, the villagers realised soon, was a water-guzzler: it drew about 20 lakh litres of groundwater from six bore wells and two ponds in the area every day. As a consequence, local wells were slowly sucked dry. As the company had extracted excess groundwater, the villagers began to drink water with high levels of calcium and magnesium.

Also read | Coca-Cola not to go back to Plachimada

Studies conducted at a laboratory at the University of Exeter, U.K., found high levels of lead and cadmium in the sludge from the factory. The villagers had not been aware of the health threats posed by these metals until activists and scientists informed them about it. The sludge was initially sold to the farmers as fertilizer. Later, it was given free. When protests erupted, the sludge was dumped by the roadside.

“Many of us developed skin rashes and deformities. Although we stopped consuming the contaminated water in our wells, many of us had already fallen sick because of it,” recalled Santhi.

M. Thankavelu, son of Mayilamma, the ‘Plachimada Heroine’ who stood at the forefront of the agitation until her death in 2007, was at the brink of death after he contracted psoriasis. “Like my mother, I too contracted this terrible disease from our exposure to toxic water. I could not move out of my house for about a year. I never thought I could survive to speak to you now,” he said.

C. Murugan, a paddy labourer from Plachimada, said that at least half a dozen people had miscarriages because of the contaminated water.

With water rapidly depleting and giving them all kinds of health problems, the residents soon became parched. Many had to trek long distances for potable water. Their primary livelihood from farming was affected and agricultural production declined.

 

From April 2002 to March 2004, Plachimada witnessed fierce and protracted protests, under the banner of the Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (Anti-Coca-Cola People’s Struggle Committee), demanding people’s right to natural resources, especially water. Groups from different parts of the country joined the agitation. National activists like Medha Patkar and Vandana Shiva inspired the protesters. Hundreds of protesters, including women and children, were arrested and beaten up. Soon, the agitation turned into a long legal battle.

A world water conference organised near Plachimada in January 2004 adopted a declaration which stated that “it is our fundamental obligation to prevent water scarcity and pollution and to preserve it for generations... Water is not a commodity. We should resist all criminal attempts to marketise, privatise and corporatise water. Only through these means can we ensure the fundamental and inalienable right to water for the people all over the world”.

The people won the agitation in 2005 when the company finally put up the shutters and left Plachimada. In 2017, Coca-Cola submitted to the Supreme Court that it had no intentions of resuming operations in Plachimada. Santhi, the joint convener of the protest body, said that it was not a mere victory of their agitation; “it was a victory of all such struggles to come”.

 

Waiting for compensation

However, the people of Plachimada remain disappointed. Governments have come and gone, but their promises have not been fulfilled. “The transformation of the building seems to be an effort to whitewash the actions of the multinational company. Governments have always been supporting the company. That’s why our leaders have not given the villagers who suffered from water pollution a single paisa in compensation,” alleged Arumughan Pathichira, State general convener of the Samara Samithy. “If the government is honest, let it give the victims their compensation. We have no objection to the COVID-19 hospital; it is very important. But the government should have confiscated the property and compensated the victims,” he said. Arumughan warned that the villagers would strengthen their agitation until the victims are duly compensated.

Adivasi women sit outside the Palakkad civil station on May 4, 2017, demanding compensation.

Adivasi women sit outside the Palakkad civil station on May 4, 2017, demanding compensation.   | Photo Credit: K.K. Mustafah

A government-appointed high-level committee headed by the then Additional Chief Secretary, K. Jayakumar, had assessed the degradation of the environment and damage suffered by the people of Plachimada and recommended a compensation of ₹216.24 crore to be paid to them. The committee had also recommended setting up a tribunal for proper distribution of damages. Although the State Assembly passed the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims’ Relief and Compensation Claims Tribunal Bill in 2011, it did not get the Centre’s nod. And though the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had assured the people that a tribunal would be formed, in its 2016 Assembly election manifesto, this promise has not been kept. The LDF has got a consecutive second term in Kerala but the people of Plachimada are not hopeful.

Coca-Cola has consistently opposed the setting up of a tribunal. It has claimed that the estimated losses were computed through a flawed process. According to Coca-Cola, its operations in Plachimada did not cause any water depletion or environmental damage as the company had followed the same process in the village as it did around the world.

The residents of the village scoff at this claim. “Everyone knows that the company has left leaving behind a trail of misery . We need compensation,” said Sakthivel K., general convener of the Samara Samithy. Sakthivel was among the dozen-odd agitators who were arrested by the police on June 17 for protesting outside the new COVID-19 facility while the Chief Minister was inaugurating it. Front-line leaders of the Samara Samithy — Vijayan Ambalakkad and Vilayodi Venugopal — also courted arrest along with Sakthivel.

Preparing for a third wave

For the State government, this new facility is more than politics. Minister Krishnankutty, who has been involved throughout the process, said the Plachimada facility will go a long way in strengthening the district’s preparedness to face another wave of COVID-19 infections. “We are thinking about how we can overcome the problems we faced in the second wave. Such a hospital in government control will help provide care for COVID-19 patients from all sections. We can ensure equity in treatment for everyone in the rural sector,” he said.

Water for the facility will be drawn from a large pond within the compound. It will be used after UV filtering. Two tanks of 10,000 L capacity each have been set up and fresh pipelines have been laid for the purpose. Sivaprasad said that potable water was available and storage capacity would be enhanced when more patients come. Today, almost all houses in the village have pipeline connections and water is being pumped in from the Bharathappuzha river.

The facility is close to Kerala’s border with Tamil Nadu. If the COVID-19 situation worsens during a third wave, the hospital can be opened for the people from Tamil Nadu as well. The Palakkad district administration has given consent for this.

“We are happy we could use the abandoned factory to gear up for the next phase of the pandemic,” said Premkumar. “We had faced many shortcomings when we set up a first-line treatment centre for COVID-19 at the Kerala Industrial Infrastructure Development Park at Kanjikode. Here, we have been able to address all of them,” she said.

State Health Minister Veena George recently visited the Plachimada hospital and said that the State was prepared to face a third wave. Problems that the district saw during the second wave included a shortage of oxygen beds, ICU beds and ventilators. Some private hospitals refused to set aside beds for COVID-19 treatment. A recent assessment also found that a large number of category-A patients had occupied the beds, leading to a shortage of beds for category-B patients. Given the failure to treat non-COVID-19 cases, long distances from houses to hospitals, and non-cooperation of some private hospitals, cases shot up in Palakkad in recent months.

A committee of officials and people’s representatives will be in charge of the Plachimada COVID-19 hospital. But the people still want closure for their past suffering. Kanniyamma, 75, said the early 2000s were a terrible time. “We lost peace, our drinking water, our sound health,” she said. The State government may have seized an opportunity to heal Plachimada, but its residents are still far from being placated.


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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 12:33:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/change-but-no-closure-in-plachimada/article35109647.ece

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