Eighteen village councils (Panchayats) in Varanasi district are staging a protest against the Coca-Cola bottling plant in the area demanding the plant be prevented from extracting underground water due to the acute water crisis in the region.
The village councils that are located within a 5-km radius of the Coca-Cola plant in Mehdiganj area of Varanasi district, the constituency of Prime Minister Modi, claim that they have been enduring severe water scarcity since the establishment of the plant in 1999. The region is largely agrarian with the locals relying on underground water to meet its daily need like drinking, cleaning, irrigation and livestock. Coca-Cola plant also uses the same underground water to meet its production needs leading to plummeting levels of underground water in the area. The residents complain of wells drying up despite lying in the basin of River Ganga. The water shortage have aggravated due to the shift in monsoon timings as well. Adding to the crisis, is the disposal of wastes from the plant containing poisonous substances like Lead, Cadmium and Chromium which pollute the soil as well as the remaining water on a dangerous level. The protest that began under the Lok Samithi in Mehdiganj in front of the cola plant since 2006 later shifted to Delhi as the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM). Things haven’t changed much even after 9 years. The plant which acquired the land coming up to 14, 520 sq ft, under the village council without permission didn’t respond to the notices sent by the court. The locals are therefore dubious over the support behind the company that fearlessly moves ahead despite all the resistance.
The cola plant has been using underground water for years in Mehdiganj and in Rajastan’s Kaladera like in Plachimada in Kerala. The plant in Plachimada was shut down following protests and the Assembly ruled to provide compensations for the losses incurred in the area. But the plants in Kaladera and Mehdiganj continued to function withstanding all the pressures. The drawbacks in the guidelines of the Central Ground Water Authority were what helped the cola plant. The new regulations that came to effect on November 15, 2012 regarding the groundwater use by industries would be valid only for those that came into existence after that period. This enabled the old plants that heavily extracted underground water to continue their exploitation. Different social organizations pressurized the governments in power as a result of which new guidelines came into effect on November 26 this year. All those companies that heavily and uncontrollably extract groundwater should secure an NOC from the Central Ground Water Authority. The industries that use more water like beverages, bottled drinking water, breweries, fertilizers and pulp and paper are categorized separately in the new law. The law would prevent further draining of underground water in areas of severe exploitation.
That is the reason why these 18 village councils have signed a petition and sent to the authorities demanding a closure of the plant which has been operating in the region violating all rules. Given the years long struggle for the law amendments necessary for curbing the exploitation of water, the locals are anxious over the time to get them implemented practically. Ground water utilization comes under the state government. But they should comply with the guidelines put forward by the Central authority. The government cannot turn its back on the fundamental issues of people fighting for drinking water and livelihood for years. The Prime Minister should initiate steps considering it as a matter of his own constituency. The PM while going to attend the summit on global climate change in Paris on Sunday was addressing the energy crisis in his ‘Man Ki Baat’ program. Along with seeking environment- friendly solutions, he also made clear to form an alliance of nations to resist the industrial giants that poses a threat to the energy crisis of the developing nations. Water is one of the most essential requirements of humans and hampering its availability is a plain denial of basic rights of the people. Mooting new guidelines and laws alone would not help to rein down the industrial giants but social commitment and dedication to implement it is also needed.