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Villagers up in arms over Coke plant
A Ganesh Nadar in Tirunelveli | February 21, 2006
A uniformed guard with a walkie-talkie mans a watchtower along a high wall with three rows of barbed wire.
"We don't allow anyone inside," says Kumaraswamy, the chief of security, before he shoos you away brusquely.
Welcome to the South India Bottling Company Limited's almost complete plant in Gangaikondan in Tamil Nadu's Tirunelveli district.
SIBCL is a franchisee of Coca-Cola.
Only two other industries are located on the industrial estate owned by the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu. All 2,000 acres of it are empty otherwise.
For this one plant -- which has not commenced operations -- there is a special police check post within the SIPCOT estate.
Though the Coca-Cola plant has all the necessary clearances from the state government, it finds itself in the eye of controversy. A controversy that began with water, escalated with a death, and which is now taking on political colours with the state assembly election due in May.Water Woes
The State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu had been allotted 4,500,000 litres of water per day from the Thambiraparani river basin. Of this, it agreed to provide 1,200,000 litres of water to the Coke plant.
But that figure is debatable. Some say the plant was allotted 900,000 litres while Lakshmipathy, one of the plant's two employees, told this correspondent earlier that the company would use only 500,000 litres per day.
Local farmers are angry at even that amount of water being taken away from them.
When Coke first approached Gangaikondan Panchayat President Kamsan for approval, he granted it.
At that time, Kamsan told rediff.com that he had not seen the allotted plot or read any of the material that the South India Bottling Company Limited had given him. He said he had granted permission as the company had all the necessary government approvals.Drinks and a Death
When the local resistance to the company gathered momentum, Kamsan cancelled the permission given to the South India Bottling Company Limited and also passed a resolution in the panchayat to that effect.
Later that day, he passed another resolution giving the South India Bottling Company Limited permission again.
When local reporters grilled him, he alleged that powerful people had threatened him over the telephone.
Shortly after that decision, he along with three others traveled to a holiday resort in the nearby Courtallam district.
When Kamsan returned, he was admitted to a hospital in Tirunelveli where he died on August 30, 2005.
Local newspapers alleged Kamsan had died in suspicious circumstances.Order, Order
On Republic Day this year, gram sabha meetings -- which all villagers attend, as opposed to panchayat meetings, in which just the ward members and the panchayat president are present -- were held all over Tamil Nadu.
At the Gangaikondan Gram Sabha meeting, a resolution was passed to cancel the license given to the South India Bottling Company Limited plant.
Which meant two orders were issued about the plant: The earlier panchayat green signal, and the gram sabha no-go.
"The panchayat resolution and the gram sabha resolution carry equal weight. We will examine both and take a decision," the assistant director of panchayats, Tirunelveli district, told rediff.com at that time.
Then came another order.
The second tier of the panchayat system consists of block unions, which are formed by councillors of wards that encompass one or more village panchayats.
The Manur Block Union -- which includes the Gangaikondan Panchayat -- was convened under heavy police cover. It approved the license given to the plant. Thus, the gram sabha verdict stood nullified.The court steps in
Just when it looked like the hurdles were out of the plant's way, the Madras high court ordered a Criminal Branch-Criminal Investigation Department enquiry into Kamsan's death.
"My husband had jaundice. Everyone knew he should not drink. But they took him to Courtallam, drowned him in liquor," alleged Kala, Kamsan's widow, who has three daughters.
"We are not accusing anyone of murder," emphaised S P Ramachandran, Kala Kamsan's lawyer, who is also the district coordinator for the Human Rights Protection Centre in Tirunelveli. "All we are saying is that he died under suspicious circumstances and it should be investigated."
South India Bottling Company Limited manager Kannan initially denied knowledge of the high court order, but when this correspondent pointed out he had a copy of the order, Kannan asked us to read the last paragraph. This clearly states that if no evidence of foul play is found in Kamsan's death, the petitioners who had moved court will be suitably punished.New Notes
The state electricity board has now granted electricity to the plant. The installation work is almost over. Water pipes will soon be laid.
But questions remain. What will the CB-CID enquiry reveal? Will the plant commence operations before the state assembly election in May?
Also see: 'Sludge at Coke factory is deadly'