For 70-year-old K Kanniamma, the irony was stark. Rain from the fresh monsoons was badgering the roof of her house at Vijayanagaram colony in Plachimada village of Palakkad district in Kerala, but the water would be of no use to her once it settled on the soil.

For Kanniamma, it was more than a bitter taste left behind by the Coca-Cola plant that was forced to shut down in her neighbourhood in 2004. “Before the factory opened here we were dependent on our water requirements on our wells,” she said.

“Once the factory opened the water level in the wells started going down,” Kanniamm added. "Initially, we did not know the reason for it. When we used that water, our eyes and skin had a burning sensation. Only then we realised that our water had been poisoned."

As many like her recount their plight, Kerala police last month filed a fresh First Information Report against Coca-Cola under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The case has been registered at Meenakshipuram Police Station against the company's all India head at Noida, Regional head at Kochi and the local head of the Plachimada unit, on a complaint lodged by Plachimada Samara Samithi.

The Coca-Cola unit, which has been shut since 2004, has been accused of having depleted the water source, exploited and “wilfully polluted” the ground water of the Scheduled Tribes community called the Eravalas, at Plachimada, in Palakkad district, Kerala.

There are about 2,000 residents in this south Kerala village, and their main occupation is agriculture and farm labour.

“This is the monsoon time,” said Murugesan, a resident of Plachimada. “The whole district is happy due to the rains. In older days we could just take water from the wells with our hands, the wells used to be so full. But now, since the water has been poisoned, while the others [in other parts of Kerala] use the sweet water from the wells, we [in Plachimada] have to queue up near the taps for our water needs. The water from the wells cannot be used for consumption,” he added.

The Coke trail

This is not the only complaint. Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries have been accused of creating severe water shortages for the community by extracting large quantities of water for their factories, affecting both the quantity and quality of water in a number of districts of India.

The company has the largest soft drink bottling facilities in India. Water is the primary component of the products manufactured by the company.

There have been numerous public protests against the company’s operations throughout India, involving thousands of citizens and several non-governmental organisations.

Protests against the Coca-Cola factories have taken place in a number of districts including Mehdiganj near Varanasi, Kala Dera near Jaipur, Thane district in Maharashtra and Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu.

The company did not respond to emails asking for comment on the situation.

Time line: Coke vs Plachimada

1999: Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola company, established a plant in Plachimada. The Perumatty Village Council gave a licence to the company to commence production in 2000. Coca-Cola drew around 5,10,000 litres of water each day from boreholes and open wells. For every 3.75 litres of water used by the plant, it produced one litre of product and a large amount of waste water.

2002: Protest by local residents became almost a daily occurrence. Local communities complained that water pollution and extreme water shortages were endangering their lives.

2003: Women from the Vijayanagaram Colony in the village of Plachimada, protested that their wells had dried up because of the over-exploitation of groundwater resources by the Coca-Cola plant. They complained that they now had to walk nearly five kilometres twice a day to fetch water. They also argued that the little which was left was undrinkable and when used for bathing, the water burned their eyes and led to skin complaints. Health issues apart, the depletion of groundwater resources also affected the ability of local residents to raise their crops of rice and coconuts.

April 2003: Perumatty Grama Panchayat (Village Council) refused renewal of Coca-Cola’s licence to operate on the grounds that it was not in the public interest to renew the licence:

“…the excessive exploitation of ground water by the Coca-Cola Company in Plachimada is causing acute drinking water scarcity in Perumatty Panchayat and nearby places…”

The Village Council considered revocation of the licence to be necessary in order to protect the interests of local people.

December 2003: The Village Council’s decision was challenged in the High Court of Kerala. The Court considered two issues: the question of the over exploitation of ground water, and the justification for the Village Council’s decision to revoke the licence.

The Court recognised that the State, as a trustee, is under a legal duty to protect natural resources. It considered that these resources, meant for public use, cannot be converted into private ownership. Justice K Balakrishnan Nair hearing the case asserted that the government had a duty to act to

“protect against excessive groundwater exploitation and the inaction of the State in this regard was tantamount to infringement of the right to life of the people guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”

The High Court ordered the plant to stop drawing the groundwater within a month, ruling that the amount of water extracted by the plant was illegal. But at the same time, it ordered the Village Council to renew the licence and not interfere with the functioning of the Company as long as it was not extracting excessive ground water. Coca-Cola refuted the accusations of excessive exploitation and pollution and lodged an appeal.

The next few years saw a long drawn and complex legal battle between the Village Council and the company.

2005: The divisional bench of the High Court granted permission for the company to extract 500,000 litres from the common ground water per day in the year 2005-2006. The Court also affirmed that the Village Council was not justified in cancelling Coca-Cola’s licence to operate until a full scientific assessment had been made of the facts.

June 2006: Then newly elected state government of Kerala assured community leaders that it would take proactive measures against the Coca-Cola bottling plant in south India. On June 15th 2006, then Chief Minister VS Achutanandan and other cabinet members submitted a memorandum outlining their demands. These demands included the permanent closure of the bottling plant in Kerala, compensation for the affected community members and prosecution of the Coca-Cola Company for criminal offences.

August 2006: The battle took a new twist. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board ordered a ban on the manufacture and sale of Coca-Cola in the state, questioning the safety of the product itself, based on allegations that it contained pesticides and harmful chemicals in a report by an NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

Kerala’s State Food (Health) Authority was quick to grab the opportunity and banned the manufacture and sale of Coca-Cola in the State.

Coca-Cola, in its defence, put out a press release on August 9, 2006 stating:

“We are completely confident in the safety of our soft drinks in India because they are produced to the same level of purity, regarding pesticides, as the stringent EU criteria for bottled water. We support the adoption of stringent, science-based rules by the Indian government regarding levels of pesticides in soft drinks. The rules should be based on sound and validated testing methodologies. We continue to work with relevant government bodies, industry associations, non government organizations (NGOs) and the scientific community to develop and finalize criteria and associated testing methods for pesticides in soft drinks.

We have the same uncompromising commitment to product safety and quality in India and everywhere we offer our beverages around the world, and independent third parties regularly audit all plants for compliance. The Coca-Cola Company has stringent criteria for all of the ingredients used in our beverages. These criteria are backed by internationally accepted analytical testing protocols for these ingredients. Our soft drinks in India have been regularly tested and evaluated by the world renowned and independent Central Science Laboratories (CSL) and all tests show no detectable level of pesticides.”

September 2006: The Kerala High Court set aside the orders of the government of Kerala and the State Food (Health) Authority banning the manufacture and sale of Coca-Cola in the State. The High Court observed that the ban could not be justified since it was based solely on a report by an NGO.

The State Government of Kerala challenged the extraction of water by Coca-Cola in proceedings before the Supreme Court. The State Government argued that the company was taking water from poor communities.