The southern Indian state of Kerala has passed a bill allowing compensation claims against soft drink giant Coca-Cola over alleged environmental damage caused by a bottling plant.
The government has sought the President’s approval for the Bill. The tribunal would give its award by applying the polluter pays principle. The soft drink giant says it will fight back.
The Coca-Cola plant was closed in March 2004 following a high court order and protests by Plachimada residents whose wells and ponds went dry. Overextraction of groundwater by the beverage company, Hindustan Coca- Cola Beverage Private Limited, had caused severe environmental and soil degradation. The bottling plant’s effluents contaminated water in Perumatty and Pattanchery gram panchayats of Plachimada, leading to skin ailments, breathing problems and debility.
The Bill passed recently by the Kerala Assembly for the establishment of special tribunal to “make the polluter pay” and recover compensation for the people affected by the activities of Coca-Cola’s controversial bottling unit at Plachimada in Palakkad district. “The Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill,2011”, proposed by the Left Democratic Front government at the fag end of its term, was passed without discussion on February 24, the last day of the last session of the 12th Assembly.
The Bill, titled Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims’ Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal-2011, “will empower the government to claim compensation from the company on the basis of the ‘polluter pays’ principle.”
REASONS BEHIND PROPOSING THIS BILL:-
i)-The plant had caused environmental and soil degradation..
ii)-The bottling plant caused environmental damages.
iii)-Violations of environmental regulations.
iv)-The plant’s functioning had led to drinking water scarcity and a decline in agriculture due to disposal of sludge which contained metals like cadmium, lead and chromium.
v)-The sludge disposal also affected health, with local residents complaining of skin ailments and breathing problems.
Amidst criticism that a bill on an issue that falls under the residuary powers of legislation of Parliament (Article 248) may not be within the constitutionally mandated jurisdiction of a State Assembly, the Kerala govt. has decided to send the Bill for the President of India’s assent, before it can become a law and rules can be framed on its basis.
Under the proposed law, the tribunal is sought to be established “for the adjudication of disputes and recovery of compensation for the damages caused” by the company “by entertaining original applications (from the affected people) and “by transferring cases pending before the various courts and other authorities to the tribunal.” The tribunal can also entertain grievances regarding violation of laws relating to the environment and air and water pollution or the implementation of such laws.
The three- member tribunal is to have all the powers and authority of a civil court and is to decide its award by applying the “principle of sustainable development, precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle”. The tribunal will have powers equal to that of a civil court and can issue summons and examine witnesses. All cases involving local relating to the environment and air and water, in which the company is a party, and are pending before any court, except the High Court or the Supreme Court, have to be transferred to the tribunal as and when it is established by a government notification. T he High Court can also refer “any matter pending before it relating to the company” on which the tribunal is empowered to adjudicate.
“The Act reflects the will of the people and it has to be respected. Coca-Cola should now pay the damages voluntarily as part of its social responsibility,” said R Ajayan of the citizens’ front, Plachimada Solidarity Committee.
LESSONS FOR POLLUTERS:-
The Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Act is a historic legislation that “sets a precedence for companies that think depletion of natural resources is alright,” said S Faizi, environmentalist and member of the Plachimada high-powered committee. The Act is based on the recommendations of the committee, which submitted its report in March last year, holding Coca-Cola responsible for causing pollution and water depletion in Plachimada.
The committee, formed by the state government on the recommendation of the state groundwater board in May 2009, had assessed the damage caused in and around the Plachimada bottling plant at Rs 216.26 crore. The committee headed by additional chief secretary K Jayakumar had based its recommendations on the “polluter pays” principle,.
The Act now legally binds Coca- Cola to follow the directives of the tribunal. “We also want the government to initiate criminal proceedings against the company. The high-powered committee report had said that in its four years of operation in Plachimada, the cola plant had violated eight laws, including the Water Act of 1974, the Environment Protection Act of 1986 and the Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules of 1989. Violation of the laws is sufficient ground to initiate prosecution.
Student, RMLNLU Lucknow
[Submitted as an entry for the MightyLaws.in Blog Post Writing Competition, 2011]